Tea

How is the anxiety disorder?  How is the Russian Tea Room?  I prefer the Russian Tea Room.

It took a glass of wine and a call to my mother to get me into Manhattan.  I had successfully passed through lunchtime (for mysterious reasons a great anxiety trigger) and my oh-shit work is over I have nothing to distract me was the next hurdle.

After the wine and the talk, I got myself on the bus, on the subway, no problem.

Then the sidewalk in front of Carnegie Hall didn’t scare me, not the glossy building across the street, waving and dizzying, or the dark.  I waited for my friend, and looked up at the grocery flower display out front of an apartment building I used to visit, twenty years ago.  New York charms: in winter, the Christmas trees out with us, in warm weather, the cut flowers in their bins, waiting.

We had a couple of hours of a string quartet, lost in musing, under the chandelier, at the faces of each player, their bow hands, their shoes, listening for the second violin part, which is the best, their ring fingers, three of four were married, who was a little fat, who was tall, the different browns of their instruments, a bow hair that, loose, caught the light.  The ideas of the music.  Beethoven bridge between old-fashioned and modern, between us and them, right?

We went two doors down to the Russian Tea Room, through their frosted revolving door.

The famous restaurants and bars of New York are the task of my forties.  Sardi’s, Bemelman’s, now the Russian Tea Room.  I have hardly any more money than I had my early trips into the city, but now I have appreciation for a proper drink, properly made.

We ordered caviar and vodka.

The vodka was poured into tall, thin glasses.  The bartender explained how each one was different.  I tasted each one, and each tasted exactly like vodka.

The room was greener than I had imagined.  There was some red, but there was also green.  All restaurants should be red inside, and all other indoor walls should be white or yellow.

I looked over at the booth where Louis CK had sat with F. Murray Abraham, filming a scene for “Louie.”  Certain episodes of “Louie” have made me right again, and “Amadeus” is, of course, everything for us who are mediocre.

On the way home we argued about death and sat opposite two hoodied guys.  One messed with a pill bottle and then both slumped over in reverie, perhaps to ride the 2 all night.

I have never ridden the 2 to the end.

The Russian Tea Room has glass cases of Russian stuff for sale, nesting dolls, glossy, gold and red painted this and thats.  Little price tags.  It enchants me how places Fancy New York in my mind have their own clumsiness and kitsch.

I tasted the orange-pink caviar, bubbles on bread and cream cheese.  The pills of fishiness squished like vitamin E gelcaps.

And that was enough of that.

Six weeks on higher dose of SSRI.  When the antidepressant is working, it shuts a trap door inside my brain, and the room of horrors, I don’t even know if the demons are still down there.   I don’t know, and I don’t think about it, even.  They become like a bad, flat fiction.  I don’t think about how I might need to drug myself, I get to think about how I might want to drug myself.

Last week at church I had a bout of panic, and I decided this week to stay home, sleep in, lounge.  This was totally unlike me, to let myself off the hook this way, although my doctor recommends it.  The first time I went to see her, and talked about the panic, need-to-flee feeling, she said, “Well, then you should go!”

That sounded completely crazy to me.

She has a very nice black dog, though, and I like petting the dog while she writes my prescriptions, and I like that she is 1,000 years old and her home office is in a luxurious doorman building, with a crummy packing-tape-mended chair.

When I finally got up and out today, I ran into my neighbor.  I went a couple of months without seeing him, which was odd.

“So many people in and out of the building!  I’m glad you’re still here,” he said.

“Oh, yeah,” I said.

We passed an old lady he said hi to, I said, “I haven’t met her.”

He said, “She used to watch my daughter.  And she’s known me since I was this high.”

Somehow we were talking about being 25.

“I’m so glad to be older,” I said.

“I’m not, those were great times,” he said.

We talked about these kids today, and about New York, how he wanted to leave, but had deep roots there, and I said I envied his roots here, and I didn’t say, why does anyone want to leave?

Advertisements

Skeletons Warming Themselves

I didn’t know three people who died this week.

On Thursday, my meditation group mourned a parishioner who was shot by the police.  I never met her.

They talked about how okay Ms Danner was when she was okay, how you would never know she was ill.  Someone held a piece of her knitting, just as the priest would at the service the next Sunday, a cloth they use to dry you after baptism, and you get to keep.  It has a cross knitted into it.

Ms Danner wrote of “a strong support system in my church home dealings.”  Churches have plenty, plenty, of problems, but I have seen many mentally ill and disabled people well supported by their churches.

And she wrote, “What if my medication fails me? I ask myself, will I know if it does? Will the illness overpower its effectiveness? When? Where?”

If my medication failed me, I don’t know what I would do.  To even imagine that my SSRI and my rescue meds would stop working makes me imagine I would drink constantly to function.  And all I have is a little anxiety disorder.

In New York City, apparently, there are special officers who are called to help people who seem mentally ill and dangerous.  (I have difficulty separating dangerous people from the mentally ill, wanting to hurt others or yourself seems to me the definition of mental illness, but you know what I mean.)

Sunday morning, the priest spoke about Ms Danner and social justice, and action, and the woman in the pew next to me silently cried and cried.

After church I waited for the subway back to Brooklyn.  I read a book.  I closed my book and walked down the platform, I don’t know why.  Waiting for the train is one of the things that sometimes plunges my brain with anxiety, but I wasn’t anxious, just restless.

“Liz?” someone said.

It was a friend I ran into– just as randomly, far from either of our homes or workplaces– about a month ago.

He was on his way to a funeral.

This death was also brain-related– odd– cancer this time, though.  The father of our mutual friend, who pulled me through many tough spots, long days, mostly with funny stories and playful energy, but also with one enormous cookie I still remember greedily.

The moment you go from being alone to hugging someone in Manhattan is a moment I have always loved.  It’s a tiny salvation that happens again and again.  My sister approaching the Natural History Museum as I ate an apple.  My curly-haired friend and her curls coming up Park Avenue, me going down, the restaurant where we’ll eat in the middle.  Tumbling down my building’s steps to open the door for a beloved face.  Very small salvations that one hopes add to the well of what we can believe in.

At my stop, I said goodbye, the train went on, I climbed up and out, and walked around a beautiful city autumn day with my chest feeling so open and so bruised.

The third: a friend whose sister was mentally ill died.  I had followed this story at a far distance, frustration at lack of help, limits of care.  I knew the facts of it.  It had eerie and terrible inevitability, at my distance.  One day, we both had sisters who were alive, then he had a sister who was dead.

It’s a time of death.  The beautiful autumn day included walking past many brownstones with skeletons hanging out.  We have a festival of death, of winking at it, and it’s here.  People with children think it’s perfectly okay to have representations of dead people dancing across their lawns.  It is.  We need to.

Skeletons have no softness, no soft parts, no brains to misfire, no minds to have or to lose.

At meditation this week, I saw myself floating down a river, a small river, an Ozark river, that is where people float, back home, and it is not athletic in the slightest, it is stepping into the current.  Paddling over to someone you want to talk to, letting yourself drift away from them.  People get so drunk they can hardly stand up, and yet I’ve always been amazed: they rarely drown.  They look after each other, the current is usually slow, manageable, they get wet, break ankles, but stumble out and recover.

Image: a longtime favorite painting of mine, James Ensor’s “Skeletons Warming Themselves,” Kimbell Art Museum.

We May Sink and Settle

DP158099.jpgSomeone told me even numbers of bamboo stalks are unlucky, so I bought another pot with three stalks, bringing my total to 9.  I had 3, that was good, then 6, disaster, now back to 9.

“What does that have to do with?”my coworker asked.  I was carrying my bamboo.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “Chinese numbers?”

Because obviously my life is ruled by Chinese numbers.

“You just have to be careful with it,” she said.  “It takes over.”

“You seem unhappy,” someone said.  Unhappy, and suffering, is not the same as inauthentic.  Like at the end of the “Muppet Movie,” “We did just what we set out to do.”  I set out to be a New Yorker, because I knew I was one, I am one, it fits.

Everything else has been disastrousish: deserts of loneliness, boiling panic on 7th Avenue, back on the “rescue” drugs, back on the antidepressants– not that I mind the antidepressants, so much, they did me so right before, and going off only taught me they had no ill effects, and that going off them was easy.  As long as sertraline and I fall back in love, I’ll stick with him forever.

You lose your job but have to keep doing it for months, you get bad doctor news, you sell hard your life’s work: a lot for a brain.

This time I knew to keep my eyes low, not to look up at tall buildings, of which there are, you know, a few, in Manhattan, and this time I was cool enough to walk through an Old Navy and look for t-shirts.  I was at 9.  Last time an H & M overstimulated me so bad I wanted to rip my chest open like Superman rips his suit off.  I was at 10.

When I said I wasn’t that bad, that with my first bout of anxiety I was afraid to leave the house, my therapist said, “Let’s not let it get that far this time.”  Right.

This round is much easier, as I understand the drugs, and the drugs help.  To do what I intended to do, just do it with medicine.  To not let my brain get the grooves carved that say, freak out here.

I have a brain that acts out this way.  And I don’t give in to it.  I still move to a new city, I don’t quit my stressful job, I don’t stop writing.  I get medicine.  I don’t know if therapy for this has helped me at all, but I like therapy, so I go.

I see nothing. We may sink and settle on the waves. The sea will drum in my ears. The white petals will be darkened with sea water. They will float for a moment and then sink. Rolling over the waves will shoulder me under. Everything falls in a tremendous shower, dissolving me.  – Virginia Woolf, The Waves.

I  marched in the Mermaid Parade last weekend.  Marched?  Walked with everyone, stopped and started, blew bubbles, waved ribbons around.  I painted myself blue, which was much more work than I thought it would be, four big tubes of blue, four layers of paint.  I had trouble with my face.  I am experienced with Mardi Gras, and Mardi Gras always means masks.  My sister helped make my face something.  I didn’t know how to feel, there, handling the chiffon tails of my costume, the gangbusters of people, my first time at anything I am so self-conscious.  I wanted to be the sea.

Sequins are still being found on the bottoms of my roommates’ feet, and in the cat’s litter box.  For a minute I was the sea.

Image: “Ocean Swells,” Arthur B. Davies, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sanity

Immediate apology: this is not about going crazy.  It’s about getting sane.  I know that’s less interesting.

But: some people like to read about how sanity can return.  Especially the currently insane.  If you’re not insane, and think you could never be, or that no tough, clever person could ever go crazy, then you can stop here.  And if you think insanity is sexy and exciting, like Van Gogh was sexy and exciting, you should go read some poetry by some dude on acid.  Or try cutting off your ear.  Enjoy.

After several months of antidepressants,  my panic attacks and anxiety have settled down.  I dropped back to worrying, only occasionally, that I might get crazy-anxious.   Normal-anxious is like oh, I’m worried about these bills.  Crazy-anxious is like, oh, God, the walls are pressing in.  It’s definitely hard to understand if you’re not, you know, insane.  Six months ago, I never would have believed it.

It comforted me to refer to myself as insane, as sick.  It suggested that I could get sane, and well.   I have.  (Knock on wood.)

I told an old friend, “If I had done drugs with you back in the day, this wouldn’t seem so scary to me.  I would be used to having my head messed with.  It wouldn’t scare me so much.”  He agreed that this was a great loss.  My previous experiences with mind-altering substances weren’t good preparation for psychiatric drugs.  Because I am a ninny.

The first drugs that messed with my mind were actually for migraines.  One induced my first official panic attack.  Then, with another, I had that oft-mentioned “thoughts of suicide” thing.  Yeah, that’s unpleasant.  At least the tone of these thoughts didn’t sound like me (even crazier, right?).  So I felt sure that it was a side effect, and not something I’d brought to the party.

After such unpleasant experiences, I had to be in a lot of discomfort to try another drug.  It took months of wrestling crazy-variety anxiety for me to voluntarily add the anxiety of ingesting new chemicals.  I thought taking antidepressants would mean I was weak and crazy.  Well, I was weak and crazy.  Before and after I took the pills, I obsessively read about them.  I realized, to my chagrin and to my amusement, that you can’t really believe any of those drug reviews because they’re all written by crazy people.  Especially the reviews of anxiety drugs!  If leaving the house could scare me silly, how do you think I felt about pills from a bottle covered with stern official medical warnings?

(Aside: I love the website crazymeds.com , which is irreverent to the point of crudeness.  It’s the only place I found descriptions and explanations on this topic that left me wry rather than depressed.  Sample text: “If you’re in shock about or trying to understand the whole overwhelming deal of medications and being classified as some flavor of mentally interesting / mentally ill / batshit crazy, or want to know what this site is all about, just keep reading.  I know, the meds suck donkey dong.)

“The worst thing in the world would be to know that you were losing your mind,” someone told me.  “Not really,” I said.  “Been there.  Done that.”  Accepting you’re sick in the head, getting brave enough to be labeled as sick, and take scary pills.  Ugly clouds.  Two small silver linings: I have huge new empathy for the mentally ill (many of them are way worse off than me), and I’m no longer afraid of losing my mind.  Been there.  Done that.

Think; Are

I could tell you that your thoughts are just electrical and chemical activity. I could say that your thoughts make your personality, at least in part.  This would mean that tweaks to your electrical and chemical stew would change your personality.  In theory, you can handle that.

You might say, the real me is me when I’m sober.  I don’t have a brain tumor, or Alzheimer’s, or any other kind of dementia.  And before I drink those three mimosas, I am me in the morning.

Maybe.  We have Descartes to blame.  You think, you are?  How do you know?

My grandmother has started losing details and sequence.  At a family wedding, she asked over and over again, What were we doing next? The rehearsal dinner.  What’s a rehearsal dinner? Some of the time she seems perfectly with it.  Then her brain is all blurry in the “rehearsal dinner” section.  Sometimes her confusion makes her more irritable, sometimes it makes her more grateful.  Is she really a more grateful person, or a grouchier one?  Or do all these years at the end not “count”?

Once  a minister at our church had a heart attack.  He came back from the hospital a different person: grouchy, unable to remember anyone’s names.  Which person was he?  Before or after?

After three months of recurring panic attacks, I started taking antidepressants.  I’ve always hated the idea of psychiatric medication.  I’ve exercised hard and meditated and taken supplements and talked my neuroses out, begged and bargained with God and doctors, but I was still a mess.  Unable to stop a normal train of thought like, “What if I need to get out of here?” or “What if I freak out again?”  Normal brains just rattle on past those kinds of detours.  Mine required full effort to resist them.  It was exhausting.

Nine days into the antidepressants, I noticed that when I started to worry, I couldn’t worry with the same gusto.  I could worry for the normal minute,  I just couldn’t get myself inspired to follow the same detour.  I kind of wanted to, I had the instinct to, because my brain has gotten used to doing that.  I couldn’t, though, any more than I can cry on cue.

Emotions are electrical and chemical reactions. Thoughts are electrical and chemical events.  Me as cool customer and me as sick with anxiety are different personalities, different people, even.  I thought the former was normal me.  I think on the medication I feel like myself again.  But what do I know?

The Whistle

I’m going to take a couple of risks here: ranting about how other people should raise their children (bearing in mind that I have no children, to make it even juicier), and writing about a rerun on television.  Today Oprah’s show reran a feature on a 7-year-old girl who has been diagnosed with schizophrenia.  This time I got to see the whole thing, which riled me up even more than when it originally aired.

This little girl gets violent and sometimes has to be hospitalized.  What I couldn’t understand was why she is not always hospitalized.  We have facilities where people with all kinds of dangerous and/or high-maintenance disabilities can be tended by professionals in a highly structured environment.  Sheltering people who dangerous to others is one of their primary missions.  I’ve actually heard some positive things about these places. Just like all homes, I suspect, some are happier than others.

The little girl’s parents trade off days with her, living in separate apartments.  They never get to be alone together.  One parent is always with their other child, in that other apartment.  The girl is too dangerous to be allowed to live in the same dwelling with her own brother.

The parents say that they have to constantly engage the girl in conversation to keep her voices at bay, to keep evaluating her for danger.  The dad said he had gotten so overwhelmed and depressed by his situation that he tried to commit suicide.  The whole story made me furious.

Why should the possible happiness of one girl trump the possible happiness of two adults and their other child? And why are they so insistent that living at home with them, exhausted and depressed as they are, is better than growing up in a hospital with caretakers who are (comparatively) rested?  It’s not true that only biological parents can love and nurture a child.  And how about their other child being raised by parents who are exhausted and depressed?  Is it right to sacrifice his needs for hers?

But the main thing I realized was that watching tired people makes me mad.  Not just mad for them, but mad for myself.  I watched that dad talk about his suicide attempt, how he didn’t even go to the hospital to get his stomach pumped because he had to stay with the kids, I thought, give yourself a break!  Let someone give you a break!  It is too hard for you!  Admit it!  Take a break!

This is almost impossible for me to do.  I can talk the Italian vacation talk, but I am still a worker American.  I struggled today merely to admit that I could not get all my students’ projects graded over the weekend.  Sorry, guys, I said.  I had to have some time off.  I can’t always get the job done.  Sometimes I just crap out.

So for that dad, especially, I will not feel guilty about spending a couple of hours on the couch tonight, drawing and playing iTouch Skee-ball and eating popcorn.  I don’t have a desperately needy child, but I was very tired from my migraine yesterday.  And tired people should do their damndest to find time to rest: tired dads, tired girls with schizophrenia, and tired teachers with only nine days left in the semester, not that I am counting.

Ghosts

Because I recently watched the terrible film “Sylvia,” I took more notice of the death of Plath’s son.  I have maintained a dismissive distaste for Plath since college.  A privileged, connected, lovely, talented poet, who had a dizzying romance with another successful poet and two sweet children.  How sad for her.  I did sit through the movie, since I love artist biopics, but I still roll my eyes at the sappy swooning over Plath.  It’s endurance that inspires me, not drama.

My grandmother died completely alone.  So alone that when the authorities called to notify our family, no one knew who they were talking about.  She had been married, yet again, and had taken another last name.  The only reason they called us was that she had an old business card among her things. 

I don’t remember meeting her, although I did, just a few times.  While I spent every holiday with gaggles of cousins, my parents finally decided that this grandmother was too sick to know.  I think the spin on the word “sick” might vary.  She drank, took pills.  She valued cigarettes  and sleep more than the safety of her children.  She disappeared unexpectedly, and then reappeared crying for help: money, a place to stay, attention.  I can say she was “sick” and mean “mentally ill” because I am not directly scarred by her.

While we were driving across Kentucky in the rain last week, my brother asked me if I believe in ghosts.  I formed my answer carefully.  Something like: I believe that people, ideas, and things linger.  They don’t disappear cleanly. 

I haven’t seen other people’s ghosts, but I do see myself. 

Under the giant marquee of the club where I went dancing when I was twenty-two.   I can see myself sitting, sweaty, chatting with an acquaintance, wondering if the guy I have a crush on is going to appear, listening to the segues in the music to decide when to rejoin the party.  I am doing just what I should be doing, but it’s never quite exciting or safe or significant enough. 

I can see myself in the window of a pizza place, on a date, trying so hard to be lovely and engaging and emotionally firm.  I can’t admit that my life and growth is so far out of my control.  That at twenty-five I am not grown up, not at all.

And my grandmother is a ghost, who appears in conversation as a worst case scenario, or a misplaced stab of mistrust or fear in her children, now grandparents themselves.  Sometimes they say to their children, “We’re watching you carefully,” because they know what Nicolas Hughes knew about ghosts.

Addendum:  The day after I wrote this, I found the following article about depression and its effect on the brain.  The most intriguing part for me is the idea that both genes and environmental effects of living with an afflicted parent may cause depression (and/or anxiety disorders) to run in families.  I hadn’t thought about that.

http://www.nytimes.com/2009/03/25/health/25brain.html?_r=1&em