AFTER FULDA

AFTER FULDA

 

Ik gehorta đat seggen. Tell me what you hear/d.

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The first sentence is the first line of a poem I’m dabbling in these days, from the Old High German, the Hildebrandslied, but the second sentence, the one in the English I know, isn’t the translation, just my response. Just the reading turned inward. The dead language asked for and responded to. Hildebrand, you see, he meets his son Hadubrand at the field of battle, but Hadubrand doesn’t recognize his father, who has been living in exile. Hildebrand finds himself honor-bound to fight, regardless of any fatherly connection he may feel toward his opponent, and the poem breaks off in line 68 with the two clashing shields. But we can reasonably guess that Hildebrand kills Hadubrand because of the endings of other tales in the Indo-European tradition with the same father/son/opponent set-up. I guess the moral of the story is: honor is a stupid reason. Honor shouldn’t be thicker than blood.

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But if you never recognize what or whom you’re fighting, what then? Although I guess I did figure out the face of my opponent and then I killed it, but I still don’t know the name of my shield, and even now my sword stings in my hand. A breaking is hard to face, even when seams are sewn, when the rupture is made whole once more.

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Ik gehorta đat seggen that a woman, that’s me, lived for an entire month in a terrible place. Two challengers stood against each other before assemblies. The assemblies were passersby, gathered armies, honor being striven for, not wanting to shit my pants from my irritable bowel, what have you. The psychotic episode proved to be bad for my stomach. One man clutched a newspaper while waiting for the train but he wasn’t reading it. No, the clutching took place between the vortex of his elbow and side as he fiddled with his phone. Another listened to music on headphones. There were women present as well, of course. But there was also the voice. Not one connected to any body I could see, but I new instinctively that it belonged to a man. Ik gehorta the voice telling me the meaning of the story he wanted me to believe as a way into the canal of his tongue speaking my messed up birth in his eyes. Nothing made sense, his wasn’t a language I spoke or even read until much later in offices, being interpreted, you understand, but I kenned the meanings all the same. Maybe that doesn’t make sense either. Regardless, I was my own epic. Not written down in dead words in some monastery or other, not in the 830s, no, rather a woman scratching her fingernails into wood, holding on, my hard-scrabble fight. Continue existing. That was the other voice, mine, the one I recognized as my own flesh. Then my guts started mumbling again, so I tightened my sphincter. Concentrate on keeping in, that’s the trick. This is the opposite of exploding, but necessary, because believe me, the ass is the final frontier of what people can handle. You do not want to be the crazy lady who shits her pants in public, because the world we live in does not have room for that. This was a deep fear I had for the entirety of the episode, and the entirety of falling down into it, and then later, climbing out.

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Maybe to tell a fresh story, you have to find an old tongue to make sense of it, a language you never learn but instead cling to tiny portions. Phrases, pairs of words, subjects-verbs. Maybe this is reading psychotically, or reading as a brain that was once split into pieces by lightning but no longer is but needs, all the same, to show how divided, how splintered it has been. I was so apart from myself that I have to introduce my story to you in a language none of us speak. That’s the thing. I heard a number of voices, by that point belonging to flesh, discussing my case. I had been disorganized. I had believed things that weren’t true. Things that couldn’t possibly be true. There was no spaceship in that painting and no one lived in it with a brain connected to mine with invisible tentacles and maybe that’s not the whole story, just the part I feel most comfortable telling. But it is true that was the worst day, the day my cheek wouldn’t come unstuck from the bed. Me pawing the quilt. My epic breaking down, me coming undone.

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Brief aside. Dead languages equal graduate school, at least in my mind, but after barely making it through my MFA program in poetry I quickly realized the unstructured boundaryless-ness of academia was exactly the kind of stress that counted as a stress factor in my illness profile. Therefore, instead of even thinking about applying to PhD programs, where I could have bathed in all the old, but maybe in the end, not-so-dead-after-all languages I wanted, I ended up with a series of shitty jobs in the retail industry. There were brief forays into other sectors, but never for long. But I snapped up all sorts of books, teach yourself CDs, DVDs, what have you, approaching anything to do with dead languages that I could find at the bookstore I worked at for a while. The CDs (Teach Yourself Anglo-Saxon in this case) were the most fun. I listened and repeated. I listened and repeated. I made an old tongue into a living being. Nothing I learned to say was particularly important but I was importantly waking up. Around the same time, I started getting into Beowulf for real. There are a few lines, I can’t remember exactly where in the poem, but Beowulf tells someone, Hrothgar, I think, that when he was younger, his kinsman never thought much would become of him. But look at him now, see. I held onto that. My failure didn’t matter. I was a hero, not a monster shitting my pants. No, I conquered monsters, including the one from the train platform. Maybe it didn’t matter if no one ever knew. I knew.

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Get it? Ik gehorta đat seggen there was a woman who figured stuff out and lived to see another day.

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Or, Hwæt, if you prefer. Just, it’s always a story I’m telling.

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Who was the poet whispering in my ear, telling me which part to play? Now I’m all like, some part of me faced the host, the assembly, the opponent, what have you, on the train platform, held onto the bench, looked away from the train, stopped going to the station at all when the voice got too loud, said Fuck you, Hildebrand, I’m not letting you kill me, even though maybe stepping back feels partly like failure. And where’s the honor in that? But figuring out how to fail is the most probable end to this story, even if it does mean—well, what it meant was needing help. Was looking in faces and seeing their mirrors and there was one face, the most important face at that time, that wore a seed of disgust and fear, confusion and helplessness, even though I’d managed to avoid the unthinkable and never once shit my pants. Not in public or private. My bowels remained an impregnable fortress. The battle took place on all the meadows surrounding the fortress but the drawbridge didn’t fall. Lucky for that. Again, again, how many marks can one person have against her? I already was only combing my hair with my fingers and thus developed several matted snarls that could only be removed by the cutting blades of a sharp pair of scissors. Ik gehorta it’s hard to take care of yourself when you’re sick and it is. It’s the effort in the face of the sick that makes up the epic. Not that the Hildebrandslied is an epic or anything. Like I said, it’s only 68 lines. But it’s a poem about heroes all the same, or some estimation of heroes acting foolishly, and that’s what I was, a fool, continuing on my own to face the beast, my opponent, the voice of freezing cold intensity, the one who came welling up whenever I waited for the train.

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Then comes recovery, the rest of your life. The rest of my life. Mucking about on Sunday mornings, years later, with old poems over coffee. Wanting to leave traces of yourself, myself, on everything, a mark that I have been here, there, in all the places of the back-and-forth and in-between, now, and ten minutes from now, and for hours, days, weeks, months, maybe even years after now. Because why not? Why ever not? The battle has left the meadow and I’ve walked across the drawbridge to a different beginning. The trick is: what words should I use to describe what defies description? Don’t answer. There is no answer. Instead, it’s a question, continuous.

MY SELF-CARE PROBLEM

It’s a cycle. Terms get appropriated and take on wider use, and in the process, I think, almost always broader meaning. But also in the process, I think, these terms can lose the meat of their meaning. And then, the question is, how do people who need to convey the original meaning of the term make their needs known?

 ‘Triggered’ is a perfect example. I think about this a lot. How do people with PTSD express these days that they are actually triggered when everyone on the internet throws this word around, makes fun of this word, overuses this word to describe mild discomfort, you name it.

 I think a lot about this in terms of self-care too. Back in the day, my various therapists and psychiatrists, as well as any other mental health workers involved in my care, used this term to describe non-pharmaceutical interventions that I could effect on my own to help manage what has been diagnosed differently over the years (mostly because the symptoms have changed over time), first called bipolar disorder, then schizoaffective disorder, and now happily back to bipolar disorder. (There was a big helping of PTSD in there at one point too.)

 Basically, my self-care involves stuff like eating healthfully, consuming as little added sugar and caffeine as possible, steering clear of alcohol and street drugs, exercising regularly, keeping morning pages, and living one day as much like the next as possible. (This basically means doing stuff at roughly the same time every day. Having a schedule creates regularity. Regularity, in turn, can do a lot to create stability. LOL though, because my current job makes this impossible and I am struggling a lot as a result.)

(10 Jan 2019 UPDATE (happy, happy): My job no longer makes self-care impossible. Turns out all I had to do was write a firm email outlining my scheduling needs. Turns out Germans really respond to firmness. It’s not even a problem…and life is better already. Thank goodness.)

 During times of crisis, my self-care might look different. Time to amp up the self-care, I might say to myself when I first notice symptoms. At this point of my life, my biggest challenge is fighting off the manics so these days, increased self-care might look like doing a lot of (relaxing) yoga, totally cutting out caffeine, added sugar, and alcohol, going swimming, spending some time with my mandala coloring books, listening to relaxing podcasts. Getting depressed self-care involves some of these things as well, but also revolves a lot around curling up with steaming mugs of tea while reading Neil Gaiman. Suffice it to say, I know what works for me.

 It also strikes me that a lot of these things on my list could be construed as generally healthy and good for anyone. And in fact, the term self-care has really taken off among everyone and their cousin and I see it mentioned all the time on the internet, and on the one hand, in this cruel, confusing world we all live in, I think it’s excellent that people are focusing on taking care of themselves to live and fight another day. On the other hand, I no longer know how to explain that I have to engage in self-care. For me, it’s not any kind of optional. It’s not, I will feel a lot of unpleasant discomfort if I do not engage in regular bubble bathing. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself, I don’t actually have anything against baths, in fact I enjoy taking them, it’s just that…they seem to take up a lot of oxygen in the most obvious, overdone, mass-market conceptions of what self-care is.) But substitute bath for any number of things and the result is the same.

 No. Unpleasant discomfort is not what I’m talking about. Without self-care, I’m talking about a descent into potentially life-altering illness, and thanks to the suicidal feelings that sometimes accompany episodes of mental illness, death, or at least some harrowing hours/minutes/days grappling with the idea of it.

 And that’s a big, super-important difference. Living with unpleasant discomfort versus living with the specter of illness and/or death.

(If you ask me, anyone dealing with any kind of chronic health condition who engages in self-care to manage their symptoms is working along similar lines. In other words, it’s not just about feeling good, it’s about avoiding falling ill, or at least being able to live with illness.)

 So here’s my problem. I have to do self-care. For example, I have to work out as close to every day as is humanly possible. It’s not a luxury. It keeps me functioning at a basic human level and does a lot to keep my mood stable and anxiety at bay. It’s also true that most people feel better when they exercise regularly. How could this be a problem?

 My job sucks and if I can’t figure out a way to even out my schedule, I’m in deep shit. I can’t go three days in a row without exercising because I have a ridiculous schedule that has me arriving at work at 8 am and leaving first at 7:30 or 8 pm a few days a week. But that was my life for a few months. And, unsurprisingly, I started to get manic.

 But I also can’t explain the situation. Nor can I so much as voice a concern, because then I’m told that we’re all in the same boat, even though this is almost assuredly not true because we almost assuredly do not all have bipolar disorder.  

Brief aside. Being told to toughen up is the worst when it comes from someone who has possibly never faced what you’ve faced or vanquished what you’ve vanquished. That is the one big drawback, I think, of life with a hidden condition. It’s a struggle unseen, and therefore a strength, even a tremendous strength at that, also unseen. And largely erased.

I don’t feel comfortable talking too much about my job online, but suffice it to say that my one non-resolution resolution for 2019 is to maybe be a bit more of an asshole and not give a shit what other people think about me and put myself first, because if I don’t, no one else will. And not because I’m a super magical princess who deserves to live a super magical life, but rather because I don’t want to get sick. And I think that’s an acceptable thing to want.

And maybe do some other stuff I really enjoy more often. Like drink more smoothies and golden milk and stuff. Try to read thirty-five novels instead of twenty-six. (I read a lot of poetry too last year, and some nonfiction and other stuff too. But I want to make 2019 my year of the novel.)

That is all. Thanks for reading.

ON LOSING AND REGAINING PERSPECTIVE

Despite the bemused smile, I had a somewhat craptacular weekend.

Despite the bemused smile, I had a somewhat craptacular weekend.

CW: I briefly talk about suicide here, but no specifics.

 

I guess it was Suicide Prevention Week 10-16 September. I noticed a lot of social media posts about that and gave myself an occasional pat on the back for having successfully navigated through all that awful terrain to come out on the other side, not really even all that worse for the wear. But then…

At some point last year, I read an awful essay online in which a clear narcissist claimed that her “friend’s” suicide was a blessing in disguise because, really, the “friend’s” life was such a train wreck. I had some feelings about that (and my diagnosis was the same as the “friend’s”), and I wrote a response that you can read here. Basically, I made a list of experiences I was glad to have had (stuff like “sex,” “being an aunt,” and “coming from behind to win a relay”) and pointed out that those incredibly good things always exist in the history of my life. I then pointed out that one of the big problems with mental illness is that it can cause a person to lose perspective in a big enough way that all the good things seem unimportant. They seem like nothing at all.

Perspective is everything, or at least it’s a lot. Perspective can’t make us not poor, or not sick, or not whatever, but it is a way to see past whatever terrible moment the present might be dangling in front of our eyes. You know, in order to see into a possibly better future. This past weekend I was reminded that perspective is also really, really easy to lose.

Thanks to an organizational fail, I missed almost half my meds last week. Just the morning dose of the mood stabilizer, so the physical withdrawal wasn’t immediately apparent. (If I miss a dose of my night meds, there’s some genuine agony involved.) I guess I thought my extremely irritable bladder, 4 am wake ups over a period of several days, and bizarrely intensified sex drive were merely examples of my body being weird. Nope though.

I finally figured out what happened when I caught sight of my am meds tray sometime this past Sunday. For some bad reason, I had stuck it in the kitchen cabinet, which is never ever the right place for it. Out of sight, out of mind, unfortunately. By that time, my mood was also in the toilet. By Sunday afternoon, I found myself hunkered in front of the computer, slouched over, unable to move, feeling overwhelmed because I was supposed to go out to dinner that night. I understood in that moment how great I’ve always been at faking that everything is alright and look, isn’t my life a splendid adventure, let me prove it to you with these photos I’ve just posted to Facebook. There’s the added matter of living in Europe and getting to do things like travel and have a somewhat better quality of life that if I were in the US and not having to worry about health insurance. It becomes hard to say that, no, in fact, everything is not always grand. Suffice it to say, in that moment on Sunday, I knew I didn’t have what it took to fake anything. The thought of sitting in silence in a restaurant, pushing food around on my plate, or worse, coming up with inane small talk, kind of devastated me.

Maybe that’s the exact moment I started to lose perspective because I started imagining scenarios. You know, methods. Out of exhaustion, I think. Out of bewildering doubt. It all felt pretty awful in an almost all-consuming manner.

I posted something stupid and vague to Facebook that was really my way of saying: Someone please rescue me from the emotional hell I currently find myself in. Basically, I always want to be pulled away from the brink though sometimes it’s hard to get to a better place on my own. But the post itself was about something else.

Then I thought some more about being over and about how drastically tired I felt and also how unused I was (and am) to feeling despair. I’m a pretty even-keeled person on any given day. Analytical, cheerful, and if anything is ever wrong, maybe sometimes a little bit detached. There’s a bit of a sanguine thing I have going on.  A tiny bit of Spock mixed in, though unlike Spock, I’m not usually confused by emotion. Not this past Sunday though. Nopity nope nope.

What I realize about perspective, now, and maybe even did on Sunday, is that the practice of not losing it entirely is quite possibly in some part a function of experience. In that, I’m forty-two, not twenty-seven. In that, I’ve been through this before and come out all right, so somewhere inside me I know I’ll probably come out all right this time too. But the thing about suicide is, once you’ve explored the option, you always kind of know it’s there. Probably the only thing to do is to teach yourself that it’s a bad option.

I don’t know. I felt like utter shit. But at that point I walked into the living room, explained to my husband about the missing meds, again, that I felt like utter shit, and that I had no desire to go to dinner. He was very sympathetic. I still felt like my mood was in the toilet, but much less overwhelmed all the same. I wasn’t going to have to fake anything in a restaurant that evening. A tiny bit of pressure, off. Faking being okay is a special kind of depleting and can make everything much worse, in my experience.

Then a close friend, a local, sent me a Facebook message regarding my post (which was about how I felt my Facebook self was awfully curated and how overwhelming that sometimes feels) and about how, yeah, she felt that way too sometimes. Anyways, we got to chatting, and I explained the entirety of the actual situation, and her response was really cool.

Over half a week later, I’m back on my regular dose, and yes, yes, I feel like myself again. (I know everybody has feelings about meds, and I certainly have mine. Hint: it’s a complex issue and sometimes I think one thing rather than another thing only to change my mind. However, I’ve definitely encountered people who act like meds are mostly a negative because they somehow diminish the true person. What I have to say about that: I enjoy living life as a sanguine Mr. Spock more than as anyone else I’ve ever been. This doesn’t mean I don’t feel passion, because I actually do. I just don’t experience self-destructive fits of it.)

I don’t have too much else to say other than another word about experience. I’m pretty big into practicing self-care and I think this is ultimately what pulled me far away from the brink this past Sunday. As in, self-care is enough a part of my life that when I finally hit an actual crisis, it became kind of automatic. As in, my mind caught itself engaging in a pretty destructive mode of thinking and shunted over to: You feel like shit. Shrug off a responsibility [dinner at the restaurant], go make a cup of tea, and climb into bed to read some Neil Gaiman. That is actually how I spent the rest of the day, at least until I took a much-needed nap.

Again, my essay from last year included a list detailing a number of experiences I’d had that I felt were important, but again, easy enough to forget during a crisis. I figure I’d end this with a list of comfortable things that, at the very least, help me pass the time when I feel like shit. Friends aren’t always nearby. There’s something to be said for self-soothing.

Without further ado:

·         The writing of Neil Gaiman—He is my go-to author when life gets weird, or I’m feeling excessively neurodivergent, kind of like I don’t fit in this world, or I just plain old can’t concentrate on anything else.

·         Graphic novels and comics in general—Again, pretty easy on the brain, but often intelligent and worth some genuine mulling over. I also have a growing collection of Dutch-language graphic novels and comics, and the process of figuring out the Dutch is kind of my version of putting together a jigsaw puzzle. (For a native speaker of English who is fluent in German, reading Dutch is not much of a stretch.)

·         Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries—Please don’t make me explain this one to you. Instead, if you don’t already understand, just watch for yourself. I think you will come to agree that Phryne Fisher is the bee’s knees. In general, occasional marathoning through selections on Netflix or through my DVD collection can provide a place to be and a way to pass time during especially troubling hours or days.

·         Geo Epoche—This is a German-language popular history magazine that puts out themed issues, with stunning illustrations. I’ve acquired quite a stack. Paging through an issue can be hypnotic and a way to engage with curiosity, even if all I’m doing is reading captions.

·         Physical activity—Even if it’s just stretching, going for a walk, or a few sets of push-ups, moving often makes me feel at least a little bit better. In general, I try to do cardio every day and weights every other day, which seems to be doing a lot to keep me at a baseline level, where even “I feel terrible” is not as bad as it could be.

·         Mandala coloring books—If for no other reason, a really nice adult coloring book is a reason to splurge on high-quality colored pencils. Anyways, psych wards have crayons and pictures to color in for a reason. Coloring is genuinely relaxing and a good way to create some mental space but not quite as strenuous as those dreaded (in my book)…da da da dum…mindfulness meditation exercises.

·         Hanging out with my cat—My cat is actually a tiny, furry psychiatric nurse. Enough said. Okay, this is not technically self-soothing. This is being soothed by an adorable little beast who purrs constantly whenever I pet him. But, I mean…

That is all.

ROUTINE, WITH UNICORNS

Unicorns make everything better. They really do.

Unicorns make everything better. They really do.

Esmé Weijun Wang is a writer I follow on Twitter and whose newsletter I subscribe to. You can check out her website here. I read and admired her 2016 novel, The Border of Paradise, which is full of juicy, gothic goodness, and started paying attention. After learning that we have the same mental health diagnosis and that she also writes for people who are specifically dealing with balancing ambition with having limitations, I really started paying attention. Her eBook about productivity journaling, available here, came into my life at a time when I really needed it. I’ve been doing it for five weeks and five days, counting this morning,--this is the longest I’ve kept up a routine like this--and I’ve noticed a difference in my stress-level and in my attitude toward getting things done.

I’m not going to say much about the actual process of productivity journaling here, mostly because you can read Esmé Weijun Wang’s excellent instructions, but I will say that I’m keeping the process fun for myself by using different colored pens for each section of the journal and by marking each day’s date with a cute animal sticky note. (So far, I’ve used owls, foxes, and cats.) I also keep all of my productivity journaling materials in my unicorn rucksack.

Yes. I said that. I have a unicorn rucksack. It is basically a black sack with a screen-printed white unicorn on one side. Very classy. I also have a beige tote bag that says in big pink letters: “Komm Einhorn, wir gehen…”

This literally translates to: “Come on, unicorn, we’re going…” but I choose to see the situation as such: My unicorn and I are at a party, but we are done socializing, so I turn to my unicorn and say, “Come on, unicorn, let’s go,” which is kind of code for: “Come on, unicorn, let’s blow this pop stand and go home to watch Netflix with the cat because as we both know, that is where true happiness lies.” Obviously, what I am saying here is that my unicorn and I are one hundred percent simpatico, and though I don’t know if that’s a word in English, I think you know what it means. (A French lady used it in a conversation we were having once, and I liked it.)

Anyways, unicorns aside, I am the kind of person who really, really thrives on routine and structure. Even when on vacation, I try to impose some structure and on the occasions I don’t, I find myself getting weird and anxious. But it is possible. However, too much structure, or better said, boring structure, inspires rebellion. Too often in the past, I have thrown off the tyrannical chains of self-imposed structure, basically because I wanted a little breathing room, only to find myself desperately in need of that structure all over again. Suffice it to say that colored pens, animal sticky notes, and unicorns are keeping this particular try at structure fresh and fun. Hopefully, I’m not jinxing myself by writing about this.

(Another thing that is keeping my morning routine fresh is the Daily Guidance section of my productivity journal, which, again, you can learn more about here. Basically, I read some poetry and follow this with some deep breathing exercises. Right now, I am working my way through Emily Dickinson’s oeuvre.)

I also schedule fun stuff, relaxing stuff, as part of my daily tasks. Because I am ambitious. But I do have limitations. I cannot keep up with my peers in the sense that I’ve always noticed I need a bit more down time than they generally do. So scheduling tasks great and small as well as more relaxing type of activities is helping me stay balanced and focused.

Also, since I’ve brought up mental illness, please read this op-ed by Rebecca Chamaa in Teen Vogue to find out what was actually offensive about Anthony Scaramucci’s bizarre on-the-record rant to a New Yorker reporter.

Later. Until we meet again, I’ll be riding my unicorn through the streets of Bonn (and following my morning routine, of course).