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.
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.