Thursday, October 25, 2007

"The Long-awaited Time of Joy," Chapter 1: The Lightbulb in the Basement

You know, it's a mad mission
But, I got the ambition
Not everybody makes it
to the loving cup
It's a mad mission, but I got the ambition
Mad, mad mission
Sign me up.--Patty Griffin

Aside from the fact that the sun was shining in my perpetually foggy neighborhood, it was a perfectly ordinary day in San Francisco, a Thursday in mid-April. I stepped out of my office, which was situated at the back of an old, yellow Edwardian-style apartment building, and I walked down the outdoor staircase and then into the basement. I carried with me a box of the paper residue of my life, headed for the recycling bin. My body was performing this task--balancing cargo, moving me along--but my mind was elsewhere. It was that serene state of being, when a body is engaged in something rote, like dishes or driving, and the mind can wander off on its own to explore.

As I switched on the basement light and walked down the musty corridor toward the trashcans and recycling bins, I was thinking what a mess my life had become. I’d recently been kicked out of my apartment, but I hadn’t yet found a new place to live. My formerly live-in girlfriend had left me a few months earlier and moved back east. I’d quit my job as an editor at a successful magazine and was attempting to support myself by freelancing full-time; I was getting work, but not enough. And I was coping with some medical issues. Ever since I’d moved to San Francisco, nearly three years before, I’d been battling upper respiratory problems ranging from colds that would last for weeks, to several bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia.

Being sick had morphed my former-college-athlete body into something I barely recognized. Thirty pounds overweight, I was finding it nearly impossible to get back to a healthy size. Walking up stairs left me breathless. I had developed sciatica and carpel tunnel syndrome at my former magazine job, which were so severe that even after six months of physical therapy, acupuncture and ergonomic adjustments to my work station, I couldn’t sit or stand comfortably, and even chopping vegetables was a painful task. To top it all off, I’d just been diagnosed with depression and a panic disorder with associated phobias, including agoraphobia--which explained why I would sometimes circle my apartment for days before being able to step outside to mail a letter. The good news, of course, was that a diagnosis meant I could begin a course of treatment for these things, which had namelessly plagued me for a decade. But at the time, the news didn’t feel so good. I felt like a mental patient, one step away from straightjackets, and Jell-O eaten in confinement off plastic spoons.

My ex-girlfriend and I were having a bubble gum break-up—no matter how far we stretched, we remained stuck together. Even though she was on the other side of the country, we were having trouble letting go. Meanwhile, I had begun a passionate but frightening new relationship with a woman I’d known for just a short time. I wound up straddling the two things like an insane person, thinking I could make land with one foot in a rowboat and one foot on a raft. The sea was growing stormy and it looked as though I would soon lose my grip on both things and go crashing beneath the waves. All my worst fears about being alone, being unloved, and disappointing others, were rearing their vicious heads like a battalion of Hydra. And, like the icing on the squished cake of my life--or really, like the cracked plate underneath it--there was my deep conflict over where I should live. I was so torn between San Francisco and Northampton that I was never completely happy in either place. I spent all of my free time and energy either planning or taking trips back and forth. I couldn’t choose to live without what one place offered, in order to be fully present in the other, so I remained forever in between, always longing for San Francisco when I was in Northampton, and for Northampton when I was in San Francisco. It was an exhausting way to live.

As I strode down the basement corridor that day, toward the bald and dusty light bulb hanging above the sticky trash bins, I mulled over these things, turning them around as though they were puzzle-toys I could somehow find my way into--or out of--if only I could understand how. While my body walked and my rational mind tried to solve the puzzle, the deeper, more creative part of my self saw her moment to act. She went off exploring in the fields of my experience, rooting through the trash piles of my memory to see what she could find. She had only a few moments; when I was done in the basement, I would sequester her again while I worked. So, she went quickly, with delight and purpose, like a child set loose for recess. I hadn’t even realized that she was gone until she returned, flushed and smiling, to her seat in my mental classroom. It was what Oprah would call a “light bulb moment” when she held up for me her discovery.

When she showed it to me, I felt the way I would if I found the one remaining Popsicle--perfectly preserved--amongst the stale ice cubes and freezer-burnt peas in my freezer on a hot, summer night. It was such a simple thing, but it felt so rare and delivered so much pleasure that I was filled with joy when she held up for me this notion: Life is trying to teach you that you’re strong. As I’d entered the basement, I’d been wondering idly--without even realizing that I was wondering it--Why me? Why has it all been so hard? And she went and found the answer: life is trying to teach me that I’m strong.

I’ve suffered from the why-me’s before--everyone probably has--but, I’ve never actually gotten an answer before. Of course, my self-pity wasn’t entirely without reason; it wasn’t just about career changes or romantic entanglements or bronchial infections. It was about my life, my whole life, right from the beginning. The list of things I’ve lived through would have startled my peers and made them treat me differently, so I kept it secret through high school (as much as I could), through college (because no one knew me from before), and then in my adult life in the “real” world (where I could completely re-invent myself, if I chose to). But, no matter what I projected to others or let them assume, the truth is, I was often hungry and homeless as a child. Growing up in Maine, that meant things like harsh winters with no boots, and sad Christmases worthy of a Lifetime Original Movie, complete with recently laid-off, drunk, construction-worker father and a refrigerator, which offered not much more than a light bulb when it was opened.

As a child, I lived in tents, slept in cars and took baths standing in large pots other families would have cooked their dinners in. There were years without electricity, running water or plumbing. And during the hardest years, the youngest years, I didn’t have the sense to ask why me. For little kids, there is only one life, their own, and they have no way of knowing it could (or should) be different--especially if they don’t have TV. Later, though, during adolescence, I started to understand that other kids had it easier, had it better. I grew tired of shame and struggle, tired of cold and hunger, tired of my divorced and angry parents, and I started to ask, Why me?

When I got to high school and my mother was finally able to buy a home, I thought life would get easier. I thought I had paid my dues. But, of course, I hadn’t. There is no cap on human suffering. You may feel you’ve filled your quota by the age of fourteen, but there’s nothing to say the hardest parts aren’t still to come. For teenagers, melodrama fits like a second skin. So, in my teenaged years the why-me’s really kicked in. I engaged in them in vain, selfish, tragic moments when I wanted something unattainable like a pair of Jordache jeans (or a college education) so badly it felt the world would end if I didn’t get it. The world felt so unfair--and honestly, that’s because it was.

But, despite my fears about not getting a college education, I did manage to get one. Eleven years later I’m still paying it off. But the fact remains, despite my fears and hardships, I did put myself through an expensive, highly ranked, and rigorous school. My college years were a time when buying postage stamps was a luxury and getting a haircut was out of the question. The years before and after college weren’t exactly a picnic, either. But when I think back on it now, I’m reminded of a time when I went cross-country skiing alone on unfamiliar trails. I got lost, it got dark, and I had no idea how or even if I’d make it through the night alive. But, despite the fear, cold, exhaustion, and the stamina required, I did eventually find my way back out of the woods.

I was too embarrassed until I was well into my twenties to speak to anyone of the badges of my shame, what I considered to be the evidence of my weakness--the things which make me who I am, but which I have sought to deny and to escape from since I was old enough to know what they were. I kept these things (poverty, rape, homelessness, anxiety, depression) and others to myself because they seemed like such clear symbols of my fallibility, my less-than/other-than status.

For most of my life, I have been afraid, occasionally hopeless, and almost always tired and confused. And yet, when I graduated from college, nearly every card I received praised my strength. It made me feel like a liar, like a disgusting actress, like I had somehow tricked my closest friends. They knew not how weak, in fact, I was. That day in the basement in San Francisco, when I first began to understand that life was not persecuting me, but instead trying to prove to me what the others had seen all along, a door was formed before me. I wasn’t yet ready to walk through it, but the knowledge that it was there was the first step in my eventual liberation.

Six years later, my closest friend loaned me a book called Struggle for Intimacy by Janet Woititz. I had never met its author and yet somehow she knew exactly what I thought about myself. I rejoiced at the discovery that this sense I have of not being seen for the truly flawed human being that I am--of secretly being a weak and ugly person, not worthy of love, success or devotion, while everyone buys the girl-who’s-got-it-together act I put on--is absolutely normal and terribly common among adult children of alcoholics (ACOAs). It’s even on a list of common ACOA self-myths. Between this book, and the self-knowledge I found unexpectedly that day in the basement, I am beginning to accept a beautiful truth: that I am strong; that I deserve to be happy. Acceptance of this truth allows me to walk through the door between self-loathing and self-love.

Our minds work in strange ways. We expect things from ourselves we’d never expect from others. We ACOAs tend to believe that the people around us don’t know how much we’re faking it. For some reason, for some of us, it’s difficult to focus on what is good in us, to forgive ourselves--or anyone else--for being human. So many of us can’t see the forest of strength we possess, because we can’t see past the trees of our faults. We beat ourselves up and we ask ourselves questions like, Why me? Without ever really expecting an answer.

But after years of asking the question silently to myself, I finally got my answer on an ordinary day in a grimy basement in San Francisco. Life doesn’t bring me challenges to punish me or to keep me from getting ahead. Life is trying to teach me that I’m strong. It’s an important lesson to learn. It will come in handy if life ever gets really hard. I’ve been stubborn, blind and insistent in my belief in my weakness and my unworthiness. But I’m beginning to understand now that we all have faults and burdens. It’s human nature. It’s a package deal. No one is perfect. Sometimes we get lost in the woods. But the truth is, if I’ve made it this far, I really am strong.

[The original version of this essay was written in 1998 or 1999, I think, and was distributed as part of a monthly e-mail column I used to write and send to friends and a few subscribers. This version is part of manuscript entitled, "The Long-awaited Time of Joy, and Other True Stories," which I completed a few years ago, but never really tried very hard to publish. You can read more chapters and excerpts from TLATJ at this blog.]