Sanity Sold Separately

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This is my mom.

She is 54 years young. She likes gardening and talking to strangers. She’s a mother of four with an iron will and a tender heart. Her kiss has a sound and if you are lucky enough to have one placed upon your temple, her lips will echo in the background of every beautiful melody you hear forever after.

But she doesn’t know who she is right now.
My experience with mental illness began long before mine ever surfaced, though I would not understand what that meant for quite some time. My first clear memory is from when I was about six:
My mom was seated on the front steps smoking a cigarette. I was watching her from around the corner, noticing that she was crying. I thought she looked beautiful when she cried, and I found it strange even then.
I asked her what was wrong, asked her if she had ‘owies.’ She smiled through her tears and tried to explain that sometimes people just get sad for no real reason at all.
I asked for a Fruit by the Foot and she hummed “Band on the Run” while she fumbled with the packaging.

It always went like that.

As I grew up, I knew that she was struggling, even if I couldn’t pinpoint where it came from. Sometimes I asked her, but she just brushed it off and continued to put scrunchies in my hair and coming to school to help me clean out my desk, which was always as messy and colourful as my imagination.

She finally sought help in 2001, where she was met with a diagnoses that indicated her thyroid was not functioning properly. She was also given some antidepressants. She became softer somehow, like falling off of a pair of skis into powder.
She was tired a lot, and because I was so young, I didn’t stop demanding her time and her energy. I didn’t stop shouting “Mom! Mom! Hey, MOM!”
Sometimes I wasn’t sure that she could hear me, even when she was staring right at me.
I heard the term ‘Schizoaffective Disorder’ in the winter of 2009, the first time I watched her stumble across the line between reality and her thoughts; the first time the ambulance came to collect her.
It was difficult not to fear what I had seen, but when I finally got to visit her a couple of days later, she had her hair slicked back in a bandana, she smelled like coconut body butter and waved hello to every person she passed.
That’s the kind of woman she is.

You could be the meanest of mugs, and you still couldn’t intimidate my mother. You could throw boards over every window in the room, but she would learn to make her way in the dark. You could hurl insults left and right, but you would always miss, because she would tune out every word.
My mom is a rare and beautiful creature who meets fire not with aggression, but with the knowledge that fire will eventually burn itself out.
Argue, scream until you are blue in the face, but know that when she says she doesn’t care, she actually MEANS it.

This time when she had to go, we were on vacation, and I was ready.
I saw her off with the understanding that nothing lasts- that life has its own seasons; that we are never any one thing at a time.
When I got to see her the next day, she was as tender as ever, laughing at jokes that didn’t make any real amount of sense, brushing hair from my eyes and simply saying “Well, I don’t like it in here, but it’s okay. Do you think you could bring me a Big Mac tomorrow?”

In the hours that most people would spend in agony, she thought about me, about all of us, because she doesn’t know how not to.

In the days that followed, she took me through the facility and showed me what it had to offer. I was delighted to see that she had the option to bake, play basketball, meditate, and participate in activities like yoga and tai chi.
She showed me all of the art supplies and lit up when she pulled out the pictures she planned to colour for her grand babies.
After a game of twenty one, I cuddled up next to her on her tiny hospital bed; her little spoon. I felt the pressure in my chest release when she said “I feel safe here. I feel like I can heal.”
As she stroked my hair, my mother asked if I was angry with her. She tearfully told me that she was sorry that she gave me this illness; that this was not how she wanted to be remembered.

I turned to face her and told her that I remember her skin being soft like the velvet skirts of the dresses I wore on Christmas eve. I told her I know that if she were stranded on a desert island and had the option to play any album for the last time, it would be The Eagles’ Greatest Hits, but that she would be okay with Cat Stevens and that Van Morrison makes her snap her fingers while she dances.
I reminded her that she could moonwalk across the entire kitchen floor; that I only recall her loving me more than she loved herself.

She gave me far more than an illness. She gave me the ‘oomph’ to work my way through one. She gave me the sense of humour to laugh when my eyes burned too much to continue crying. She gave me the imagination to carry me away from despair and the gratitude to understand that the fact that I’m still here means that I am lucky.
She smiled and asked “Would you write about me?”

Here’s to you, my beautiful-eyed, iridescent soul. Here’s to scrunchies and Barney and Gushers and old English lullabies. We’ll take care of you now.

My July Birthday

I turned 23 yesterday.

I used to think that birthdays were nothing more than an excuse to wear a hat and ingest an alarming amount of chocolate cake. It didn’t take long before I traded the hat for low-rise jeans and the cake for a bottle of Pineapple Malibu. Slowly but surely, they became another painful reminder that I was alive.

That sounds dramatic. Maybe it was.

I see those Tumblr pictures and I have to laugh. They feature the bottom halves of girls with thigh gaps and short shorts and captions that say things like “Summer Love,” as if summer isn’t fun and love is out of reach without those two elements. I have to laugh because I had the thigh gap and the short shorts and summer still seemed like an endless stretch of eternity that I would rather have slept away.

My July birthday was something I loathed, yet waited around for every year in a desperate sort of anticipation. I kept waiting to wake up more at peace, more mature, more fun. I kept waiting to “grow out of it.” I imagined opening the door for the people who arrived at my party and feeling safe in their presence, like nothing would change and we could always contort our mouths into pained smiles and pull the strings in our backs to release an enthusiastic “Let’s be friends forever!”

I waited for these things, and yet, I woke up with the same knots and insecurities that I had fallen to sleep with the night before. I woke up with the same fears that had always kept me from having fun, the ones that reminded me that I was different and strange and everyone knew it. When the people floated through the doorway and wished me a happy birthday, their smiles of admiration looked more like contempt, and I always found myself searching their palms and their eyes for the instrument or the secret that they might use to damage me further.

This is not anyone’s fault.

My July birthday was a mirror to the way I felt about myself. My July birthday was a reflection of the expectations I had and the standards I set, and the sick way I sat around feeling like I was the only one who had the right to sadness and humiliation. My July birthday was a reminder of the truths I couldn’t face, and the way they made me a liar.

I celebrated 23 years on Earth at the bedside of a dear friend. I celebrated 23 years watching her breathe peacefully inside a deep slumber, grateful that she was breathing at all. I celebrated 23 years by reflecting on the 7 and a half I’ve been lucky enough to know her.

Her fingers twitched in mine, and I knew for certain that this must be the most valuable gift I’ve ever held. They were warm and full of life, full of strength and, though they remained still, they clung to life with a vicious tenacity that one can only find in the hands of someone who has beaten (no, smashed) the odds. As she does this, I know what my July birthday means (and has always meant.)

My July birthday is another mark on a tally on a score sheet of a mind game, a brain teaser more puzzling than any riddle. My July birthday is the candle that remains lit after all the others have been blown out. My July birthday is the gift that I do not deserve, but am given anyway.

My July birthday is a mirror to the way I feel about myself, and my July birthday felt pretty fucking great this year.

 

It’s All Gravy

My whole life I have dreamed of creating something beautiful.

I was always told that I had potential. I heard it from my teachers when my grades were lower than limbo. I heard it from my peers when I didn’t run for the ball and stood still instead. I heard it from my parents as they watched me climb out of the lows from the highs that I constantly created for myself.

At the time, those words seemed like torture, for the problem wasn’t that I didn’t realize that I was unique. The problem became amplified by the fact I was acutely aware of it. I felt so different, so foreign to almost any activity that I tried, and because of that I chose always to back out of the spotlight and fail quietly in the shadows by never beginning, never investing, and certainly never winning.

A year ago today I typed my first words onto a blank screen and sent them out into the abyss of the worldwide web. Though it would be some time before I would choose to advertise my new hobby, something about it felt alright. When I created this blog, it was mostly as a means of speaking up over the voices that I could not seem to overpower in real life. It was a way for me to feel light and funny when in reality I had been rotting from the inside out. I was sick and I was desperate. I kept thinking, in case this doesn’t get better, in case I go, I want the truth to be known. I want someone to know the girl I’ve kept locked beneath my skin, and even if nobody reads it, I want to know that I had the guts to say it.

I didn’t expect any of you to find me, and I definitely didn’t expect the overwhelming support, praise and unwavering love from both the blogging community and my own community. I didn’t expect anybody to read paragraph after paragraph of what I had thought was merely rambling. I didn’t expect you to laugh, to cry, to cheer me on or push me forward. I didn’t expect all of you to launch me into reaching my full potential. But you have.

I expected to bleed, to cry, to scream. (Which is a damn good thing since there was plenty of that shit involved.) I did NOT expect to adapt, to heal. But I did. A year ago I was losing entire days to the white ceiling above my bed and entire nights to the insanity that beckoned to me to join it every moment. A year ago I was unhappy with my life, my body, and my lack of contribution to the world. A year ago, I didn’t expect to see today. But it’s here.

Not only has keeping this blog created friendships and rekindled old connections, given me perspective and strength, it also allowed me to see the changes in myself firsthand. It is a permanent reminder of my progress and the pain it took to arrive there. It showed me that for everything I missed out on, for every time I thought I had nothing to give, there was a time when I was present, there’d been a time when I’d had a victory, no matter how small it seemed.

I’m still unemployed and still occasionally feel like a useless drain to those around me, but here’s what accomplished while I was busy convincing myself that I was a useless drain:

– I quit smoking.

– I joined a kickboxing class, something I had never attempted before, in a room full of noise. I look forward to that class 2 days a week.

– I exposed my true, naked self, the one I feared and kept hidden. I love her.

– I shed 25 lbs and the vicious, self-loathing thoughts with it.

– I apologized, and I forgave.

– I committed to, and have been training my ass off for a Tough Mudder event.

I know there will still be dark days, and darker posts. I know that I will battle this condition for the rest of my life. I know these things, and yet I am fine with them. I am glad for them. The truth is, I wouldn’t be able to write what I do without the burden and the blessing of my experiences. I have grown to see beauty and wisdom beneath the cloak of pain, and I’m grateful for every moment I spend on this planet, even if those moments beat me black and blue. I’m grateful for every one of you who believed in me enough to follow, to share your own heartache, to comfort me in my own. You have all had a hand in giving me something to work for, to live for, to fight for.

Oh, and here’s the best thing about this year! I’ve finally done it. I’ve created something. And I think it’s pretty damn beautiful.