Thursday, January 28, 2010

Fresh Chives

The only thing harder than being depressed is trying to hide your depression from others. My mother was valiant in her efforts to do this, but since depression rolls in like a big fat tsunami, there is always some inescapable leakage. Even if she could have fooled me by entering my bedroom each morning singing “Good morning, merry sunshine!” through gritted teeth, I’d have found her out later when I saw my bag lunch.

Her sandwiches were symptoms not just of depression, but of serious suicide ideation. Indeed, if wanting to kill yourself came in a can, she would have mixed it with mayo and slapped it between two slices of rye. But since it did not, she gave me hunks of ossified chuck roast that only a rabid coyote could bite through. At that point I’d be the one who was hiding. Hiding, that is, my mother’s pathology by throwing out the suicide sandwich before even one of my classmates could see it. Sometimes it felt safer to go home for lunch. Until third grade, when she brought me the bowl of cold cottage cheese.

“Wait a minute,” she said as I raised my spoon. “I’ll get some fresh chives out of the garden.”

She dashed out the back door to pick them. My mother grew up on a midwestern truck farm where she and four sisters plucked asparagus stalks from the earth while teenage boys yelled "Sit on it, ya dirty polacks!" as they sped by in clanky jalopies. She grew up to love vegetable gardens, and to hate, in equal measure, all men.

After she snipped the chives over my bowl, I ate up my lunch and walked back to school. It was later that day, when I came home at three, that things went just slightly amiss.

“Are you feeling all right?” she asked in a quavery voice as soon I walked in the door.

I’d rarely experienced feeling all right, but not yet aware of this, I answered yes.

“How’s your stomach?” she asked.

My stomach was fine.

“Well,” she said. “That’s a relief.”

She’d been worried, she told me, about those fresh chives. After I’d gone back to school, she’d realized they weren’t chives after all, but some kind of poisonous weed. She’d been waiting by the telephone all afternoon in case the school nurse called to say I was sick. It was, she said, with just the tiniest gleam in her eye, such a relief to know that I was all right.

My brain turned into a carnival tilt-a-whirl. Phone calls, I knew, could travel both ways. Shouldn’t my mother have called up the school to warn someone that I just might barf and keel over dead? Shouldn’t she maybe have called up a doctor? One of my doctors? As a skinny asthmatic, I had about eighty.

I didn’t sleep for two years after that. Honestly, I had third grade through fifth grade steady insomnia. It was partly the chives and partly the horror movies Vincent Price kept starring in at the same time. “Premature Burial.” “The Pit and the Pendulum.” I saw them all and then spent my nights trying to come up with surefire ways to avoid—even if it was by mistake—the unspeakable fate of being buried alive.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Black Flag

There’s another small problem with writing a memoir: If your family’s still living, there just might be lawsuits. This hadn’t even occurred to me till the phrase flew out of my older sister, Mrs. Pep’s, mouth. If I addressed certain family, shall we say, issues, I was, she told me, to expect lawsuits. Not one lawsuit, mind you, but suits in the plural. Which, I surmised, meant she planned to file one suit per issue until they constituted a modern “Bleak House.” Since I’d pretty much rather be shot than be sued, I deferred to all her restrictions but one. I asked if I could still mention the rooster.

“There was no rooster,” Mrs. Pep snapped.

Which brings me to the other hazard of writing a memoir: the flurry of revisionist history. As I told my esteemed shrink (and husband-to-be) Dr. Mars, I wanted to explain to my readers how my family had made me mentally ill. Without this explanation, I said, my book would never make any sense. I’d lived my life as a paranoid, yes, but only because both Mrs. Pep and my parents had, from the start, been out to get me. Mrs. Pep warned me daily that I would die before turning sixteen, and because she was eerie and five years my senior, I had no choice except to believe her. She never said outright what would cause me to die, but I figured it out after she told me what killed the rooster. Said rooster had tried to ruin Mrs. Pep’s country cabin Easter vacation by waking her up at the crack of each dawn, so she’d sprayed him with a can of Black Flag. Which, I was sure, was exactly how she’d take care of me. It might take several cans, but so be it.

“That never happened,” the adult Mrs. Pep had insisted. “I must have made it up just to scare you.”

“That’s even worse,” I’d said. “That is Gaslight!”

As I relayed this sisterly exchange to Dr. Mars, he seemed to take on the rosy French contours of the film’s leading man, Charles Boyer. Shrinks, I knew from experience, could gaslight patients without hardly trying. What would I do if Dr. Mars tried? Bring Black Flag to our next session? Did they still make Black Flag? Would I have to bring Raid?

Then I relaxed, which is almost always a dangerous idea, but I really believed only god, if she existed, could gaslight me at this point in my life. I’d been gaslit way too much in the past. By masters, by misters, by rascals, by roosters. Starting with my own mother when she served me a lunch of large curd cottage cheese.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Basset Hound

I felt sure Dr. Mars would make a fine husband because, for one thing, he read The New Yorker. This meant that every week we’d have a new issue to talk about, and when that got dull, he’d give me the dish on his funnier cases. I understood he could not do so now, as professional ethics got in the way. He couldn’t gossip with me as a patient, but what about when I was his wife?  That, I was certain, would come under the heading of pillow talk.

Not that there’d be any pillows involved. We would, as I’d planned it, enjoy separate bedrooms in separate wings of what I imagined to be his already paid off, gigantic house. We’d conduct what the French call le mariage blanc. We’d have to, lest we fall into the cesspool of incest, for I would be playing the unbalanced daughter to his perfectly balanced and good Doctor Dad. As for the unspeakable force known as ess-ee-ex, perhaps Dr. Mars would look the other way if and when I could con the delectable Mack into making a visit.

As I told Dr. Mars, Mack was and still is the born-again Christian Republican cowboy who’s refused to marry me for the past fifteen years. This very admission reminded me that I wasn’t just plagued by writing a memoir, but by my lifelong atrocious choices in men, some of whom would appear on the page. Unlike my two sisters, both older and younger, I was the one who’d never been married. Before I’d gotten medicated for the exhausting affliction known as depression, I had indeed played house with some of my boyfriends, but only because I felt too abandoned by, well, pretty much the whole universe and the process of evolution itself, to endure the existential angst of living alone. I’d just needed to know that someone was there, and could just as happily lived with a dog. Except, and here was another Catch-22, I did not like dogs until I took meds.

Dr. Mars liked dogs and proved it by showing me a picture of his basset hound, Trudy. It took me only a second to realize the picture had been taken inside his office, with Trudy morosely posed on the couch.

“Did you notice,” I asked Dr. Mars, “that Trudy is sitting in the exact same spot I’m sitting in now? That you’ve equated Trudy with your own patients?”

He had, he confessed, never realized this, and wasn’t so very impressed with it now.

“Only a writer would see it like that,” he scoffed, taking back the picture of Trudy.

Could he be right? Did everyone else, from plumbers to astronauts, see only the dog and not its crazed context? Was it because I was cursed with the writerly gene that I'd always seen everything exactly “like that”? I’d never thought of this as a problem because this way of seeing was the only thing that kept me laughing. Even then I knew I’d go home, imagine Trudy looking hung over on Dr. Mars’ puce-colored couch, and laugh at it all over again. For perhaps half an hour. While I was alone. Which, of course, was just one more thing that qualified me as a bona fide mental.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Memoir Dilemma

When I first began seeing the esteemed Dr. Mars, my little sister and father were both still alive. My mother was gone, and while this fact was and remains unfathomable, it hadn’t yet rearranged all my brain cells to the point where I saw her at Trader Joe’s. That is to say, I did not run into her babyhood self. Her adult self, yes—I saw her everywhere, waiting for buses, exiting shops.

But that wasn’t why I sought Dr. Mars. Dr. Mars’ task, as I explained to him at our first visit, was to make sure I completed my memoir without ending up in a loony bin. Whatever this took--be it massive doses of psychopharmaceuticals, inane hippie aphorisms, or a chair and a whip—he was to use every tool in his box.

The basic conflict, I told him, was that I didn’t think memoirs should even exist, unless written by someone truly worthwhile, like Eleanor Roosevelt or maybe Dick Clark. For the generic person to think his or her story was important enough to be inflicted on others was, I added, the zenith of hubris. Unless it was the nadir of hubris. That was another problem with writing a memoir. You had to keep coming up with the right words.

The biggest hurdle, however, was knowing the ending at the beginning. You’re supposed to know how your memoir will end before you even begin it. What’s more, it’s supposed to end on a positive note to keep the readers from killing themselves, which, let’s face it, is not good for sales. Au contraire, the readers are supposed to be inspired by your ultimate triumphs, even if you have to make them all up. Never mind that making them up turns your memoir into something called fiction. Since fiction, as everyone in publishing knows, does not sell unless it’s John Grisham’s, you have to call it a memoir regardless. Which means you could wind up on TV getting yelled at by Oprah.

Dr. Mars, whom I suddenly noticed was movie star handsome, pointed out that no one could force me to write a memoir, that I had the option to back out any time. Shrinks are all about pointing out options. They like to pretend there’s a thing called free will.

“Money,” I said. “I have to earn money.”

And there was the rub. If I wrote the memoir, I’d end up in a bin. If I didn’t write it, I’d end up in the street. Or, like Blanche, dependent on the kindness of strangers, or worse, of rich friends, which I’d already tried once to disastrous effect. Clearly, my only real option was to make Dr. Mars want to marry me, after which he’d support me for life.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Talk about being mentally ill . . . .

I ran into my dad at Trader Joe’s yesterday, which is odd because he passed on last year. “Passed on” is a term I used to disdain, but now that most of my family has done it (passed on, that is), I'm a big fan of euphemism and hear the word "died" as far too crass and corporeal. Inaccurate too, because what I’ve discovered through the surprisingly lively process of grief is that my parents and sister have not died at all. They have passed on—but only to an iffier venue, the mismanaged locus I know as my brain. I watch them in my dreams every night, and often run into them during the day. Indeed, the Trader Joe’s sighting of Dad wasn’t new (I've seen his white head bobbing through Mollie Stone’s too) but, since grief is no more static than life, it had a new aspect: he was a baby. A dark-haired baby Ukrainian sprite, looking out from his seat in his mom's shopping cart.

The sprite was one of those babies who looks adult early on, with his well-defined nose already pronounced and ears that stuck out like wings from his head. But it wasn't his features that made him my dad so much as it was his worried expression. His little brow was already knit, and his mouth was pursed in a perpetual O. His black button eyes were wide open, as if on alert, and, frankly, he looked astonished to be there. And what else could this baby dad be? He never believed in a Christian afterlife, never mind in the shock of reincarnation.

I stared at the sprite so hard and so long I thought his mom might have me arrested. And what excuse could I make for myself? That I wanted to be introduced to this creature who was surely, no question about it, my dad? They'd have had me hauled off in under two minutes--either to jail or a loony bin. And since the only goals I ever set for myself were to do my best to stay out of both, I forced myself to get out of the store. I did not even wait to check out my groceries. I left them behind along with my dad, and drove home feeling, at alternate moments, ecstatically happy and grievously wretched.

At least, I thought as my mood swung both ways like a pendulum on crack, this will be a good thing to tell Dr. Mars. Dr. Mars, my excellent shrink, has been keeping me sane--okay, vaguely functional--for over two years now. I like him because he's older than god and also because he has an M.D. This means not only that he can prescribe, but that once, long ago, he cut up cadavers.

That, plus his being ten minutes away and covered by my overpriced health plan, makes him the best shrink a mental could have. For this and many other such blessings (the very existence of Trader Joe's, for example), I am almost always humbly grateful.