Marriage and Personal Struggle: Dept. of Speculation, by Jenny Offill

I’m back, or so I hope! I had a hard time motivating myself to write over the last few weeks but I’m hoping to now slowly get back into the swing of things. 

I have been reading my books, though, so I have some reviews to catch up on. I’ll start with one of my favorites from the summer, Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill.

I first spotted Dept. of Speculation under the category of “Mystery and Thriller.” I skimmed the blurb which described it as a suspenseful tale of marriage and motherhood and immediately decided that it was right up my alley.

It turned out to be completely different from what I expected. First, it’s a slender book at 160 pages. And when you flip through it, all you see are what appear to be little paragraphs. Indeed, the structure is unconventional. The book reads almost like poetry and the nameless narrator (sometimes “I,” sometimes “the wife”) jumps from one thought or short vignette to another. Offill’s lyricism reminded me of Paul Yoon’s beautiful Snow Hunters.

The story is a first-hand account of the changes in a marriage, and one woman’s slip into depression and the impact on her marriage and ability to parent. It is about the realities of marriage – about how chasms build and how difficult it can be to bridge them. There is an element of suspense, because her struggles hit a climax and as readers we hold our breaths to find out what happens, but I would most definitely not classify this book as a mystery or thriller.

I found such beauty in Jenny Offill’s writing. The book is small but each word is pregnant with meaning. She throws in a number of literary and scientific references, including many about living in space. But all of it is relevant. And she conveys just as much in what she chooses not to write. Here is a passage that really stayed with me:

So lately I’ve been having this recurring dream: In it my husband breaks up with me at a party, saying I’ll tell you later. Don’t pester me. But when I tell him this, he grows peevish. “We’re married, remember? Nobody’s breaking up with anybody.”

“I love autumn,” she says. “Look at the beautiful autumn leaves. It feels like autumn today. Is autumn your favorite time of year?” She stops walking and tugs on my sleeve. “Mommy! You are not noticing. I am using a new word. I am saying autumn instead of fall.” (page 46)

And here is a space reference:

Survival in space is a challenging endeavor. As the history of modern warfare suggests, people have generally proven themselves unable to live and work together peacefully over long periods of time. Especially in isolated or stressful situations, those living in close quarters often erupt into frank hostility. (page 56)

“The wife” never tells us she’s anxious about her marriage, or that she is slowly falling apart as a mother and human being. I recognize her depression because I have been there: Anxious when marital longevity has deceived us into thinking communication unnecessary; fearful that my mood swings will one day drive my husband away; guilty about how absent I am as a mother even when I’m physically there. It’s eerie, how I picked up this book during a depressive relapse, thinking it was going to be some literary version of Gone Girl and instead hearing the whispers of another woman speaking right to me. “The wife” and I do not experience the same marital crisis, but I could relate to what goes on inside her head.

It’s a book that I am planning to re-read, and this time with a pen and notebook, in order to pick up on everything that I had missed the first time around. It’s a surprisingly intimate read given its brevity – a little somber, sometimes irreverent, but ultimately hopeful. Most of all I just found it very real.

The Masks We Wear Over Depression and Anxiety

I am so grateful to all those who stopped by last week when I wrote about anxiety, and to those who commented with words of encouragement, told their own stories, and/or shared my post with others. The piece, to my surprise, was the most viewed post (in one day) that I have written on this blog.

Of course, me being me, I thought, Crap, I should have done a better job writing it. The topic is so vast, and my experience so entrenched, that I almost didn’t know where to start.

One thing that I have been wanting to write about – and I confirmed this after hearing the stories of friends and readers – is the mask that so many of us battling depression and anxiety feel compelled to wear. The outer us and the inside us. The visible versus the hidden.

Story after story shocked me, because never in a million years would I have guessed that these people struggled with something as debilitating as anxiety and/or depression: dedicated parents, a head of department, a published author, Ph.D. students, a passionate college instructor, a high-end New York designer, a top-ranking management consultant.

The irony is that others might say the same about me. I’ve got the elite names on my resumé to project a certain kind of image, and I’ve been described as “fierce” and as driven and confident. I’m both flattered and amused by the descriptions, unsure about their accuracy.

My self-image is distorted, of course, by my personal knowledge of my struggles. I admit to somewhat dismissing or at least downplaying my strengths and achievements because I experience, sometimes at a high level, the human emotions of insecurity and fear. Maybe we are shocked when we learn about “successful” people suffering because we believe achievement and anxiety (and depression) to be mutually exclusive, that somehow success cannot coexist with mental or emotional difficulty. We can be extremely anxious at the same time that (or perhaps because?) we are extremely competent, but in making public only the proud self we perpetuate the belief that anxiety does not exist in the happy, smart, and capable.

My friend, a teacher who once asked me to help with one of her music classes, had no idea how much internal debating I required before I could say yes. I had to look up the address of her class, enter it into Google driving directions, ascertain the 6-mile-long route to see if I could comfortably navigate it on my own, check with my husband’s schedule, debate whether it was worth pulling him from work to drive me, and check both our schedules to see if he could do a practice run with me if I decided to drive on my own. After stressing for days without getting back to my friend, I finally decided to tell her the truth and ask for a ride, even though I knew it meant adding another task to her already packed schedule.

“Sorry to be lame…”

“You’re not lame,” she told me. “I can get you.” 

In the same way, my on-line book club members have no idea how much stress I went through in the week leading up to our first on-line chat. Back and forth, back and forth I debated over whether I should cancel. I hated the way I looked on video. I worried about sounding dumb “in real life.” I did not feel like interacting live.

But I went through with it, because I knew I would feel worse about myself if I didn’t. And it turned out to be wonderful. When it was all over something in me lifted at the same time that something else – a shard of fear – fell away.

One of my readers wrote in her comment last week, ” . . . you have to remember that success is built in increments, and that by getting through daily tasks, you’re accumulating success all along even if you don’t realize it.” I think I’m old enough to be her mother, and there she was giving me something brilliant to take away. And I wouldn’t have benefited from those, and so many other warm words had I never dared take off the mask. The thing about opening up is that the fear of someone’s reaction is by far more frightening than the actual reaction. The real thing – when the other person is real (and you don’t need her if she’s not) – is unexpected, disarming, and heartening. Where you expect a ditch you’re given a bridge, and an outstretched hand that says either “I’m proud of you” or “Me too.” Either way, the hand beckons “Come here,” and the arms take hold and envelope you.

 

 

 

My Battles with Anxiety

I have to thank one of my readers/blogger friends for mentioning in a comment once that she suffers from anxiety. It was her honesty that emboldened me to acknowledge my own relationship with anxiety. Since then I’ve struggled whether to write about this personal issue but ultimately decided that if my words can bring comfort or validation to one more person – as this blogger friend did for me – then I am willing to do it.

I think that I’ve failed to acknowledge my anxiety until now because it has been a part of me for so long…so long, in fact, that it became my normal. As a child I suffered constantly from headaches and canker sores. I had trouble sleeping and eating, nearly falling off the growth charts, and I often dreaded school, gym class, doctors’ appointments, my father’s days off, swim lessons, the company of certain girlfriends, and the attention of boys.

Anxiety has evolved with me as I’ve gotten older, both increasing and decreasing in intensity and in ways that have baffled me. How did I once speak so comfortably before audiences of 200+ only to end up losing sleep over a dreaded Skype call with five people? Why was I once able to maneuver the maniacal streets of Boston but am now unwilling to drive further than five miles from my house in our small town? Equally perplexing, I was terrified of water my entire life and yet eagerly learned to swim just three years ago.

I was at my best during those first several years that I was bold enough to move to and live in Asia. From being the sole woman manager in a foreign company to entering a permanent relationship to having a child overseas, I was reveling in that wide space outside my comfort zone. And then one day, without my realizing why, my world began to contract. Once ordinary events and tasks became a strain for me: driving, being in groups, having a busy schedule. Since I work from home, I have a fair amount of control over my day-to-day. And I’ve been coping by managing my surroundings to meet my comfort level.

But like taking Tylenol to control your fever, you can’t really know how sick or well you are. By controlling my environment, I was comfortable, but also masking what needed to be healed.

I finally began looking for a therapist when I realized I was single-handedly downsizing my life. I love this quote by Anaïs Nin, which came to me two weeks ago as if from an angel: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” My therapist told me that the things we avoid eventually hold power over us.

I chuckled and cried when she complimented me for “functioning as well as [I am] – for having a job, for running a household.” What does that say, when you are praised just for living and surviving? But she was acknowledging the decades-old traumas that still have their grip on me. I cried for the majority of that session, in a catharsis that began to drain the stagnancy in my body. By the time I got home I felt a peace and lightness that was alien to me. I found myself breathing steadily and calmly, and looked forward to moving on with my day. Is this what normal people usually feel, I wondered. A few hours later Max and I went out for lunch and to run errands. We were on the freeway, with me in the passenger seat. I looked down the road that for once didn’t look so intimidating and said to him, “I would be able to drive today. If I can feel like this all the time, I can drive.”

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Coping and self-soothing

I was surprised yesterday when sitting down to guide Fred to plan out his homework schedule he said, “I want to be calm before I do math, so I’m going to play piano first.” My thinking was to get the hardest homework over with first, but Fred chose to read and play music instead.

It made me think about how, when and if one learns to self-soothe. I grew up in a stressful household but also in a family that didn’t “talk.” It wasn’t part of our culture to discuss feelings and besides, my parents didn’t have time; they were so focused just on surviving. But it’s human instinct to find or create coping skills, however immature or ineffective they may be in the long run. As a child I spent a lot of time reading and daydreaming – activities that took me, at least mentally, far from where I was. My little brother and I, using our stuffed animals, created an entirely new family complete with its own history and life.

As an adult I often relied on a busy schedule. At one point I was active in a handful of volunteer activities and joined a gym on top of a full-time job. My mother remarked that it was as if I were trying to numb myself by keeping every minute of my life occupied. Maybe I was. Maybe I was afraid of what I’d feel if I had time to feel.

I’m so grateful for all of your support last week when I posted about my inertia. Since I wrote that post I’ve had a great week. It is pretty amazing how much things can fall into place once you make that first change. Since joining the gym I’ve looked forward to going back each day, and since decluttering the dining room I’ve moved on to the kitchen. I also began doing small things: getting out of my pajamas and putting in my contacts before work (I work from home and usually rush to start due to my clients’ time zone), eating breakfast before 9:30, drinking more water and less juice, leaving my laptop in a different room and on a different floor after 8:00 p.m., and noticing my tone around my family more and apologizing when I need to, even for small things. I didn’t notice all the ways I had not been taking care of myself until I started to do it.

I feel I need to do all those things first before I can think about the more commonly thought of self-soothers like massages and aromatherapy candles. I’ve done that, along with the scented shower gels and lotions, and now I know why they hadn’t worked for me; I hadn’t taken care of my body’s most basic needs first.

I’m not sure why I’ve been so neglectful of myself. There are, of course, those intense years of early motherhood when the last person on your list of priorities is yourself. Those are the years that you eat standing up, fold laundry and cook when you should be napping, and throw talcum powder in your hair instead of washing it. Those years have formed a habit. Except I think I was kind of negligent even before I became a parent. While I’d taught myself to escape as a child, I never learned to stay and feel better.

This week Fred had an unfortunate incident. It wasn’t good, but it wasn’t the end of the world. He locked himself in his closet, sobbing, “I just want to die!” It was a wake-up call because I saw myself in him. It was just a week ago that I had felt and cried the same thing to my husband. An article on suicidal thoughts says, “Often we don’t want to die; we just want the pain to end.” When you’ve never had a chance to properly face and process difficult emotions, they can easily become overwhelming…and crippling and threatening. And then eventually life itself becomes overwhelming, and even taking basic steps for self-care becomes difficult.

I know that my 9-year-old wasn’t literal about wanting to die, but I do know that he was feeling something more powerful than he could handle. He wanted to be anywhere except where he was at that moment. I know. I have been there…many times and over long years I have been there. I’ll make sure that Fred is never there alone, and that he knows he is stronger than anything bad he feels.

How do you cope or teach your children to cope with life’s more difficult moments?

Overcoming inertia (and living with ‘depression’)

Please give me a hand because I had two major accomplishments this week: I started decluttering the house and I joined a gym. 🙂

It’s been a long road to these two mundane achievements. I’ve had depressive tendencies for most of my life. Though I still have some qualms about telling people, I’ve become pretty open about it. It’s a part of me the way being introverted or being sensitive is a part of me. I see it in some of my family as well and so I know it’s in me and in my blood (or perhaps in my neurotransmitters). But it doesn’t make me weird (I don’t think) and no one who’s ever met me would ever describe me as sad or depressing. I’ve done well in life – at school, in my career, in my personal relationships. But having had a major depressive episode during college means that I’ve learned to live with this little bomb inside my body, wondering when and if it will ever go off again. In recent months it has, to some extent, though this time more often as a by-product of hormonal fluctuations.

I’ve sometimes asked Max, “Does it feel like a lot of work for you to make dinner? Is it easy for you to get out of bed in the morning?” At some point during adulthood I had a nagging suspicion that how I feel sometimes is not how normal people feel.

On bad days, doing the simplest things like preparing a meal or going to the bank feels like this: You’ve just come home from a 12-hour day at the office and you are being asked to then walk five miles to make a presentation before 200 people. Exhaustion and dread color the simplest tasks of living.

I’ve had some bad days more recently, and it was enough to scare me into making some serious changes. I love my family so much, and my friends. I have it good but when your thoughts are distorted you just can’t see all that you have, how privileged you are. You can’t see that pain is temporary and small compared to all the joy and love you have but can’t feel at that moment. I told Max and a couple of good girlfriends what I was going through because this time I didn’t want my struggles to fester in secrecy. I am grateful for those breaks of clarity.

One of the things I wanted to do was to create serenity in my surroundings. So I reached in and found enough energy to clear off the dining table to start with.  You don’t have to do the whole thing if you want to make a change. Just enough to get moving, to break out of that inertia. The first step is the heaviest and the slowest.

After the dining table, I moved on to the kitchen counter, and then the t.v. area. I intend to declutter the whole house over the coming months.

Yesterday I joined a gym. Since I broke my ankle a year ago my favorite yoga teacher had to temporarily close up shop and I haven’t resumed my exercises. But the lack of physical activity was, I really believe, literally killing me, one small minute at a time.

I didn’t like the gym, to be honest. It was all men and I felt self-conscious even though it wasn’t like anyone was looking at or bothering me.

I stepped on the treadmill first and selected “Fitness Test.” It had me walking at different speeds and inclines and then asked to put my hands on the sensors to measure my heart rate. After the six-minute test, the following message scrolled across my control panel, in red caps: “YOUR PERFORMANCE LEVEL IS VERY POOR.”

I almost had to laugh, because this was a most unexpected message in this age of positive reinforcement and self-esteem boosting. I was expecting the machine to say ‘CONGRATULATIONS’ but instead it told me I sucked! The honesty was refreshing, actually, because I really am out of shape and I need to be scared straight, basically. It was pure boredom and torture being in that gym but as I read the message scrolling by over and over I became resolved to come back to this gym as often as I can.

The gym is across from the supermarket where we normally shop. That is a major reason why I selected this gym, and it was part of my itinerary to hit the market after my workout to get groceries for dinner. Though I walked out of the gym unenthused, I noticed that I walked out of the market lighter and brighter. I went home starving and eager to start dinner. I would’ve whistled if I knew how. The endorphin rush came more like a drip, but I’ll take it. I’ll keep taking it.

~~~

I do want to say that in cases of serious depression, people cannot just “snap” out of it. If you know someone whom you suspect may be depressed, please take initiative to offer your most non-judgmental support. If you are feeling depressed, please, please reach out to someone.

Keep walking

I’d struggled to write for the last few weeks.

We reached a domestic code orange when we came back from our spring break trip in early April. For the first week we were all tired and uninspired. The house was in disarray and it was a struggle to get Fred to stick to his daily routines and homework assignments. Then the Boston Marathon bombings happened and the clouds and rain took up residence over our town. Max stepped up to the plate while I wrestled with guilt, self-criticism, and an internal debate over whether or not I should seek therapy. Because behind the lethargy was an undercurrent of anxiety and loss of purpose that I have only recently begun to acknowledge.

During all of this, a former client paid a visit from the UK. His visit forced us to make the house presentable. This has been an area of struggle for me for as long as I can remember, and as an adult I have wondered if all this time I have been suffering with an undiagnosed case of attention deficit disorder. Deep down, I knew that our lack of organization in the home was also a prison of chaos for our son, making his completion of daily tasks distracting and difficult.

We cleaned up. Got rid of all the paper that made my waking hours a living hell. Cleared our tabletops. Set up a gigantic white board checklist for Fred. As soon as we organized our house, everything clicked into place. Fred checked off his tasks one-by-one and by the end of two weeks we were high-fiving and hugging one another over his achievements. Of course, he improved in his time management because we removed the noise that had been drowning him.

Clearing my physical surroundings made it possible for me to begin making sense of the static that was inside my mind. And I finally admitted that maybe I was not okay. I have certain anxiety issues that I have conveniently ignored, that Max and girlfriends have so kindly worked around. Driving makes me anxious, for example, and I am dependent on rides if going beyond the confines of our small town. While I never loved driving, at least when I was younger this fear never really stopped me; it took more work but I would make it my goal to get to where I needed to be. I’ve since stopped pushing myself in this way. The risks outweigh the benefits, I would tell myself. But this is not okay. It is not okay because I am letting my anxiety over driving and other areas box me in at an age when I should be heading toward self-actualization. But I have harbored these secrets because I am competent and professional, and I am at an age and stage in my career where I am supposed to be confident, not afraid.

Being present – acknowledging, admitting and doing – has helped me swing out of these up-and-down three weeks. I was so traumatized by the cleaning job we did that now I deal with every piece of clutter as soon as it presents itself instead of waiting for it to accumulate. I’ve re-started my walk/jog program post-ankle surgery, having so far moved from a snail’s pace of jogging 20 seconds to jogging 30 seconds for every two minutes of walking. Someday, I think, I might go for a 5K. Or drive to the next city to meet a friend for lunch. Someday I might do more to help expand our business. Somehow, I’d let my dreams for myself and my goals for self-improvement fall away the moment I began nurturing someone else’s life as a mother.

Especially since I broke my leg last summer I’ve learned to accept that improvement can often only inch along. As it is often said, any journey is made up of many small steps. I don’t need to run. I just need to admit that I have to take that first step, and to keep walking.

Are there areas in your life that you’d like to improve? Do you also have issues with anxiety?

How to grieve a public tragedy

I wasn’t happy with my post on Tuesday, the one in which I’d written about Boston.*

All of it was true – the way Fred asked me how I’d felt, the way he gave me permission to feel bad, the deep, deep indebtedness and pain that I feel toward the city that gave me life. But I wrote it all from a place of self-consciousness. I held back. I put up a front. I thought, the only way people will come to read this piece is if I tell them it’s not a depressing piece. I fenced in my emotions and plagiarized the optimism and fortitude that I’d read about and already seen in so many people.

The thing is, I don’t know how to grieve. I don’t know how to grieve for a public tragedy and for one in which I don’t have any direct connection to the actual victims or survivors. But it hurts, and it hurts me in a way that is different from the Oklahoma bombing and even the 911 attacks. It hurts so badly because it happened to a place that I see as my second mother.

And I didn’t know what to do with my feelings. Of course, I called my parents and talked to my brother briefly. Max got it all in stereo. Fred got the abbreviated PG version. Close girlfriends and I exchanged very short messages. But really, what can you say? A good friend of mine offered to talk. But she’s busy, and I couldn’t imagine dialing her up while she is trying to juggle school pick-up and grocery shopping just to make her listen to dead silence occasionally punctuated by a sob in the background. No, at this time I probably needed to be alone…to be alone and yet not all by myself. So I went to Facebook. It is there that I learned of the explosions in the first place as well as found an instant gathering of friends, including childhood friends in Boston.

Grieving on Facebook made me feel better until it did not. And I’d go in this cycle over and over and be too stupid to just sign off. It’s an easy place to grieve. You can identify those who feel the same as you do and, through mutual sadness and anger and bewilderment, you find company. But not everyone meets you there; in fact, the majority doesn’t, or some do, but sporadically. You try to control yourself and only update your emotional state twice a day, and you think you are helping the public by sharing articles that offer newsworthy updates or some eloquent meditation on what has happened, swearing, to God, that this “must-read” will be the last (for the day, anyway). You do this because for you it’s cathartic, and because, you hope, it might bait some friends to come over and make you feel less alone. But slowly, you fear, your Facebook friends are tuning you out. Or perhaps they’re so consumed by their own grief that they cannot deal with Facebook. Or perhaps they don’t know what to say. Regardless, you are left back where you started: What do you do with your feelings?

It all happens in such vastness. It isn’t our grandmother dying, where there’s a place we can all go to and feel connected. When large, distant tragedies hit we shed tears with our hands clasped over our mouths across state lines, across oceans and we want to hold someone’s hand and yet so many times we are doing this in front of a screen. During Sandy Hook and Boston I wanted to reach out and hold more than just my husband and my son. I wanted more but I didn’t know where I could find these other hands. Maybe the reason I’ve turned to Facebook is because when so many invisible people are hurt, I need to go to the biggest place I can find.

And with vastness comes diversity. I have learned, through Sandy Hook and now through Boston, that we all deal with and process our feelings so differently, and yet how we do it impacts how others around us can cope. There’s the person who can’t stop talking about it and the person who wants to shut it all out. Put them together in a common space, like Facebook or a house, and no one’s needs get met.

When no one talks then it can be easy, at least for me, to assume that everyone else is moving on. Everyone is coping, and everyone is doing what she needs to do to not let a couple of bombs get in the way of Being There for her children. Many girlfriends say to me that they just turn off the news; it is too upsetting and they just turn it off. I allow myself to believe that they can do this because they are made of better maternal fiber than I – that in times of crisis and down-to-your-knees emotion they still have the mental clarity and wherewithal to carry out their priorities.

On the day after the bombing I blogged about Boston and then I failed to make dinner. Max had to take Fred to his after school activity, and I told him that I couldn’t cook. I just couldn’t. Because cooking would mean going to the supermarket and going to the supermarket would mean getting showered and getting dressed. I’ll change to go out for dinner, but before that I couldn’t.

And things continued like this. My body started to feel heavy, like I was on the verge of catching the flu. My head, neck and shoulders ached. Fred asked to do something with me and I said no. At night I scolded him, longer and more harshly than was necessary, because he was slow to get into bed. Rather than talking back, he just clamped his hands over his ears. Yet still, before he drifted off to sleep, he reached for my hand as he always does, and whispered with his lips brushing my cheek as he never fails to do, “I love you too, too much.” He is a third-grader, just like the little boy who died. I got to hear my son tell me that he loves me; Martin’s parents never will.

Yes, I hated myself at that point.

After Fred drifted peacefully to sleep – a privilege I realize I can no longer take for granted – I opened my computer, and I read my friend Alexandra’s blog post When Your Heart Tells You to Stop. She talked about her day after the bombing. It was uncannily similar to mine. She could barely cook. She’d walked out of the auto shop forgetting to pay for the work done on her car. She was unsettled and unfocused and hurting.

It wasn’t just me.

It isn’t just me.

It is because of Alexandra’s post that I can feel, let alone write all of this. Before it I was bombarded in every direction by Fred Rogers’ quote, the one about how in bad and scary times we should always look to the ones who help. There were messages galore about looking on the bright side and being resilient and bouncing back and having hope, and that became the message I believed I needed to feel and to own, right away. We Americans are very strong and very forward thinking and very optimistic. I take so much pride in that, but on the first day and even on the second, I just wasn’t there yet. I couldn’t race my emotions through. Call me slow but for the life of me I couldn’t muster up the strength to move on, no matter how many people, it seemed, were already on that other side. How those people got there so fast, I don’t know. Maybe they are wired differently. Maybe they found all the right support. Maybe they turned off all the news. For me on those first few days, I just needed to hurt, to say, This Sucks, and to have people tell me, I know.

*I’ve since edited my post Boston from Tuesday, because I owe it at least that. I’m happy with it now.