Dear Lily June,
The first summer after the tornado, my mental state was shambling like a zombie. It hit mid-April, and by May your dad and I had fled the city, still buried under rubble and debris, for more northern pastures. We stayed with family while, for months, survivors remained with no familiar landmarks, no electricity, no access to clean water that wasn’t purchased in a bottle, rebuilding a town I’d always felt displaced in. I felt guilty for surviving the storm then guilty for hauling my ass away from its aftermath as fast as my mother-in-law’s truck could carry us. That storm had shaken me to my core, causing me to reevaluate who I thought I was, and I learned that I am the type who is easily shaken. All along, I had thought I was so strong.
When we went back down South sometime in July, I had thought I would see a different city entirely. I expected new buildings or even businesses to have sprung up like weeds from the discarded and damaged basements and concrete lots that had been all which remained after being poked at by the finger of God. I was wrong. Twisted metal still lay along each roadway. Broken glass still littered every patch of dry grass. Houses still lay in heaps of stones and shutters and siding with tell-tale signs they once held families: clothes strewn with their sleeves still reaching for closets that were no longer standing, groceries rotting from the discarded stomachs of kitchens that had wretched their wares in fear, teddy bears who’d lost ears in the funnel still straining to hear if and where their child owners had gone elsewhere to play. It was haunting. I learned that I am the type who is easily haunted.
To regain some sense of balance, we bought a set of curtains to hang over windows that had once sat bare and open to the sunshine. Now, when the light poured over the landscape, it had worse fare to illuminate than a few cicada bodies or a gang of roaming cockroaches. I had to block it all out. The curtains gave me a new design to look at, a set of curls and leaf-like patterns that looked look like branches. It was like hanging artificial fabric trees to replace the vision of so many stumps just beyond the pane.
To regain some sense of balance, I cleaned the apartment like I could scrub the memories off. Balancing precariously on a step stool set on soft carpet, I scoured the walls from ceiling to floor. I got down on my hands and knees to furiously rub out stains from the baseboards. I dragged couches and bookshelves from one end of a room to another to vacuum up dust bunnies who’d been there longer than your dad or I or God. And when the apartment was spotless, more immaculate than the state it had been in when we first rented it, I sat down exhausted and realized I didn’t know what to do with my self or my life. My sanity was still limping along like a once-living thing, looking to feed on a better brain.
I wish I could say that was the moment I realized I needed help. It wasn’t. It took two more years.
I went to work, my first year as an official college instructor, and tried to bestow upon some students I couldn’t stand and other students I absolutely loved the thing I had devoted my life to: writing. I didn’t tell these students that I’d stopped doing it altogether. I didn’t tell them I couldn’t put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard, without trying to figure out how I could rebuild the city, rebuild my sense of security, with a love of language. I never did learn how to raise walls with words, and I’ve very infrequently written about the storm since. But in the time I was teaching, I preached a different story, about the salvation of literature, about the almighty power of a poem and how it could save us all from ourselves.
I felt like a fraud. I made students laugh; I may them think; I made them reevaluate their approaches to a language they’d spoken all of their lives, and then I’d come home and collapse, watching TV. I shelled out extra money per month that I didn’t have for premium channels so I could have even more to watch and even less excuse to bury my nose back in a book. I chain-smoked and binge-ate and channel-surfed and ignored the piles of papers I had to grade until the stacks grew heavy as buildings that could be so easily toppled.
And then I’d lug the stacks to my office and spend all weekend away from your dad plowing through the minutest details, marking pages and pages of college-level research papers for every missing comma. It would take me from sunup to sundown, the bones in my neck getting steadily more achy, my shoulders throbbing like they were breaking, and then I would drag my body back home to sleep for a couple of hours Sunday night before rising from the mattress I’d barely had time to close my eyes on to start teaching again Monday morning.
By the end of year one, I was so stressed, so depressed, so unproductive that I knew I needed a change. I started living off of my lists again.
I don’t know how the average person makes to-do lists. I suspect it’s a casual endeavor, not some Olympic feat. I suspect they think up a dozen or so items they want to accomplish, put those items on paper, go through them in a more less orderly way, and cross the finished tasks off so they’re done and gone.
My system was largely more complicated than that. The “master-list” I kept was twenty-five pages long. The items were categorized by room, sub-categorized by type. (For instance, in a kitchen, you could clean, or you could cook. Different tasks would be enumerated under those subheadings to keep me on track.) I had complex rituals for choosing which things I’d do, and I’d make smaller lists from the master so that each day, every minute, I’d try to tackle something different.
Picture me like a cruise director making an itinerary only the cruise was my life, and I’d scheduled my time down to even biological tasks, like when I could go to the bathroom (a problem much bigger than it sounds considering that I have IC and need, generally, to go to the bathroom frequently or I’ll feel intense pain in my bladder). I was like a zombie gnawing at my own arm for the comfort of having something to chew, not realizing I was the damaging my own flesh. I made the lists to organize my life, pull me out of my funk, keep the trains going on time, but they ended up controlling me.
By the end of year two, I was so stressed, so depressed, so overly productive that I knew I needed a change. I started going to therapy to get over how I’d tried to get over the tornado.
Because of the ritualistic nature of how I’d go through my lists, initially the counselor thought I might have OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder). She gave me a description copied straight from the DSM (the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a compendium of mental illnesses that health professionals sometimes use to make diagnoses). What was interesting to me was the small paragraph labeled Differential Diagnoses that went into the symptoms of OCPD (obsessive-compulsive personality disorder), a related but completely distinct disorder from OCD.
The DSM described OCPD as follows:
A pervasive pattern of preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and mental and interpersonal control, at the expense of flexibility, openness, and efficiency…
It went on (ironically) in a list about ways the disorder manifests, all of which, except for a tendency towards hoarding, could have easily described me.
It was a traumatic thing to realize I had this mental illness. Before that moment, I had assumed certain things were just what made me Me. A preoccupation with organization and lists, a tendency towards perfectionism, an excessive devotion to work and productivity, being overly conscientious about morality, a reluctance to delegate, being a bit miserly and stubborn–these were the symptoms of my disease. Before reading them in black and white and realizing they were symptoms, I had seen them as positives: that I was put together and neat, that I had ambition to strive higher, that I had a strong work ethic, that I cared about doing the right thing, that I wasn’t willing to pass off my work on others, that I was wise keeping a bit of money aside, that I was a strong-willed, self-determined woman.
Being diagnosed with a personality disorder makes you question the very way you’ve put your identity together. I found myself asking, “What part of me is the personality? What part is the disorder? Do I have any originality? Am I just the sum of a bunch of symptoms strung together?” By the end of the summer, it was just too much for me. I gave up my lists, repulsed that they were just a part of my illness. But I never did figure out what to replace them with. And like most addictions, it’s easier to swap a good habit for a bad one than to cut the bad one out of your life entirely. And yet, Lily, for fear of what else I’d learn, I ended up quitting therapy.
In the intervening years, I quit teaching, too. I loved writing, but I knew that my social anxiety was getting to me. Each year brought a new crop of faces to learn, a new group of people to have to lead (without showing them that they were a new group of people I secretly feared standing in front of). I couldn’t stand the stacks of papers piling up; I didn’t know how to grade, only how to edit, and it just overall wasn’t for me. This was a big blow, as it meant I no longer knew how to make occupational use of my creative writing degree (which doesn’t exactly lend itself easily to job changes in this economy). Your dad and I moved to a new city where he got teaching work elsewhere, and I followed him, becoming a secretary. It makes things more precarious financially, but it’s good for me to have a job that ends at the end of the day, one I can’t take home too much with me.
And then there was you, Lily. The hormones of pregnancy messed around quite a bit with my brain chemistry, but I no longer felt like a zombie. I felt too checked into my own brain after you were born, too on all the time, riddled with anxiety. I barely let you sleep in those first six weeks before I went back to work. I just kept waking and checking the bassinet to be sure you were still there, still breathing. I was depressed not that you were born, but about how–how I felt like my body had failed me with the preeclampsia and the resulting c-section and eventually how I had to give up breastfeeding. Given my predilection for perfectionism, that failure hit my heart hard. It was one thing to fail myself, but to fail you, Lily? That was torture, truly.
And so now we’re back to the present, when your mom still doesn’t know quite how to cope with who I am. It’s been four years since the tornado, almost ten weeks since you were born, and I’m certain of two things: I need some help if I’m going to make it past my fears, frustrations and anxieties. I’m going to need some help if I want to model for you positivity and self-esteem. I’m going to need to be better in terms of my mental health for you and for me. But where do I begin?
I’ve made an appointment with a therapist, and it’s happening tonight. Everything in me says I need to plan, be prepared, have the perfect script to lay out in front of the therapist. Tell her about your depression, the zombie in me whispers. Tell her about your anxiety. Be sure to mention the tornado. Ask if it’s PTSD. Talk about the OCPD. Don’t say you’ve felt suicidal–she’ll take your daughter away. Let her know you’re crazy but not TOO crazy.
I really don’t know where to start, Lily. I feel like those battered concrete basements back in the South, after the storm. There are vestiges in me of who I used to be; there are pieces of debris still clinging to my old personality. But how do I get to who I’m going to be next? How do I let go of the guilt, the anxiety, the crippling fear that I’m not enough for you? Not good enough to even have lived through what I’ve lived though?
How do I rebuild from the ground up to make my arms, my mind, and my heart the scaffolding of a structure that can serve as your safe harbor? I don’t know, my darling dear. I only know I love you. And I am your mother. And I owe you better than to be the person I’ve been. I need, somehow, to fix her. I need to revive the zombie with a new heart beat. Please, as I’m reconstructing–a process that may take a lifetime and a lot of therapy–be patient with me. I want to become the strong person I thought I was all along.
- “Dszpics1” by Daphne Zaras. Original uploader was Runningonbrains at en.wikipedia – http://www.nssl.noaa.gov/headlines/dszpics.htmlOriginally uploaded at en.wikipedia; description page is/was here.. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Dszpics1.jpg#/media/File:Dszpics1.jpg
- “Tuscaloosa tornado damage 27 April 2011” by National Weather Service in Birmingham, Alabama – http://www.srh.noaa.gov/bmx/?n=event_04272011tuscbirm. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Tuscaloosa_tornado_damage_27_April_2011.jpg#/media/File:Tuscaloosa_tornado_damage_27_April_2011.jpg