“I Don’t Get It:” What I Learned From My Middle School Math Teacher

2003. Middle school. Frosted lip gloss and Cleopatra bangs.

I remember this day in particular because it was the first time I felt wholly and genuinely stupid.

I’ve never been stellar at math. It doesn’t leave room to ask “why?” which is a problem since this is my favourite question. It burns holes, and I can’t seem to ignore the smoke.

Mathematics don’t offer any grey areas, no half-truths, no “sometimes y.” It was a taxing gig, spinning my brain to sponge in order to absorb the steady stream of numbers. For years it had come like honey from a jar; slowly and sweetly, as things have a way of coming when our spirits are being nurtured. I struggled with scribbled equations, but this was the first time they had ever held me back.

“CAN YOU ADD, MISS KRAUSE?!’

In this moment I am pretty sure that even my toenails are sweating, and thinking about this isn’t helping the situation. He is wearing a sharp, straight line where a smile should be.

I didn’t do my homework, and the reason was equal parts “don’t get it.” and “don’t wanna.” As you can probably guess, neither of these are considered an acceptable response when called upon. The two of us are standing in front of the whiteboard, and the eyes are like pins in my back. He wants a definitive answer. I am terrified. Somewhere in the stormy silence, I pull a 2.

“THERE IT IS, MISS KRAUSE!”

I am so relieved that I could pee. The thing is, I don’t hate the guy. Later he tells me that I am smart and that it won’t be hard forever. He reminds me that ensuring my homework is done means ensuring that things like this won’t happen. “Have a great day, Miss Krause. See you tomorrow.” He’s my favourite teacher again.

I adapted to his intense environment, and I could do this because he grinned twice as much as he snarled, he told pretty good jokes, and, let’s face it: I wasn’t the only moron in the room. The humiliation was distributed pretty evenly.

June came, and brought with it moving boxes and report cards. I got a 46% and a note that said “Miss Krause is very polite and makes a great effort.”

I don’t know what became of him, and for a long time I didn’t see this experience for the transformative encounter that it was. I’m not saying that I lose sleep over this, but it absolutely had a hand in shaping my mindset.

It had never really occurred to me that this kind of behaviour was manipulative and inappropriate, because I was under the impression that it was a consequence I had created. It didn’t register as psychological abuse since it was only really directed toward the morons. I didn’t realize that we weren’t the morons in the equation.

I don’t remember how to cross multiply and I don’t know shit about fuck when it comes to geometry, but my time there was not wasted. Some of these lessons came much, much later, but he taught me a useful thing or two that stuck.

For one, I recognize that life is far too fleeting to spend it under the thumb of people who allow us to believe that we are stupid. Though there are multiple intelligences (8, count ’em, 8!) some of us still believe in a single route to success. We spend our lives placing ourselves into tiny boxes with pretty bows in order to distract the people we wish to impress from our blisteringly true, raw nature.

For another, as I’ve mentioned before, there is nothing wrong with being wrong. What I understand today is that it’s the lengths that we go to in order to appear as if we’ve always got it right that are the most destructive. We lie and we cheat and we hurt and we run from the life we want, all because we’ve got this idea that we shouldn’t want it. One minute we’re supposed to be striving for more, and the next we’re told to expect less.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, I know that the things we love doing are not hobbies; the term is far too simple. They are an escape from the pointed fingers of expectation. They are an expression of all that is felt, spoken and silent. They are the bright side and they are the bandage covering the wound. If you ask me, there’s no glory in giving up the good for someone else’s “should.”

I’m not saying that we should run from struggle; it’s inevitable. I just think that if we’re going to bite back, we should be fuelled by the force of what it is that we long for; for whatever it is that we love.

P.S. Mr. Math was always up in my grill about showing my work. I like to think I came through.

An Open Letter to the Woman Standing in Front of Her Mirror

To the woman face to face with her reflection,

You don’t know it yet, but you and I are very good friends. I feel you there, standing in front of your bathroom mirror, seated across from the window of the bus on your daily commute, flipping open your compact in the bathroom stall of a night club. I watch your neck as it jerks back violently, watch you recoil as if your face were a cemetery come to life. I hear you mutter “shit,” under your breath, the way you would if you had discovered something wildly inconvenient. A flat tire. Spoiled milk. A fire alarm at 3 AM. The kind of thing that ruins your entire day. The kind of thing that you would have prevented if only you could go back; if only you had been given the opportunity.

I know that “If Onlys” riddle your days and nights. They come like a stream of headlights in the dark, and you wonder how a town as insignificant as yours could have so much traffic. You imagine yourself somewhere like Times Square where there are far too many sights, too many sounds to notice the headlights. You wonder what it would be like to see a more beautiful version of yourself on a bright billboard, wonder if traffic could move slowly enough for you to run between bumpers carelessly, unconcerned with the “If Only” headed straight for you.

I know these things because I’ve imagined myself there, too. I’ve hoped for hips built like a suspension bridge, covering the gaps in my self-esteem. I have felt that my thighs were like wearing anchors while swimming. Sometimes I scan my wrists for invisible marks where they’ve been cuffed to the scale. The times in which I’ve felt truly beautiful are catalogued in my brain, and I flip through my memory when I need help leaving my reflection behind.

I need you to understand something. I need MYSELF to understand it, too. Whatever it is that you and I are looking for, whatever nameless quality it is that we seek so desperately, we will not find it in that mirror. It cannot be seen up close while we scrutinize our pores. It will not show up in the time it takes for a sideways glance at the cowlick in our bangs. Staring at a reflection is a lot like turning off a ceiling fan. You know you’ve flicked the switch, but staring at the fan as it slows somehow makes it appear to gain momentum until you wonder if you’ve really moved your fingers at all. We cannot stand there, flicking the switch on an off until we are unsure which is which. We’d never get a damn thing done, you and I.

Please know that when I compare you to a hummingbird, it is not because you are weightless in my hand as I pull you from the cage of your ribs, but because you are so colourful, such a rare and delightful sight to behold. A hummingbird’s wings beat an incredible 70 times per second and there are things in you that fascinate me just as much. Know that it is hard not to think of myself as beautiful when I look at you, someone so captivating, so convinced that they are anything but.

It’s been some time since I banished the scale from my existence, but I still don’t feel done with it, because I see you measuring every inch of your being between the digital decimals and digits, and I wonder if anyone has told you yet that you don’t need to. I wonder if anybody has mentioned that you take up more space than you know, in a more positive way than you will ever understand. I question whether or not you have been told that your face is not a grave if your smile can bring enough light to a room to see dust particles dance, that fire alarms were created to save lives.

Don’t we deserve to see ourselves as part of some unbelievable display of nature? Don’t we deserve to look at photos of ourselves and stand open-mouthed as if we were staring down into the Grand Canyon? Who could shame a rainforest? How could we, such unique and mysterious creatures be any less magnificent?

Today, as you read this, I challenge you to leave the bathroom and do something that heals you. I challenge you do look out the window of the bus at the buildings that pass and marvel at all the ground you have covered instead of looking through yourself. I challenge you to toss your compact, have a drink and flail around on the dance floor until the world spins and you are a puddle of sweat and happy exhaustion. I challenge you to cover your mind in love letters that will be true in ways that your reflection on glass can never be.

If you have trouble, find me and I will do these things for and with you. After all, you and I are very good friends.

With love,

Karlee

Bobby Borden and the Hunt for Happy

Robert L Borden on a string, fluttering in the wind.

I watch him dance and I smile. I think about how nice it would be to dance with him, but I know better. I haven’t always known better, of course. I’ve only just learned. It’s 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a Saturday in June, and I’ve spent the entire day chasing him around the park.

I felt the $100 bill brush against my wrist this morning as I lay in the soft grass, waiting for something, anything to happen. I reached for it immediately, my fingers turning to claws and my heart turning to an empty pit, ready to be filled. It darted away on a prairie breeze, taunting me, urging me to get up and work for the feeling of paper inside a closed fist. “Nothing is free.”

I knew this, and so did my feet, because they started to run. They leaped and twirled and pounced, trying to catch the bill. I came close numerous times, but never close enough before it took flight again. “C’mon Bob, don’t be a dick.” The sun flickered through the trees as I sat once more at a distance, waiting for the right moment. As it did, the light caught, blinding me a little too temporarily, and I noticed something just ahead. Invisible wire. I couldn’t touch it to verify, but all at once I knew this was not the wind, and not a windfall, either. Not pennies from heaven, but a prank. I raced alongside the glimmering streak, trying to locate the culprit, but the tears clouded my eyes until I could not separate the end of the wire from my beginning.

This is what an obsession with finding happiness feels like.

I keep looking for the answer, listening intently to anyone willing to let me in on their secret. It’s gotten so bad that I scroll through video after video on YouTube on nights when the bed is empty and closing my eyes feels eerie and lonesome. Search bar. Typing. H- Deleting. Typing. “How to Be Happy.” Go.

I put in my headphones, unsure if my best friend can hear this carrying down the hall. Hoping that she can’t. She knows everything about me, but in this moment I pretend that neither she or anyone else can guess that I have no idea what THE FUCK I am doing. “Exercise, it releases endorphins!” Okay, cool. I do that. I must be at least semi-close to my destination. “Travel, it releases prejudice and fear of the unknown!” Right. I can get down with that. I like planes and the idea of fruit that grows year round. “Meditate, it releases, like, everything!” I could probably benefit from letting my brain marinate for a while. “Just choose happiness!” Wait.

She says it like we’re at a movie theatre. “Junior Mints or Caramilk?” She says it like there’s a choice to make. She sounds like Cat Stevens in Moonshadow, telling me that she wouldn’t be upset about losing her legs. Are you fucking with me?! Still, I’m left feeling painfully inadequate that I don’t know how to make this non-existent decision.

I suppose part of me gets it. If the choice is “Go sing karaoke with that one friend you have who is bloody terrible and hilarious or stay in your bed and wonder why you have no social life,” Then it would seem that it makes sense what the happier option might be. But that’s not what Cat Stevens with a vagina said. Back button. Close tab. Imagine punching that condescending bitch in the face.

What she means I’m not sure of, but I know it can’t be the way I’m interpreting it, because I’m interpreting it as a slap in the face to myself and every other person who sees happiness as a dart on a map that can’t be reached by any form of transportation that we are familiar with. A blow to people who work their asses off, hearts vulnerable, open to receive it, only to catch debris.

I don’t want to make it sound as if I’m not content. I am, exceptionally so. Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to evaluate as I wade through the how-tos of happy that are constantly put in my path. Should I want more? Should I be doing more? How do I know what it is I should want? How do I know exactly what life should feel like? Lately I feel as if I’m failing every time I get angry. Every time I do something that isn’t considered 100% selfless and efficient for everyone. Every time I have a shitty day, I cover it with the idea that I SHOULD feel gratitude.

Why?

Some days are shit, and there isn’t a trace of gratitude in my veins. Some days I don’t feel like thanking the universe for sprinkling fecal matter all over me, and I certainly don’t feel like thinking about all of those who might have it worse. I am unbelievably tired of everyone trying to solve the problems of other people with “Just think positive!” I know that positive thinking is an asset in overcoming, in becoming; I’ve seen it. But I don’t need to do it every minute of every goddamn day.

If you ask me, sadness and anger are just as important. They have had an equal part in my metamorphosis, in building my character. I would even venture to say that they have provided far greater incentive to reach for more than any great day I’ve ever lived in. On great days, I celebrate, and on shit days, I evaluate. That’s healthy, and to do otherwise would be to deny myself a basic human requirement. I wish we had evolved beyond the need for tear ducts, but we’re not there yet, so I’m damn well going to use them.

Nathaniel Hawthorne compared happiness to a butterfly. I think it’s so beautiful, and I feel in my soul that it is accurate. It’s fragile and fleeting, and a butterfly couldn’t inspire laboured sighs of awe echoing through the world if it were trapped and squished in our fists. It’s okay not to be able to catch it and make it a pet. If someone is building a railroad through the centre of your angry town, if they’re calling “ALL ABOARD: DESTINATION HAPPY!” It’s okay not to take the train. Walk until you feel like experiencing change, because there will ALWAYS be another one sending its joyful choo-choo down the line. And, if not, there will always be another plane, another electric car, another path.

I imagine myself watching ol’ Borden as he dances, and I imagine seeing a young boy finally catch him. The jig is up. I don’t feel jealous or inadequate. My only thought is “Well, damn. Good for you.” I get the feeling that the bill wasn’t mine to catch, and I lay back down in the soft grass, waiting for something, anything, to happen.

Life Outside the Lines

The term “comfort zone” is funny to me.

I don’t know about you, but I was never really all that comfortable inside of mine. It was this space in my mind that I created to lounge around eating chocolate chips and making excuses for every part of my life that had fallen apart because I had been diagnosed with a mental illness. It was a lot like sitting down in the middle of a concrete sidewalk, painting a circle around myself and deciding that this tiny spot was an adequate area in which to spend the rest of my life.

But life didn’t stop because I had laid claim to this part of the sidewalk. People walked by in an endless stream of conversation and laughter, beckoning me to join them.

“Hey Karlee, we’re going to a concert. They’ve got this really great opening act and you look kinda lonely.”

Because I still desperately craved friendship and human interaction, I would say

“Nah, man. Crowds are hell on Earth, nosebleed seats are the worst, and does live music ever sound as good anymore? You guys should come and hang out with me in here. I’ve got chocolate chips and I won’t charge you $8 for a beer.”

Nobody ever wanted to come and hang out in my painted circle in the middle of the sidewalk, and though I would find myself angry, calling them stupid assholes under my breath, I knew why. I knew why because I actually really liked live music and $8 beer and contagious energy, but I feared all of these things at the same time, and besides, I couldn’t just leave my comfort zone. Soon enough, people watching felt like a tedious exercise. They stopped approaching my circle. Where it used to feel like an eternal cluster of people walking toward me, I could only see them walking away.

“Where are you going? Come back. Come back and tell me about all of the parts of your day that went awry so that I can feel better about being trapped inside of this circle. Don’t just walk past while I catch fragments of conversations about things you enjoy. Why are you doing this to me?”

A comfort zone is supposed to be this sanctuary that shields us from the danger of the world outside. Some might argue that it does, but I would remind them that it doesn’t shield us from the danger that builds and boils inside, which is perhaps the most destructive and the most widely experienced danger there is. It wasn’t until someone I love very much sat down in the circle across from me with a somber expression on their face and held a mirror directly in front of me that I realized this. “What are you doing? Did you come in here just to upset me? What the fuck am I supposed to do with this? Get out of my circle.”

I was so angry. I screamed and I cried and I yelled, hoping to remind them that I needed the circle, that showing me how aged and sad and blank I looked only made it worse for me since there was no way out. They didn’t even react. I sat alone in my circle, staring into the mirror. I examined the bags under my eyes and the way they seemed permanently swollen from weeks without any real sleep. How could I be so exhausted, so drained if I were truly as comfortable as I believed? It occurred to me that I hadn’t even tried to escaped the confines of the painted line that surrounded me. I began to wonder whether the circle was keeping the pain out or if it was really just keeping me in.

I thought about this for weeks until I decided that I didn’t want that to be my life anymore. I told myself that if I tried, and if it didn’t work out, at least I could say with certainty that my comfort zone was where I belonged. I took my first step outside of the circle on a September day last year when my friends said “There’s this kickboxing thing going on at the elementary school. You wanna go?” For the first time in what felt like forever, I said yes. And that’s when I met Alycia.

The class started at 8. I showed up at 7:15, determined not to walk in late so that people wouldn’t look at me or take note of my presence. The parking lot was full, but the doors were locked, and it was cold. There were these two little boys standing in the foyer staring at me through the window with their mouths open, as if I were a giant pickle wearing a toque. My brain was all “Fucking shit fuck, Karlee. These kids think you’re so weird that they don’t even want to open the door for you. Go home and watch documentaries about people who do things like this.” I waited it out another 5 seconds and sure enough they opened the door. I was reminded that kids are just funny little beings who can’t seem to help hanging out with their mouths wide open.

When I walked in to find her I was the first one there. Under any normal circumstance I would have felt overwhelmed, but when she looked up I saw that she looked just as nervous as I did. She fumbled around, handed me a form and introduced herself. She asked me my name and I told her a little about my situation. My hands started to sweat when I told her “Sometimes I might have trouble understanding you. I hear voices.” She was the first person who didn’t look at me like a science project after the words fell out. She just smiled and said “That’s okay. We’ll make it work.” As the rest of the ladies poured in, she took us through the class and didn’t hover over me once, except to say a quick “nice work.” I couldn’t remember the last time I felt like I was the same as everyone else. I went home and cried.

Wednesdays became magic for me. I didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but I waited all week to go to class and do something that people outside of my tiny circle did. I began to allow myself to dream of doing more. One evening Alycia told us that the company hosting the classes was pulling the kickboxing program out of our town, and my heart broke. I had become so attached to her and the people who took the class with me, even if I didn’t talk much. There was two whole seconds where I feared that I would be stuck inside of my circle of doom before she said “I can’t give up on my Sexsmith girls, though, so I’m going to teach it on my own.” I will never forget that moment, because it did something very specific for me. It reminded me that the margin of risk can be less important than the possible reward. It reminded me that the reward is not always in paper form. Sometimes the reward comes in the form of a smile or a hand to hold or a “thank you.”

Alycia teamed up with Frances, an equally radiant soul and together they opened Pure Fitness, which quickly became my happy place, my escape. It was the one place besides my own home that I could feel free and secure. When I would have episodes, they would both smile and tell me how proud of me they were for coming, for fighting through the voices, for coming back again. They would tell me that I could leave if it got too much, but that they wanted me to stay, and that it was okay not to have my shit together all the time. Alycia came over to me once, standing in front of the bag confused. She said “You tell those voices that I have you and that you’re just fine. You tell them that you’re kicking ass.” At the end they would meet me with hugs and I would leave every time feeling like someone more self-assured than the person who walked in. I forgot about the noise and the pressure and I felt a true appreciation for all that I could do when I allowed myself to feel as if I deserved it.

I don’t know why I felt that I didn’t deserve it. I don’t know why any of us do. All that I am sure of is that it is a lie. Maybe it’s a lie that we invent in moments of confusion and sadness, and maybe it’s a lie that is whispered to us enough to recognize it as a familiar and comfortable pattern. Maybe it is then that we paint our circles, telling ourselves that if we don’t dare to desire anything beyond that which we are certain we are capable of, we won’t be disappointed. I wish that I had the words to tell them what it means to me to know them, how much I didn’t know I needed them. I wish I could tell them that heroes don’t always wear capes or armour. Sometimes they wear 3 year olds on their backs and smiles of encouragement on their lips. Sometimes they are single moms who give up the remainder of their free time to make other people feel great about themselves. Plus, it makes all the difference to be trained by people who will enjoy a well deserved slice of pizza and beer with you when the week is through.

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 I lost 50 lbs, but that isn’t what I want you to take from this. What I earned from the hours I spent working on my physical strength and battling my ego was far more magnificent than that. What I earned was a dream come to life. Yesterday I accomplished the goal that I quietly allowed myself to envision when I took the first steps out of my circle. Yesterday I battled my head and my heart as I ran 11 miles, conquering my fear of heights, crowds, darkness and greatness, often all at once. Yesterday I sobbed as I crossed a finish line that was so much bigger than the event itself. I finished the race against my brain. I can’t tell you what a miracle it was to wake up today and know that I am an undeniably strong, committed, worthy person. To say with absolute certainty that I am capable of whatever ridiculous, crazy, unfathomable idea graces my thoughts. To believe that I am a credible source when I sit here and type that you are capable of all of these things, that you too are a worthy individual.

I know that this is incredibly long-winded, but I wanted to be able to write it from start to finish to tell any of you who are stuck inside of the painted circles that your past or circumstance has left you with that there is a way out. Whenever you’re ready, dare to reach out and run your finger along the line, noticing how little depth it has, how little control it has, until you feel comfortable enough to move beyond it. Tell your story. Talk about your circle. I don’t know anybody who wants to hear a tale about someone who adapted to everything with ease, so give them your rawness and your jagged edges, show them the undeniable will that it takes for you to make it through a single day. Not everyone will like it, but there will be more than enough that love it, that love you, so much so that you may find your edges have smoothed being surrounded by people who give a shit what happens to you.

Today when I look in the mirror I see someone who is young, curious, beautiful, and best of all, happy. I see someone who sleeps through the nightmares her brain plays for her. I see someone who a painted circle is just no match for.

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“Searching For a Heart of Gold.”

To be human is a very complex thing.

The closer I become to feeling as if I I know who I am at my very core, the more I am faced with and reminded of just how much I have to learn. I haven’t decided yet if this is the worst or most wonderful thing that continues to happen to me.

I think many of us lay awake at night asking questions without answers. Maybe for some the questions are about college applications, and maybe for others the questions are about succeeding as parents. Maybe the questions are about love or emptiness or direction. Maybe we’re all asking the same question in different words. “Will I be okay?”

I say it all the time, and I truly believe that people are who they are by way of where they’ve been. Though I believe this, it is not always enough.

Here we are, all 7.243 billion of us, all of us so vastly different. Here are our minds and our hearts, our hands and our mouths. This is the way they do not always connect. I think it’s safe to say that we do not yet know how to coexist, and the questions that haunt me at night usually have a lot to do with whether or not this is possible.

I talk a lot about love and about compassion, and choosing to act with both in mind. This is a relatively new process for me, and I am still learning, still stumbling over the idea. Before 2011, anger was a driving force in my life, and it had many faces. It was more like anger disguised as ambition or my own idea of justice. My days were a perpetual state of survival (or what I thought it meant at the time.) Somehow I had come to the conclusion that everyone was a threat. I would react to minor indiscretions in a way that ensured they could never become major issues. I feared major issues, and now I know that it’s because they would cause me to face myself. I am learning to forgive that part of me and build something more solid.

Letting go of anger is difficult because it is bred by a deep-seeded hatred. What I come to find most often is that it is not a hatred for other people. It always comes down to some kind of inner conflict. Though I do not like to sound so self-loathing, I know that it is part of the journey to loving myself. Sometimes I’m not sure why I bother, but I know that it is bettering my life when I look at other people and find myself making an effort to truly understand them, to truly love them despite the temptation to pick them apart.

I can only be responsible for the impression that I leave upon the world. I know how difficult it is to feel beaten down and mistreated, but I also know that it is infinitely more difficult to come to the realization that I have been the source of someone else’s pain, their unanswered questions.  I still come up against the powerful urge to sink my teeth into the soul until I draw the blood of insecurity, but there is something so much more forceful to combat it. That something is the image of the people who met my anger with an unwavering love. The memory of those who made it their mission to love all of the fear out without the guarantee of anything in return.

It is both a frightening and fulfilling challenge, to love people even when they may not necessarily deserve it. How do we forgive and still manage to keep our dignity intact? How do we bury the hatchet without burying our values with it? These are the questions I whisper to the night, hoping always for answers with the sun. The sun never brings the answers, of course, but what it does bring is warmth to melt the ice of defeat, warmth to spark enough curiosity to imagine that, perhaps this is the day that I will figure it out.

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.

“You Know, Parfait Must Be the Most Delicious Thing on the Whole Damn Planet.”

The more I blog, the more of you lovely people message me to tell me your stories. I don’t know what I was looking for when I started Lipshits and Mental Fits, but this will always be more than enough. I’m fucking fuzzy about it. You also ask me all kinds of questions, and I like to address those questions here as well as a way to further connect with my readers. One thing you guys seem most curious about:

“When and how did things start to get easier?”

This is a very complicated question. If you strongly disliked parfait but had a very aggressive bully forcing you to eat it, I think it would be a lot like that. I say this because parfait has many components that make it what it is, and they’re all stacked on top of one another. I also say this because it’s lunch time and I am hungry.

Anyway, I’m not the kind to mix it all up and go to town. I am cautious in life and in parfait. I go through the layers one by one. I agonize over their texture and whine that I don’t want to be eating this anymore. Then it occurs to me that the more bites I take, the faster this shit will be over. So that’s what I do. That’s what I did. For every bite that I finished, there were new bites to be conquered. That’s how it went, and that’s how it goes. My life is a constant state of parfait. Somehow this is no longer making sense, but I digress. It’s all still happening, still getting harder and easier at the same time. Let me tell you HOW it became easier instead.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, my experience is not and will never be your experience. You own that. It’s authentic. However, there is a lot to learn, and sometimes hearing the experiences of others turns out to be a source of comfort, if nothing else. Here is a list of the great moments as well as the calamities and fuck-ups that eventually led me back to general sanity:

1. I made a single choice.
You might remember this from a post I wrote awhile back called “Make Good Choices.” At the time I was more than miserable and seriously over whatever this life had to offer. Most of that was due to the feeling that I didn’t have a hand in how my life was going to play out. I was supposed to go to an appointment with a cranky old woman who made me feel even more miserable. I went and blew spitballs instead. That completely juvenile moment paved the way for a sense of independence and the ability to make the big decisions with courage.

2. I got pissed off.
In the beginning I was content with crying and hiding in my fort of blankets for eternity. I was content with shoving some Olanzapine underneath my tongue and listening to the voices rise and fall. I was very comfortable in my own misery. It wasn’t until one day when I realized how unfair all of this actually felt, one day when I completely lost my shit and threw a tantrum circa 1995, that I was able to analyze what was happening to me and map a way out. (Don’t get it twisted, this one didn’t happen overnight.) People are always going to tell you not to be angry, to stay positive. For the most part, they’re right. But you own your feelings, too. And I’m here to say that being angry is okay. You just can’t STAY angry. (Or you can, but that won’t help.)

3. I subtracted my many crutches.
There were a few. As I mentioned in my post “The Accidental Addict,” I fucked around with benzos for some time. I also fucked around with a few other drugs, though I wouldn’t say I developed a dependency with those. I’m not going to hash them out here, because it’s the same song and dance. Drugs gave me happiness, relaxation, escape. Until they didn’t. Say what you will, but you cannot convince me that they are a fun and casual time.
Do you like fun, feeling light and having a sense of belonging? I’m sure you do, but these things can all be achieved naturally. Unless, of course, you also enjoy vicious nightmares, cold sweats, vomiting night and day, crippling anxiety and psychosis. There’s really only a few paths when it comes to drugs, and I can’t think of one that’s idyllic in the slightest. Getting sober was the worst pain I’ve ever had to endure, and although it’s been 1 month and 6 days since I started the withdrawal process, the aforementioned symptoms are still happening. If I can stress anything about drugs, it’s this: Stop finding ways to numb, and instead look for ways to heal. Stop flirting with death for the rush, and instead tempt life. Tell life to lay it on thick because you always come clean. Dare it to fuck with you. Then smash it, again and again.

4. I said ‘no.’
There were people who found it entertaining to find ways to aggravate me, who enjoyed saying things to make me fall apart. There were others who watched it happen without lending a hand. It used to hurt and I used to feel a deep sense of loss. I spent weeks wondering how I could have possibly made people feel so spiteful towards me. Alas, number 2 came into play and I got pissed off. So pissed off that all of that sadness and hurt turned into fuel. I said no. I said no so many times and so many ways that all of the weight evaporated somehow. I said no to less than supportive friendships and a fat no to being treated with anything less than decency. That’s something I will never apologize for. All I can say is that sometimes shaking your head can be as positive a decision as nodding it. Your life is not a sideshow for entertainment, and, sometimes people are just that; people. We all know how they are.

5. I accepted responsibility.
Sometimes I am one of those people. Sometimes I am cruel, arrogant, ignorant, narcissistic and guilty of every other trait that irritates me. I know I can’t be perfect, but I CAN be better. I can help where it is needed, I can give what I have. I can speak honestly. Pride has been my biggest downfall in recovery. If it would have swallowed it sooner, I could be a lot further ahead. This doesn’t matter now, of course, but it is important to recognize it because it reminds me that holding onto pride in a present situation could be holding me back instead. I’m forever working on this, yo.

6. I gave faith a chance.
This is not about God. This is not about Buddha. This is not about Allah or Zeus or Tom Cruise. I still don’t believe in any of these ideas specifically. I’ve mentioned before that I believe faith is a key component in the overcoming of any obstacle, and it is. I’ve also discovered that while faith can be tested, it shouldn’t kill your light. It shouldn’t make you berate yourself. I am beginning to see the universe as a beautiful mystery that I will never understand, at least not all at once. I’m beginning to see that this universe looks different facing every set of eyes. I think I like it this way. I may not believe in a giant “something,” but I didn’t get anywhere believing in absolutely nothing. In fact, what I believe in depends on the day, because I am forever changing. Conviction meant sticking to my values, but growth means being able to question those values and add or subtract as I see fit.

So back to the parfait. I realized where I was going with all of this. Through the experiences of others, I’ve developed techniques to make my parfait more tolerable, delicious even. The greatest discovery is perhaps that I have realized that my flaws work against me, but with each other. When they occur in harmony, I become wise and strong. I become real. So real that I can’t be denied. Here’s my nub, folks: Mix up your fucking parfait. Mix yourself up. Get yourself all gooey and lost, test and expand your palate. After all, you can always go back to the familiar, to the boring.

PS. Guess what I’m eating right now?!