The week that was

This week I sat in a (Zoom) class for people (mostly parents) supporting someone with a mental illness. It was our third session. It was the “tell your story” session. It was brutal.

(I will not be telling my story here. It is, of course, my story, but it also isn’t. This isn’t a place I feel safe to tell it.)

We all bore witness for well over an hour to each others’ stories. There were differences in our experiences, but motifs emerged: resistance to support, depression, sleep disturbances, anxiety, mania, delusions, eviction, housing issues, substance abuse/addiction, financial problems, police visits, medication failures, hospitalizations, treatment centers, rehab, broken relationships, estrangement, incarceration, abuse, assault, PTSD, anger, frustration, sadness, grief, powerlessness. Love. Overwhelming, heart-breaking, life-breaking love.

It was a lot.

This week on my local Nextdoor, someone wrote about a man at a busy intersection who, for the second day in a row, was walking around naked from the waist down. Lengthy threads–about obscenity laws (or lack of them), police responses (or lack of them), mentally ill support services (or lack of them), penalties (or lack of them)–ensued. In the midst of one thread, a woman shared that she wants to kill herself. Four people responded to the woman, but more than 30 (I stopped counting) continued yammering on at each other about laws, police, services, et cetera et cetera ad infinitum ad nauseum.

There’s more than one way to be naked in the street. Most people aren’t going to stop their cars to help. I closed my laptop and cleaned my oven, which made me think of Sylvia Plath. We don’t do what we can’t.

This week I got a rejection that was so encouraging it almost felt like an acceptance: “We admired your essay, but we’re going to have to pass this time. “Resistance” reached the final round of our decision-making process. We would love to read more of your work, and we hope you will submit to XXX in the future.”

It’s the only writing I’ve submitted anywhere in the last year. Speaking of not doing what we can’t. It was a micro-essay about mass shootings. And ice skating.

I want to write about that class. I want to write about these people–us people–who gather in virtual rooms at the end of days that look ordinary to everyone else and unzip our normalcy suits to let the alien life we carry inside us breathe a little freely for a few hours. I don’t know how to write about that, any more than I know how to help the half-naked man or the woman who wondered if she should burn herself up in the house her grandmother and mother once lived in.

One person suggested that, perhaps, the explanation was simple: The man was without pants because he had no bathroom and had soiled them by defecating in them, and he had no others to replace them.

My daughter wants me to compete in an in-house ice skating competition at our rink. I want to want to, for her sake, because she wants me to and I like to do things that make her happy. It’s so easy to make her happy, really. I don’t know how to explain why I don’t want to. There are decades of layers of feelings I’d have to scrape away to get to it, and they all feel both inconsequential and as if they’ve been baked in by years of harsh weather, like paint on an old house. I feel too tired to scrape.

I began working with a new therapist this week. The session was exhausting. The whole time, I wished I was skating.

I want to write about that class because it flattened me, the collective weight of suffering we humans carry. Not just our own, but also that of those we love. Not just the weight, but the invisibility of the weight. I want other people to see what I saw. It feels like something that should be seen. I also don’t want to write about the class, the weight, the invisibility. I don’t know what words to gather, how to arrange them, how to share them without causing harm. Anything else I might write about, though, feels trivial. And how can anything else I might write about from the last week–the skating competition, the rejection notice, the pod of whales that stopped the ferry I was on, the first day of the year for sipping a beer in the sun on the front porch deck–be as true as they might be if I don’t write about the class? How can those things be anything other than trivia?

There is conflict and disruption brewing at my brother’s home for adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. I can’t really write about it here. Or anywhere. But I have spent a lot of time this week thinking about autonomy, and about what it means to live in a “safe home” and to have a “meaningful life,” words from the home organization’s mission and vision statements. I have been thinking a lot about my brother and my parents, especially my mother, who at 79 is still, literally, on the regular, cleaning her child’s bottom.

I didn’t think my brother was a person who qualified me to sit in that virtual room, but he does, too. Of course he does. Visibility sledge-hammers denial.

We humans are so dumb. I say this with anger, frustration, sadness, grief, powerlessness. And love. Overwhelming, heart-breaking, life-breaking love.

One blogger I follow seems to be wrestling with purposes for writing her blog. Another is wrestling with resistance. Or has stopped wrestling with resistance and is becoming resigned to “the way everything’s a giant tire-fire and *has* been for the past three years at least.” At least. Another published a post that told truths about our giant tire-fires that she was afraid could cause later harm to those she cares for, and so she censored herself after publishing it–something I did, too, a few posts back. (Maybe I’ll do it with this one.) All resonated for me, this week.

There is writing, and there is submitting.

Screen shot from Merriam-Webster dictionary for "submission": 
: a legal agreement to submit to the decision of arbitrators
: an act of submitting something (as for consideration or inspection)
also : something submitted (such as a manuscript)
: the condition of being submissive, humble, or compliant
: an act of submitting to the authority or control of another

A few weeks ago, I said to someone I love: “It seems like maybe you’ve been white-knuckling your way through life for about the last 10 years or so.” But maybe I was talking about myself as much as them.

I have trouble submitting.

The essay about shootings and ice skating is not something I’ve shared here. It really was of a moment, and the moment has passed, so I likely won’t. If you want your writing to appear in a “real” publication, it generally has to be exclusive to that publication. It can’t have been previously published, and if I had shared it here it would have been considered published. I learned this week that some editors are beginning to think differently about this, which I appreciate, but honestly: in a week (in a world, in a time) where a nearly 80-year-old mother has to worry about who will wipe her son’s bottom when she can’t, and men walk half-naked down the street and “neighbors” respond by bickering about obscenity laws and mostly ignoring a woman who proclaims her desire to kill herself, and aging parents unpack their deepest traumas and fears in a virtual room to a facilitator who will observe, “you have all been through a lot of heavy shit,” and a person wonders if a man with no pants simply (simply!) soiled himself because he didn’t have a bathroom, it becomes hard for me to think that where a piece of writing is published matters more than that it is.

Why was I so surprised by the things revealed to me in that virtual room?

I rode the ferry twice this week. I’ve ridden it so many times in the last month that I’ve stopped getting out of my car to better take in the spectacle of expansive water and sky we are traveling through, but I did get out on the second trip this week to see what I could see of a pod of whales swimming across the ferry route. They seemed to be taking their sweet time. The captain of our large barge brought it to a stop, submitting to the fins we could see in the distance poking above the surface of the water. Others on the car deck also got out of their vehicles, and we stood at the bow and helped each other know where to look. We arrived late to our destination, which I didn’t mind. I liked that there are beings we will surrender our schedules to care for.

The application for the skating competition is still sitting on our dining table. I can’t bring myself to fill it out. I don’t really know why. My daughter’s reasons–about community, encouragement, revising the past–are good ones. But something inside me is resisting: An audience changes things. I want to just skate. I don’t want to be judged.

Will I share this post on social media, where people I’ve known since kindergarten might stumble upon it? Probably not.

I want to write that I was surprised in that class because all I’ve ever seen of mental illness were its fins poking above the surface of the water. I want to write that I’ve occasionally caught the giant body of it leaping above the waves, giving us all a glimpse of its size and power and strength, but that, mostly, you know, the whale lives down below the surface of our days, our lives, our society. Maybe those sentences would be true, even though I stopped counting the number of family members and friends who qualify me for the class. (We humans are so often so dumb.) Here is something I know is true: That class took me under the surface. That class was a place I don’t want to belong. I did not–do not–want to submit to belonging there. (I have resisted belonging there.) But I do and I have. Submitted.

Also, it was the first day of spring this week, and one glorious afternoon we sipped a beer while sitting in chairs on our front deck. We talked about plants we want to plant and smiled at the neighbor boys playing in the street, remarking to ourselves about how much they’ve grown since last year. We turned our faces to the sun, grateful for it. I’m guessing that the people who looked at us as they passed by have as little idea of what our week was really like as we have of theirs.

10 thoughts on “The week that was

  1. Ally Bean says:

    Your front deck is glorious. Perhaps not enough to keep you from all that is on your mind and weighing on your soul, but a start. I had a weird week, people-wise. Not intense like yours, but enough to make me wonder about how I fit into where I am. I’d suggest taking a deep breath, detaching from what you think you’re supposed to do, then figure out what you want to do– both about your skating and your writing. Nothing very profound but simple [simplistic?] advice. Thanks for linking to my blog, btw. Much appreciated.

    • Rita says:

      The front deck is pretty glorious. It’s not a place to start so much as it is a place to pause. Putting it in was money well-spent. Hope your coming week feels better than the one just passed. I don’t know exactly where you are, but I think I know enough to say that I would also find it hard to fit in there.

  2. Kate says:

    I don’t know what to say. I have so much I want to say.

    For as cold as it is, we still have a sizable number of people who are homeless/transient, and our Nextdoor can look similar. I wonder about the people who talk about the law and calling the cops and how something must be done. I want to better understand the world they grew up in. I wish they better understood ANY one else’s.

    Isn’t amazing at how much goes below the surface? I wonder that too as our neighbors walk by us sitting on our porch (it’s almost 50 and sunny today). The fin, the enormity of the whale – what a perfect metaphor for mental illness. (And how amazing to me to think that just HAPPENS as part of spring life where you live.)

    I hope you find support in your class. It sounds like a lot…but also nice to be with others who get that loving someone can be a lot. Too much even.

    For what it’s worth, I think it’s okay to want to not want to compete. Even if would make your daughter happy. Even if there are good reasons to do it. You not wanting to is a plenty good enough reason to not. (I know you know this already, but I also know it’s nice to hear from someone else what we know already).

    And shock of all shocks – I suck at submitting. Just the word makes me feel squeamy. (That’s probably the fundie background.)

    Sending love. Thank you for unzipping the normal suit this week with us here.

    • Kate says:

      Also – I forgot to say I’m reading The Winners right now and they keep saying “We save who we can.” So when you write “We don’t do what we can’t.” It seemed to echo that.

      • Rita says:

        I abandoned that one; I’d love to hear what you think of it. Maybe I’ll get back to it. I do remember that being repeated.

    • Rita says:

      It is so nice to write for someone who understands what I am saying; thank you for reading as you do. And thank you for reminding me that is is pretty damn awesome to live in a place where freaking WHALES swim by. That doesn’t happen all the time, but it was pretty cool.

      As for Nextdoor, well…I usually don’t click through as a way of caring for my own mental health, but the snippet got me. Recently a street near us was closed off by police, and I did appreciate that I could go to ND and immediately knew what was going on. So many people on there write such mean, nasty, ignorant things. It is hard for me to love my fellow humans when I read for very long. Like you, I wish many understood other peoples’ worlds.

      The class is really good–it’s through NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness). I’m learning a lot of things that I need to learn. A friend recommended it, and I’d recommend it for anyone who provides support to someone who is struggling.

      I don’t have the fundie background (though growing up Catholic is probably close enough), but I hear you on the squeaminess of submission. So much going on right now that demands we NOT submit.

      Sending love back.

  3. Marian says:

    I have to echo Kate: “I don’t know what to say. I have so much I want to say.” I wish you didn’t find yourself having to belong to that zoom class, Rita. It sounds like it was brutal, but I hope something helpful does end up coming out of it as you continue with it. (If you continue with it, that is.)

    This paragraph really hit home for me, although I admit the full import didn’t hit me until after I googled Sylvia Plath and oven: “There’s more than one way to be naked in the street. Most people aren’t going to stop their cars to help. I closed my laptop and cleaned my oven, which made me think of Sylvia Plath. We don’t do what we can’t.” I know my own daughter sometimes wonders at some of the things I don’t do that she thinks I can (or should), but then she doesn’t know the full extent of what’s lying under the surface of her mother. I don’t know if you would say the same of your daughter, but I suppose I just wanted to tell you that I understand what it’s like to have your adult daughter encouraging you to do something you really don’t want to do.

    “Unzip our normalcy suits” brought to mind the book The Myth of Normal by Gabor Maté. (I haven’t read it, and probably won’t, but I just thought I’d mention it. It’s gotten mostly great reviews and many people are saying it’s a helpful book.)

    Wishing you a better week, Rita.

    • Rita says:

      Thank you for the book recommendation. I hadn’t heard of it, but from the reviews it sounds as if it fits in with so much of the work I’ve been doing the past 8 months or so to address my sources of chronic pain. I’ve put a hold on it at the library.

      I’m not sure how it is for you when your daughter wants you to do something you don’t, but I usually feel torn because I can see the potential benefits. That’s the case here. Sometimes I need a nudge or push out of my comfort zone. I remember once when she was about 8, I took her and her brother to a playground. It was a day I felt especially depleted, and all I wanted was to sit on a bench and read my book, but she begged me to play with her. I tried to put her off, but she put her hands on my shoulders, looked me straight in the eye, and said, “Your inner spirit child wants to come out and play.” Well. I gave in, and about 10 minutes later I finally sat down, out of breath and feeling so much better. She let me go then without any protest, but as she was turning away she said, “See? I told you she wanted to play.” It spooked me a bit; I felt like she was tapped into something I couldn’t see. So, I pay attention to her invitations and think hard when I want to turn them down. 🙂

  4. TD says:

    I sit on my front porch to watch the sunrise and watch the morning walker’s go by very much like you sit on your front porch in the evening.

    This statement, Rita, is so true! “people who looked at us as they passed by have as little idea of what our week was really like as we have of theirs.”

    This morning one of the regular walker’s came up to my porch for a bit of a chat. She, her husband and two sons live on the street behind my backyard. We had a conversation this morning that reflects your statement. So very true!

    • Rita says:

      Hi TD,
      I am glad you have a sitting porch and neighbors who will stop to chat. I always like it when folks stop (or at least slow down) to say hello.

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