Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Wisdom on the Inside of a Mint Tin

“You can’t depend on your judgment when your imagination is out of focus.”

-Mark Twain

I found this quote on the inside of my mint tin this morning. I picked the mints up recently at my neighborhood co-op, finding myself in need. They happen to be certified organic, allergen-free, and vegan, and I liked that there were only three ingredients on the back and I could pronounce all of them, but I’ll admit that the main sell was proximity to the cash register. While I still don’t know if I have found my Holy Grail of mints I am rather fond of them at the moment…perhaps more so because of the quote on the inside of the lid. Even better: it’s a literary quote. And its timely arrival in my life solved a problem.

For those of you who have not been counting down the days, this week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week. I had been planning to do some extra-special blogs in honor of it, but have unfortunately been reminded recently that I am still technically a full time student with a multitude of extra-curricular responsibilities approaching the end of a busy term…and thus, it is Tuesday night and I am only blogging now. I had hoped to put up a quote to kick the week off but on a Google search couldn’t find anything that satisfactorily balanced the fine line between inspirational and sappy and also stimulated my intellect. This was when the mint tin entered the picture.

The quote may not seem immediately relevant, and I’m sure that Mark Twain had no inkling of eating disorders when he penned it, but it connected to something I recognized. My experience of my eating disorder emphasized a profound disconnect between reality and perception, judgment and imagination. When I began to realize that my perception of my body, food, and the world around me was incredibly distorted, I felt as though I could no longer trust my instincts. My mom used to say that my “antennae” were receiving bad signals.

At the same time, the dreamlike imagination and creativity I had always fostered was sadly out of focus. Instead of experiencing a range of emotion, I retreated to painful extremes. Rather than conjuring new worlds and characters, I became obsessed with minute details of the (seemingly) simple routine of nourishing my body. As I starved my body and deadened my emotions, I also starved my imagination. With the decline of my dreams came the rise of despair: I began to believe that my future was hopeless, and I was never, ever going to return to a life that was bearable. Why did it matter whether I ate or not? I was only going to amount to a failure anyway. If this need for control killed me, then so be it. I didn’t think it mattered enough to prevent, and the alternative—facing my emotions and opening myself up to disappointment—was almost unimaginable.

I’m not saying the only solution to my eating disorder was rekindling my creativity—I also needed several months of intensive therapy, medication, meal plans, and full treatment team—but for me, hope and imagination are always connected, and when those are stifled I enter a very dark, bleak place that I cannot see out of. I can no longer trust my intuition, instincts, or judgment to point me in the right direction, because my internal compass has become so skewed. When I am able to dream, I am also able to discern between healthy and unhealthy behaviors.

Etymological note: The inside of my mint tin actually printed the quote with the American English misspelling "judgement" (addition of an e). Having seen this version of the word many times and being the stickler for spelling that I am, I wanted to know the distinction. It turns out that when good ol' Noah Webster reformed American spelling he was also asserting cultural independence from its colonizer. Anyone who has taken a basic sociology class will tell you about the importance of language in making meaning, and I intend to discuss it in a future post...but anyone who is as hopelessly nerdy as I am can appreciate the revelation that Webster is the reason for one of my major pet peeves: theater vs. theatre.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Yes, I talk to my dog...and it's a good thing!

One of the especially bright spots in my life right now is my little dog, Georgiana. If you have recently spent time in my zip code then you are probably acquainted with her, but if not, Georgiana is a white teacup poodle just shy of five pounds but Texas-sized in personality. She likes belly rubs, warm laps, and new friends, and dislikes wet, cold, or loud things. Her favorite pastime is chasing leaves and scraps of paper, and her biggest pet peeve is inconsiderate people who move her toys (she put it there for a reason, dammit!). Georgie also demonstrates innate empathetic tendencies and a love of good fashion.

I like to think I can communicate with Georgie. I’m not just talking about simple commands here—after all, neither of us have much use for fetch, finding it paternalistic and oppressive. No, I mean that we have conversations.

Let me give you an example, taken from earlier this morning.

Me: Your breath smells like salami.
Georgie: Your breath doesn’t exactly smell like roses, sunshine.
Me: But I don’t feed you salami. How did you get salami?
Georgie: I have my ways.
Me: We forgot to brush your teeth last night.
Georgie: Correction: You forgot and I rejoiced silently lest you remember.
Me: We’re going to brush your teeth tonight. And maybe give you a bath.
Georgie: Fat chance. What’s in it for me?
Me: You’ll smell pretty.
Georgie: I always smell pretty. I am pretty, therefore I smell pretty. Thus, I do not need a bath.
Me: I sense something lacking in your logic but I can’t quite put my finger on it...
Georgie: My logic, like my hygiene, is flawless.
Me: I think I’m going to take a shower now.
Georgie: It’s about time.
Me: But seriously, why does your breath smell like salami?

Before you start worrying that I’m hearing voices (not an issue I have dealt with in the past) I have to admit that our conversations are not actually this detailed. However, there was a time recently when I wished they were. Until about a week ago Georgie had not been feeling well. This particular bout of illness lasted a couple of weeks and consisted mostly of digestive tract distress, much to the chagrin of her roommate. As a small dog with a delicate stomach, Georgie is prone to episodes of incontinence, and so at first I thought it would pass (no pun intended) but by the second week of multiple late night potty breaks and unpleasant kennel incidents, I realized that something was not right.

But try as I might to decipher her furry expressions and whimpers, I just could not quite figure out exactly what was wrong. We went around and around this way as we waited for our veterinarian appointment for a week. I would have done just about anything to make Georgie feel better if she could have told me what it might be. In the meantime, I focused on lots of head scratches and tummy rubs, and tried to be patient when she needed to go out four times in the night. Finally we went to our vet appointment and started on a course of antibiotics. Within a few days the problem cleared up and everyone was much happier.

Communication is hard, even when you’re part of the same species. While I still believe that Georgie and I have some kind of affinity for subliminal communication, (and I talk to her regularly and think she understands just a little of what I’m saying) our communication style can lead to a lot of misunderstandings. (Me: I would like to take a nap now. Georgie: It’s time to play!) But even when I’m talking with my human friends who are capable of understanding more than two hundred words, many things go unsaid. Instead of asking how someone is doing, I assume they’re fine. Rather than call someone up when I wonder how a big event went, I wait for the next time I’ll see them. I think about other people I know and love all the time, but the extra step of sending a quick text message, note on Facebook, or email usually doesn’t happen. Social withdrawal is often a symptom of depression for me, and it has damaged more than one relationship through neglect. Every time this happens I beat myself up for being a bad friend and then usually find a negative way to take it out on myself…and in the future, try to keep just a little more distance between myself and other people rather than run the risk of hurting someone I care about.

Maybe this is why I get along so well with Georgie. While there are certainly times I seem to intuit a kind of disappointment in me (Where have you been and why are you so tired?? It’s time to play!) she always ends the day by snuggling up and giving me a kiss. Even when I’m afraid I’ve been a bad mommy by forgetting a meal or neglecting her walk time, she reminds me that what is important is contact, interaction, and communication…in whatever form it takes.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

When Things Go Wrong

I apologize for the lack of posts this week. It has been my goal to post at least twice a week, but I happen to be in the midst of the not-so-happy convergence of midterms and tech week, and am meanwhile trying to fight off a cold. If you have ever been or known an actor then you know about the ultimate time-warp of tech week; if not, keep reading.

Tech week is the first time that the technical aspects of theater—lighting, sound, set transitions, costumes, hair and makeup—are added to the work that the actors have been doing for weeks. Theater is ultimately a collaborative process, and so tech week can be alternately the most satisfying and the most maddening part of getting the show together. For the last show I was in I counted over fifty hours of rehearsal in the span of seven days; my part in this show is small, but on this Saturday and Sunday alone I have twelve hours of rehearsal each.

I have been through quite a few of them by now, but never cease to be amazed by the time and energy drain of the week that many actors affectionately term “Hell Week.” Ideally, the elements of light, sound, costume, props, set, etc. would congeal effortlessly on the first run-through. However, that never happens, and a scene transition can take hours to get right. Usually most of the kinks are ironed out by opening night; but at some point, things will go wrong.

Actors are notoriously superstitious, but that’s because theater is a notoriously finicky medium. Little trips or stumbles that are commonplace in everyday life become disastrous onstage. Of course, some mistakes are worse than others. A small slip-up, like a wardrobe malfunction or a missed line, may just be a little hiccup. But sometimes the accidents are big, like the time my friend was elbowed in the face during a fight scene and developed a whopping black eye in time for the curtain call. Recently, a friend was stranded onstage waiting for the sound cue of a five or seven minute long interview that never came—the speaker was in the television set and it had somehow come unplugged. After kicking the TV for a few minutes in very real frustration, she attempted to summarize the main points of the recording, which contained the name of the play and main themes, among other things. She did an admirable job, but it was agony for those of us standing backstage.

I spend a lot of time worrying about little bumps and hiccups, onstage and offstage. A good stage manager or actor makes every effort to ensure that mistakes don’t happen, but sooner or later they do. In my own life, when things are going well, I am afraid of doing anything to disturb the balance. What is most distracting about mistakes for actors is that a missed line or a disturbed prop breaks the moment onstage, taking the actor out of their imagined circumstances and forcing them into an intellectual realm that is not as authentic. The same applies to my own life—if things are going well but I cannot escape the nagging fear that I may become depressed again then I am unable to fully experience the good things.

But the truth is, eventually things will go wrong. I will have a bad day, or a panic attack. I will feel sad about something, or I will beat myself up for some mistake. Although I would love to say that my most recent bout of depression was my last, it is always possible that it will return some day. And although I do my best to make healthy eating choices, it is a daily struggle that I do not always win.

As for my friend with the black eye, no one even noticed it during the curtain call, and in subsequent performances she was able to cover the bruise with make-up. And as for my friend with the missed sound cue, my parents didn’t even know that anything had gone wrong (although they admitted the play made more sense the second time around). The show goes on, and most of the time other people don’t even notice the little bumps that can seem like the end of the world to the person onstage.

So maybe I should stop worrying about them so much.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

En Route to the Parlor

 An English teacher asked me once about my reticence to share my writing.

“Are you going to live your life like Emily Dickinson, lowering things out of your bedroom window instead of actually showing people what you can do?”

That may not be an exact quote, but I was about fourteen and still a little shocked that an authority figure bothered to pay attention to me. The idea stuck with me though, and for a long time the answer was, “Well I’m nice and comfortable in my room and people are scary so why not? Besides, it worked out for Emily in the long run…”

But I knew he had a point, of course. No one can write in a vacuum—Emily didn’t either. She still communicated with the outside world, even if toward the end of her life she could only listen through the door and occasionally pass notes or gifts to the social gathering beyond. And so I have tried slowly, very slowly, to ease myself into a place where I am comfortable with other people looking in on that private universe. I’m still afraid of rejection, naturally, but the terror has eased enough that I can live with it.

This also describes the gradual process of coming to a place where I feel comfortable enough to discuss my struggles with mental illness. I have believed for awhile that the best way to fight stigma around mental illness is to talk about it, but wasn’t brave enough to be the one to do it. I still can’t say that I’m comfortable bringing it up in casual conversation, but I know that often I can write about things more easily than I can talk about them. So, this blog is my way to transition from listening behind the door to dropping a few notes out of the window. Hopefully I’ll make it out into the parlor soon.

And so, as I make that transition, I want to clarify that this blog is intended for anyone it might speak to. I have received a few questions recently about how “private” it should be—the answer is, if I had wanted it to be private I would have made it that way. I am expecting that it will mostly be read by my friends and family, but it doesn’t have to stay that way. If you think you know someone who might be interested or who may be dealing with some of the same things (and I guarantee that you do, whether you know it or not) feel free to share it with them. Take it to your knitting group if you’d like, or your trampoline class. If you know a literary agent send them the link (haha…but seriously) or “accidentally” include it in the PowerPoint presentation at your next staff meeting or class. You get the idea. What I have to say is not necessarily any better than any other blog out there (I can point you to some excellent ones) but I believe that the more people there are talking about this the better. Naturally, I would prefer that the blog be used to start dialogue in a respectful way, but ultimately I don’t have much say in that. It’s the risk of leaving the safety of my bedroom.

So please, use it however you are comfortable: comment or just read, subscribe or don’t subscribe, share it or think about it on your own. If you are worried about missing even one witty and insightful post, just enter your email on the right side and you will receive automatic notifications.  If you would like to send me a personal message feel free and I will do my best to respond in a timely manner—I’m still a student after all. Suggest things you might like to hear about. Also, if you happen to live somewhere near me, don’t think that what I blog about has to stay in cyberspace. If you have a question or want to talk about something, please do. Remember, my goal is to get out into the parlor, where I can take part in the discussion and possibly even become a positive voice in someone else’s struggle.

For whatever reason, Emily Dickinson did not feel safe beyond the confines of her room. She still experienced a deep range of emotion and carried on relationships that lasted her whole life. It is impossible to say what might have been different if she had been able to share her poetry with the world or venture outside her bedroom door, but what she left behind continually reminds me to be brave enough to take that step.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Happy Chinese New Year...sort of

Tomorrow (Thursday) is the Chinese New Year. This is not something I would normally keep track of, but I was reminded by my coworkers today that I should clean and sweep out my house tonight and wear red tomorrow for good luck. I’m not typically a superstitious person (with the exception of knocking on wood and never saying Macbeth in a theater) and as I intimated in my earlier post, I’m not much one for New Year’s celebrations. Besides, I have absolutely no Chinese heritage, nor any great knowledge or experience of the culture, aside from a newly discovered love of dim sum and the occasional craving for orange chicken.

So this does not explain why I came home this evening and cleaned every dirty dish in my kitchen, sprayed down my dog’s plastic kennel liner and washed her blankets, wiped the counters with disinfectant, took out the garbage, and then scrubbed down my bathroom, including my tub, sink, toilet, and floor. That reminds me—I didn’t shake out the mats. I should probably do that.

I have a friend with bipolar disorder who tends to houseclean when she is feeling manic. I don’t have manic episodes, but I often clean when I feel overwhelming emotions, particularly anxiety. And so, although I do not have bipolar disorder, my cleaning style tends to have two poles: when I feel sad or depressed my pervading sense of worthlessness slows me to a near halt, but when I feel anxious I tend to operate as if I’m on a gerbil wheel, running as fast as I can to escape myself. It may make for a shiny kitchen, but I’m still miserable.

At the end of my cleaning spree, I really wanted a bath in my nice clean tub. I got out some new bath salts, started the water, made some tea, lit a candle, and compiled the perfect playlist. With my dog watching curiously from the bathmat, I stepped into my relaxing bath and then stepped immediately out.

The water was cold. Not lukewarm, or room temperature, but cold. I live in an old building, and it probably should have occurred to me that the hot water runs out sometimes, even though it has never been a problem because I shower fairly quickly and always in the morning. Not wanting to waste my new bath salts, I sat down in the mint- and lavender-smelling water and shivered for about three minutes before I gave up.

This is the thing about holidays that celebrate the “new”: as much as I may want to sweep out all the dirt and hairballs of the last year, they tend to collect again in the corners within a few weeks. In my emotional extremes, I either helplessly watch the dust collect or I scoop it up agitatedly. Lately, however, I have spent most of my time somewhere in the middle, cleaning things when they ought to be cleaned and letting them sit when my attention is focused elsewhere. Tonight, I tilted a little toward one pole. I can pinpoint the trigger as an intersection between routine frustrations and an interaction that I perceived as critical of me. As usual, it wasn’t intended that way, but it still initiated the feeling that snowballed into anxiety when I came home to a sick dog and a messy house. In the past, I have used self-destructive behaviors to escape from the intensity, but tonight I was able to redirect my agitation just enough so that my tub got the worst of it. I made tea, which is something that soothes me, and attempted a relaxing bath. When that failed, I wrote about it.

I probably won’t be handing out any gifts in red envelopes tomorrow, but whatever I end up doing will involve an effort to stay in that space between extremes, where the future is not too overwhelming and the past is not so shameful. Dim sum, anyone?