Tag Archives: thirty

May Day (M’Aidez)

3 May

I’ve read a lot of historical fiction in my time. Too much, probably. Especially during my formative years. As a kid I read a lot of Rosemary Sutcliff‘s books, the earliest of which are so very English and charming and achingly nostalgic that I spent far, far too much time daydreaming about what it would be like to live in Tudor London, wear a kirtle and spend my days working on a sampler.

It’s been a cold, grey, miserable spring so far but then yesterday, May Day, the weather suddenly smartened up. The trees have finally put forth quivering, fragile, little buds, so tiny and compact that it’s hard to believe that they’ll ever unfurl enough to provide any kind of shade. The magnolias are starting to open their pinky-purple blossoms, and the bluebells, crocuses and daffodils are everywhere.

All of this gives me a funny sort of heartache, like I’m missing out on something that I’ve never known, and never will know.

Oh, I know that it’s ridiculous, and I’m thirty, and when am I ever going to grow the hell up, but you guys? I wish that May Day was still a thing. I want to go out before dawn and bring in the May. I want to sing madrigals as the sun is coming up. I want maypoles and morris dancers and May Queens and all of that stupid shit. I want bonfires, and the moon, and the cold, starry sky. I mean, we don’t even get to have stars anymore. At least not in the city, anyway.

I guess what I really want is some kind of communal way to celebrate the coming of spring. I want to be able to mark the passage of the year, from the barrenness of winter through the promise of spring and the fullness of summer to the dead lands of autumn and then all the way back to winter again. I want some way of measuring my life other than stingy little increments of twenty four hours, each hour chopped up and neatly ticked out in precise little seconds. I’m so tired of days – Mondays, workdays, weekdays, holidays, day, days, days. They seem so cold, so clinical, so entirely devoid of meaning.

I taught a late class tonight, and as I walked home the air was warm and heavy with the scent of fresh earth and flowers. Through open windows I could hear soft laughter and the clink of dishes, sounds of happiness and comfort. The kids were all out tonight, smoking pot on park benches, their bored, drawling voices floating towards me on the breeze. Some of them were playing on the swings, their sneakers flashing as they swung in and out of the streetlights’ glow, always daring each other to further, faster, higher.

Everything is unbearably lovely, much more lovely than it should be. Nights like this make me feel as if something ought to be made out of them – a story, a song, a play. Otherwise, what purpose do they serve? Surely they don’t just exist for our enjoyment. Surely we’re meant to do something with them, meant to find a way to explain or celebrate their perfection.

I get so damn tired of feelings sometimes, the way they crash over you, threaten to drown you, and then slowly recede, leaving you wet and stinking and covered in seaweed. I think that in my next life I’m going to come back as a robot that’s incapable of feeling obligation or regret. I think that that would be nice.

Queen Guinevere's Maying by John Collier

Queen Guinevere’s Maying by John Collier

Nostalgia Machine: On Re-Watching Girl, Interrupted

1 Apr

Those of you who are fairly new to my blog may not know this, but on days when I’m not busy kicking the patriarchy square in the nuts or deconstructing inaccurate Facebook memes, I like to indulge in a little bit of nostalgia. Well, maybe a lot of nostalgia. Then I tweet extensively about my my indulgences, and sometimes end up writing about them here.

Which is all to say that I re-watched Girl, Interrupted the other night and now I want to talk about it.

I saw Girl, Interrupted in theatres, when it first came out, and it gave me a lot of Feelings. Actually, it gave me one main Feeling, namely that I basically was Winona Ryder’s character, if slightly less gamine and winsome. I mean, I was a depressed teenager who had a) frequently contemplated suicide, b) felt lonely and isolated, and c) wrote obsessively in serious-looking leather-bound journals. Of course I identified with the film version of Susanna Kaysen.

Every single scene, every thought, word, and action in that movie struck me as being perfectly, achingly true. Every time Winona Ryder looked at the camera with her wide, tearful eyes, every time her mouth trembled with emotion, every time she stared sadly off into the middle distance, I thought, yes. Yes, I get this.

Then, a few years ago, I bought Girl, Interrupted on DVD, fuelled by memories of how important it had been to me. But after watching it for less than an hour I had to turn it off. It was awful, unbearable even. The performances were overwrought, the dialogue ridiculously, almost comically, dramatic. I was embarrassed that I’d ever even liked this movie, let alone identified with the main character. I put the DVD back in its case, stuck it on the shelf and didn’t touch it again.

Or rather, I didn’t touch it until earlier this week, when Catherine, my sister and frequent accomplice in nostalgic endeavours, suggested that we watch it. Sure, I said, figuring that I could hate-watch it and then later make fun of it. Maybe we could even invent a drinking game, like, take a shot every time Susanna cries over how hard it is to be a white, middle-class American. Hilarious, right? I mean, right?

Except that on re-watching Girl, Interrupted, I discovered that it had, in the last five years, somehow gone past bad and straight back to good again.

At its core, this film isn’t really about mental health, or suicide, or Susannah Kaysen’s stay at the famed McLean Hospital. I mean, of course it is about all of those things, at least peripherally, but at its heart it’s about friendship. Specifically, it’s about a sort of intense, parasitic friendship that seems to exist only between young women, those deceptively bright, canny girls just on the cusp of entering the adult world.

And maybe this isn’t the type of friendship that every girl experiences. Maybe this is just me, projecting my own pathetic history onto the blank canvas of Winona’s smooth, perfect face. Maybe I’m the only one who sees this when I watch this movie. But I know that this is a type of friendship that I’ve engaged in not just once but over and over, and maybe I still do, to this day. It’s possible that it’s a pattern that will play out for the rest of my life, or at least until I grow up and finally get some sense knocked into me.

Can you believe that I’m thirty and still talking about growing up in the future tense?

The dynamics of this specific type of friendship are as follows: half of the friendship, let’s call her Girl One, is a strong, loud, brash character who doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks, says whatever’s on her mind and gives very little thought to the consequences of her actions. The other half is someone, call her Girl Two, who is almost the photographic negative of the first – quiet, reserved, terrified of how other people see her.

Think Peppermint Patty and Marcie from Peanuts, except amplified, grotesquely exaggerated.

When I say that this friendship is parasitic, maybe what I really mean is that it’s symbiotic. As a lifelong Girl Two, I’ve always thought that I needed Girl One more than she needed me, but I wonder, now, whether that’s true or now. Maybe we’ve needed each other in equal amounts. I’ve needed someone to act out all of the things that I would never, or could never, dare to do, someone whose own loud voice might give me permission to raise mine, someone who would never sugarcoat whatever they wanted to tell me. But perhaps my friends, in turn, needed someone to occasionally hold them back, someone to steady them, someone who would listen to them and not pass judgment.

The truth is that I don’t know why or how much these other girls loved or needed me, but I do know that I loved and needed them with an intensity that sometimes bordered on obsessive. Because these girls, these loud, strident girls, had both a popularity and notoriety (not that my teenage self could differentiate between the two) that I could only dream of. People either fiercely loved or passionately hated these girls; as for me, they didn’t even bother to notice that I existed.

But these girls noticed that I existed.

And the fact is that as much as I like to think that I’m the type to stand up for what I believe in, the type to shout down the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes, the transphobes, I still sometimes need someone to give me a push. I need someone to raise their voice first, show me how it’s done, teach me not to be afraid. Because for whatever reason, these gifts don’t exist inside of me, or if they do, they lie perpetually dormant, and need to be awakened again and again and again.

On my own, I am not good at challenging authority. Not really. I need other people, people like Angelina Jolie’s character Lisa, to egg me on. And, much like Winona Ryder’s Susanna, I’m not always good at figuring out when the Lisas in my life have gone too far. I put too much trust in them, and then end up places, sometimes frightening places, that I never intended to be. I let myself be blinded by love, or at least by longing and envy, and don’t notice that some of these Lisas are downright bad news. Or rather, I don’t notice until it’s too late.

So yeah, maybe at thirty years old I do still get Susanna. Maybe there are more layers to the similarities between us than I’d originally thought.

And all that absurd dialogue and overwrought acting? This time around, they seem to me to be a painfully realistic portrayal of how teenagers actually behave. When you’re in your teens, everything that you feel is so intense, so immediate, so overwhelming that you can speak only in terrible, laughable clichés. My mother has always said that teenagers are like toddlers with better language skills, and now, watching my son struggle to express frighteningly huge emotions with his sadly inadequate vocabulary, I’ve realized how right she is.

I’ve realized that when I watched Girl, Interrupted a few years ago, what embarrassed me the most was the idea that at one time I might have spoken or acted in any way that resembled Susanna. Surely, even as a teenager, I’d been too smart, too articulate to ever behave so pretentiously. But the truth is that I was ridiculously, probably amusingly, pretentious. I just didn’t recognize this trait because all of my peers were just as overwrought and dramatic as I was.

All of this is to say that I’m now back at a place in my life where I can like, maybe even love, this movie, if only because it seems like a neatly preserved time capsule of how I thought and felt half a lifetime ago. I remember what it was like to be where Susanna was. To suddenly find yourself at the end of high school faced with choices, choices, choices, and yet not to see any of them leading anywhere. When I was a teenager, I lived in terror of being “normal,” because I worried that choosing a normal path and ending up with a normal life would make me just as grey and miserable as all of the adults that surrounded me. There would come a time, of course, when having a normal life and a nuclear family and a nine-to-five job would seem wonderfully, almost exotically appealing to me, but that came much later. When I was in high school, I didn’t understand that opting out had its costs, some of which, it turned out, I wasn’t willing to pay.

And sometimes I miss my teenage self, because even if she lacked her own voice, she still somehow managed to be totally steadfast and uncompromising in her beliefs, even if those beliefs made her feel miserable and isolated. But mostly I’m just glad that I’ve learned how to trade off one thing for another, to give a piece of myself away in order to be able to keep a different part that is more necessary, more valuable. I’m grateful to the Lisas in my life who have taught me when to stand up mouth off and, somewhat by extension, when to sit down and shut up. I’m thankful for every time I’ve had to learn the lesson that it’s important not to trust the Lisas out there too implicitly, and that I need to learn how to think for myself. It’s a hard lesson, and one that it feels like I’ve had to learn often, but it’s a good one.

Mostly, though, I’m glad that I’ve found my way to where I am.

Girl--Interrupted-winona-ryder-154518_1000_667

High School Reunions, Or The Time I Farted Publicly

15 Mar

My high school career started off, quite literally, with a bang.

A few weeks into ninth grade, I was lounging around in drama class, leaning nonchalantly on something or other, when (sorry, there’s no way to be delicate about this) I farted. Loudly.

To make matters even worse, I immediately sat up and said in the most prim-old-lady way possible,

“Oh my goodness, excuse me.”

To say that I was mortified would be like saying … actually, I don’t even know what it would be like saying. I can’t even think of anything clever enough to explain how I wanted to stab myself in the eyes every time I had to go to school.

Up until then, I suspect that I’d already been teetering on the edge of “uncool”, but that one little (actually not so little) fart sealed the deal. I was banished to High School Loser Hell forever. Although there had only been about fifteen people in the class, within a few hours the whole school seemed to know. For weeks afterwards, people would come up behind me in the hallway and make farting noises. My face turned a permanent shade of red.

Imagine being a fourteen year old girl and having to live your life as the girl who farted in class.

My dreams of ever being prom queen or joining student council or even of ever having a boyfriend were all dashed in that moment.

I mean, comedic hyperbole, etc., and I actually did have one or two high school boyfriends, but still. It felt like the end of the world.

I’ve written before about how high school wasn’t exactly great for me. Which, whatever, it’s over and I’m a grown up and I don’t care anymore because my life is awesome now. Right? I mean, right?

Except for how I apparently do care and ended up throwing a little tantrum on Facebook about how I don’t want to go to the upcoming 25th anniversary/reunion of the arts program that I was in.

(Incidentally, this is a really good example of why I shouldn’t be on Facebook, because I just use it to vomit my feelings all over the internet)

Look. It’s not like I didn’t have any friends in high school. It’s not like there were never any good times, ever. It’s just that a lot of factors combined to make me feel like an unlovable weirdo social pariah and I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to get over that.

It wasn’t just the farting (oh God, I cringe every time I type that word, STILL, EVEN NOW, 16 YEARS LATER). It was everything. It was the fact that I was already socially awkward to begin with, and I had no idea how to dress, use makeup or make myself attractive in any way shape or form. It was the fact that I was depressed, and none of the adults around me seemed to have any fucking clue how to handle that. It was the fact that we were poor and I couldn’t afford to do half the things my classmates could.

I wish I didn’t have to use the word poor, because that sounds so, I don’t know, dramatic or self-pitying or something. And the truth is that compared to a lot of people, I had it pretty easy. But it still sucked. Part of it was that I didn’t really have a lot of experience being poor; up until midway through grade eight, we’d lived in a nice area of town, I’d had decently nice clothes, and I’d never had to miss out on anything due to lack of funds.

Then, when I was thirteen, my dad suddenly left, and my mother, sisters and I moved into low-income housing where things were, well, interesting to say the least. Our next-door neighbours (who, by the way, had a ten year old son) spent Christmas day drinking God-knows-what and then taking turns going outside to vomit on their front lawn. We regularly heard gunshots going off in other parts of our complex. Once, when I was in grade thirteen, I saw a man naked and stoned out of his mind lying on the front doorstep of the townhouse across from ours. He was begging his brother to let him in. Instead, the brother called the police, who came and beat the naked man while he screamed, Oh God, please stop.

And honestly, I swear, I’m not telling any of this to you to make you feel sorry for me. It’s just that I felt like my friends, with their intact families living in their mid-century bungalows in their nice, tree-filled neighbourhoods, maybe didn’t really get where I was coming from. Or maybe they did. What the hell do I know?

Anyway, we didn’t have any money, which sucked for a variety of reasons. My clothes were ugly and didn’t fit properly. I couldn’t afford to go on a lot of the field trips my classmates did. I had to miss out on a bunch of stuff because I always had to babysit.

Oh, and I was awkward, which has nothing to do with money, but I just want to mention it again, in case you forgot. And ugly. I had acne like it was going out of style (hint: it was never in style).

All of this was somehow manageable, though, until grade eleven, when I was hit, hard, with my first major depressive episode. I cried all the time. I started cutting (which is another fact that makes me wince with embarrassment, but I figure that since I’ve already told you about the farting I may as well go whole-hog with the unflinching honesty). My grades plummeted. I tried antidepressant after antidepressant, but none of them really worked. I couldn’t sleep at night, so I started napping during class. I lost the ability to concentrate.

And you know what? Almost none* of my teachers seemed to give a shit, or even seemed to have any kind of clue what to do with me. None of them offered me any kind of help or sympathy. One of them, in fact, tried to have me kicked out of the arts package because I wasn’t putting enough effort into school and extracurricular activities. She even scheduled a big meeting with the administration and made my mother attend, which was pretty much the opposite of what I needed right then.

And like, I get it, you know? These teachers were all tired and overworked, and here I was, yet another teenager who wouldn’t do her homework and just wanted to mope around all the time. And they were so used to seeing their students fucked up on pot or acid or heroin (NO BUT FOR REALS, I AM NOT KIDDING, THERE WERE KIDS AT MY SCHOOL WHO DID HEROIN), that maybe seeing me strung out on Paxil and Prozac didn’t seem that different. I wasn’t especially close to most of my teachers, and probably I didn’t really make it worth their time to care.

But weren’t they supposed to care? I mean, wasn’t that their job?

Or maybe they did. Maybe I misread everything and misunderstood their advances and offers of help because I was just too wrapped up in my own misery. Maybe they wanted to be kind to me but eventually got tired of me pushing everyone away.

I was a fucking treat to be around in those days, let me tell you.

The real kicker came in grade thirteen, when I couldn’t even afford the twenty bucks for a student card. The thing was, without a student card you couldn’t collect participation points. And you needed those points to win a White E, which was the participation award that my school gave out every year. You had to do a ton of extracurricular stuff to get a White E, and I’d been only one of, like, three to win one in grade nine. I’d received one every year since, and I knew that if I got one in grade thirteen I would receive a Silver E which was, like, a Big Deal at my school.

But because the school wouldn’t let me collect those points, I had no hope of winning one. And while in retrospect this seems like an especially stupid thing for me to care about, at the same time it also seems incredibly petty of my school to not be willing to just waive the fee for me or whatever.

So anyway, then high school ended, and if I’d had any bridges to burn I would’ve burned them, but I didn’t, so I couldn’t. I just hightailed it the hell out of Ontario and decided to start a new life in Halifax as an Especially Cool Person Who Does Not Pass Gas In Public. And by and large, I succeeded.

Then I moved back to Ontario and joined Facebook and had to face all of my demons former classmates and mostly it was fine. I mean, actually it was all fine, and everyone is super nice and lovely now and no one has made fart noises within my hearing or anything like that. And some of the people I knew in high school are now my closest friends, and I don’t know what I would do without them. And I no longer dread visiting Kitchener because I’m afraid that I’ll run into someone I used to know only to have them point at me and say, “That was the girl we all laughed at in high school!”

But that still doesn’t mean that I’m able to look back fondly on my high school days, you know? And I definitely have a hard time celebrating the administration of a program that didn’t really want to lift a finger to help me when I was at my nadir. I get that lots of people found the program inspiring and life-changing and blah blah blah, but mostly it just made me feel like I was a talentless hack who was going nowhere in the arts world.

Mostly I’m just super jealous of everyone that had a good time in high school. Mostly I don’t want to go to this reunion because I don’t want to hear everyone else’s largely positive interpretations of events that were miserable and embarrassing for me. Mostly I’m just incredibly embarrassed that I’m fucking thirty and I’m still so insecure.

Fuck, you guys, I don’t know. High school fucking sucked, and the shitty part is that it sucked to a greater or lesser degree for everyone, so it’s not even like I get to be alone and special in my pain. I just happen to be the loudest about it, apparently.

Maybe we can just use this as an opportunity to wallow in our collective former misery together?

Maybe that’s the point of high school reunions, after all.

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*There were a few that cared. My grade ninth and tenth grade English teachers come to mind. In particular, my grade thirteen English teacher, gets my undying thanks for the kindness he showed me then and still shows me today. Apparently I did well, at least, with English teachers, hah.

Checking In

20 Feb

I know that I haven’t written here in a while (SIX WHOLE DAYS, LIKE, YOU PROBABLY THOUGHT I’D QUIT BLOGGING OR SOMETHING), and I just wanted to check in and let you guys know that I’m doing all right.

More than all right, actually. I feel better. Frighteningly, miraculously, tentatively better. It’s so new and so strange that I’m a bit hesitant to write about it yet or even say it out loud – like I could jinx it or something. But I also want you to not worry about me, so I thought I should tell you: I feel better.

I don’t know if I would say that I was happy exactly, but then I’m not sure that “happy” is the opposite of “suicidal”. I’m coming to distrust the idea of being happy anyway – I hear the word thrown around too much, hear too many people talking about how they deserve happiness. But I’m not sure that anyone deserves happiness, you know? There’s a quote from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth that the cynic in me has always loved, and I feel like it might apply here:

You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, ‘Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.’ Now how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

I’m starting to think that maybe not everyone deserves happiness all the time. Actually, I think I’m just getting tired of hearing people talk about deserving anything – I’m tired of people’s sense of entitlement, their willingness to trample over others in order to acquire something they feel that they deserve.

But anyway, I digress.

I’ve been trying to follow the hospital psychiatrist’s orders and prioritize things that make me happy, and I think that by and large I’ve been succeeding. I’ve started keeping a proper, paper journal again, and it’s actually wonderful to be able to write without thinking about having an audience (except that I basically always think about having an audience, but I’m figuring that no one will read my journals until I’m dead and thus don’t care). I’ve been taking time out of my day to go to hip cafés where I sit and scribble happily in my notebook while sipping a latte, feeling like everyone looking on must know that I am a For Real Serious Writer Lady.

I’ve been doing other things too – things like spending an hour or two at the art gallery, or wandering around Roncesvalles and checking out the cute shops. Today I went to a friend’s place and lay on her couch for three hours, sipping gin and tonics, dissecting Salinger books and watching Star Trek. It was nice – more than nice, really. And I felt like myself, for the first time in a long time. But I also felt guilty.

Let me see if I can explain the guilt. It’s like this: I constantly feel like I’m running out of time. I don’t just mean that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get things done (although I do feel that way) – I also mean in general, in my life. I feel like I spent too much time fucking off (read: being depressed) in my early 20s and now I’m 30 and all of my peers are ahead of me and I’m struggling to catch up. And I know it’s not a race, but it still feels like one, and I feel like I now have to work extra super hard just to prove that I should even be allowed on the track.

Anyway, what all this amounts to is that I have a hard time doing anything that I don’t view as useful or productive. Even spending time with Theo fits into this category, as I see parenting as a way of creating and shaping an awesome future adult. And yeah, being Theo’s mom is pretty rad, but sometimes that seems more like a pleasant side effect of parenting rather than the main point.

I also feel guilty because it’s like, who am I to get to do all these nice fun things? Like, why do I get to go out and see my friends and hang out in coffee shops while Matt has to stay home and parent? How is that fair? What if he starts to resent me?

Do I actually believe that being depressed gives me special privileges or something?

And then I think, if I were sick with anything else and the doctor’s orders were to take it easy, would I feel guilty?

No, probably not. But if I were sick with anything else, there would be blood drawn, tests run, and hopefully some kind of irrefutable scientific proof that I was sick. But with depression there is no proof, not really. You all have to take me at my word that some days, I feel like dying.

And what happens if you ever stop taking me at my word?

After years and years of talking about suicide but not actually dying, won’t I start to seem like the boy who cried wolf?

I don’t want to lose you guys. Because I love you. Because I’d be lost without you. Because your support has mostly been what’s kept me going these past few weeks.

Anyway, all of this is to say that you don’t have to worry about me, because I’m feeling better.

And that means that, at least for now, I don’t have to worry about losing you.

xoxo

Annabelle

P.S. On a lighter note, just in case you were wondering what a Shrevolution looks like:

shrevolution!

Sylvia

11 Feb

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.

Is this something that people do? Celebrate the anniversary of someone’s death? Certainly celebrate is the wrong word – mark is probably better, or even observe.

Today I am observing the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.

It’s no secret that I love Sylvia. I mean, I named my blog after her only novel (actually, I named it after what I would have called my all-girl rock band if I’d had one, but the band was named after the novel, so really it all amounts to the same thing). I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I have a weird sort of embroidered picture of her hanging on my dining room wall.

I’ve even joked about being her reincarnation. I mean, there are a few similarities between us, right?

We’re both depressed, oversharing lady-writers, for one thing. We both come from families whose finances went into decline at some point during our childhoods. Her father died when she was eight; mine left when I was thirteen. Of course you can’t compare death to a divorce, but I think it would be fair to say that those events left us both dealing with what are colloquially referred to as “daddy issues.”

Oh, and my son shares a birthday with her son Nicholas. So there’s that, too.

Of course, this is basically where the similarities end. Sylvia worked hard throughout high school and ended up attending Smith College on a full scholarship. She then went on to receive a Fullbright Scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge. Meanwhile, I burned out early in high school, too tired and sad and stupid to get my shit together, and went from being an honour roll student in grade nine to receiving mostly Cs and Ds in my final year. I did get into Dalhousie University (though just how I managed that, I’m still not sure), and while there had all As and Bs, but still, I was never the academic star that Sylvia was.

Sylvia published her first poem when she was eight, and went on to publish several poems and short stories before she finished university. One of her stories, Sunday At The Mintons, won her a coveted spot as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York.

I published my first poems and short stories, well, never, and I can’t even properly edit my own stupid blog, let alone a whole magazine. I’ve also never been to New York, although I have watched a lot of Friends and Mad Men, which is basically the same thing, right?

I guess that, all in all, Sylvia and I aren’t much alike, at least not on the surface. But when I read her writing, I feel that, as The Bell Jar‘s Esther Greenwood says about her friend Doreen, everything she writes is like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.

I get Sylvia Plath. I mean, I get her. I get her dark, sad, humour, and I get her anxieties, and I get her hopelessness. Up until now, I’ve used her as a sort of guide in the darkness, reading and re-reading my well-thumbed copies of her books, looking for passages that will get me through my fits of sadness. A paragraph here, a stanza there, a kind of spiritual sustenance to tide me over until things get better. For most of my adult life, I’ve looked up to her.

But then, for all of my life until now, she’s been older than me. Wiser, hopefully. Maybe even more mature.

What do I do now that I’m about to out-age her? She’ll be thirty years old forever, but I’ll only be thirty for a few more months.

How do I continue to look up to someone who will soon be younger than me? Will I still love her writing in 10 years’ time? In 20? Will I look back someday and, instead of finding inspiration in her words, discover that all along she’s been a boring, self-obsessed, talentless hack?

What happens when you outgrow the people you admire the most? Probably nothing. Probably it’s normal.

But in a strange way I feel that by letting go of Sylvia and moving on, I’ll be abandoning her. In a funny way, I feel that she needs me, as much as I need her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about her last few weeks alive. Not much is known about what was going through her mind, since Ted Hughes burned her last journal, but we do have a handful of poems dating from late January and early February and, of course, a few firsthand accounts.

We know that the quality of her poems changed in those last weeks, becoming less about the self, their mood more disembodied, alien. We know that her incandescent poetic rage, that rage that has made her so famous, had begun to fade in her works, replaced by a sort of resigned hopelessness. We know that she worked feverishly, producing poem after poem, trying to translate her tangled thoughts into perfectly-ordered words.

We know that Sylvia went to her doctor and told him that she felt as if she was heading for a breakdown. We know that she began taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. We know that she reached out to her friends, Jillian and Gerry Becker,  for help and a place to stay. We know that several days before she died, her doctor began trying (unsuccessfully) to find her a spot in the hospital.

Each night that she stayed with the Beckers, Sylvia would take her sleeping pills and recite a sort of monologue about all of the people who had wronged her, all the men, beginning with her father, who had deserted her, and how utterly miserable she was. She would go on and on, ignoring any questions that Jillian put to her, as if she was in a trance. Eventually she would pass out.

Having Sylvia stay with them began to be a strain on Jillian – she had to do everything for Sylvia and her children, cleaning, feeding and entertaining them. When Sylvia announced on Sunday, February 10th that she wanted to go home, Jillian didn’t press her to stay. There was supposed to be a nurse coming to help Sylvia the next morning, and besides, surely the doctor would find a hospital bed for her soon. And also, as Jillian said in the article I linked to above, pity tires the heart.

Gerry drove Sylvia home Sunday afternoon, and she wept the whole way there.

That night Sylvia left the window in her children’s room open, and shoved cloths and towels underneath their door. She also placed tape all around the door frame, to stop up the cracks. She then turned the gas taps in her oven on all the way and, placed a little folded cloth in the oven to act as a pillow, and laid down.

She was found the next morning by the nurse and a handyman working on the property who broke into her flat when no one answered the door.

By that point, she’d been dead for several hours.

Her children, though cold from having slept next to an open window in February, were fine.

And pity tires the heart.

I think that there’s a state that you sometimes get into when you’re deeply depressed. You feel as though you’re walking along a sort of knife’s edge between artistic inspiration and suicide. In an instant, all the dead, flat hopelessness you’ve been feeling gives way to an ecstatic misery. You suddenly feel as if you’ve been given a special insight into how the world really is, and you work like mad to get that insight down on paper or on canvas or whatever. And you know that you’re playing a dangerous game, but you also think that it’s worth it.

It’s worth it to go that close to the edge, if there are rare, exotic gifts to bring back.

It’s worth risking death, so that you can tell everyone else what it was like.

It’s worth almost everything, if it means that you’ll write something great.

It’s like circling round and round a black hole, getting a few inches closer each time. You’re discovering all kinds of amazing things that no one has ever known before, but you never imagining that you yourself might be drawn in.

It’s like standing at the edge of a lake of poison, and knowing that the poison, if taken in small enough quantities, will give you brilliance and genius that you’ve only ever dreamed of. The poison, if taken one spoonful at a time, will give you an enormous drive to create. And you want that. Oh, how badly you want that, want all of it.

But even though you know that the poison could kill you, you’re not overly wary of it. You’re that you’ll be able to set limits. You’re confident that you’ll be able to stop when you need to. But after taking one sip, you talk yourself into taking another, and then another. And you feel fine, not sick at all. You drink and drink and drink, and maybe even dive right in.

And it’s not until it’s too late that you realize what a mistake you’ve made.

And maybe there’s no one to save you. Because pity tires the heart.

I am trying so hard not to tire all of your hearts.

Sylvia, I am thinking of you today. I promise that you do not tire my heart.

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My Life As A Tree

14 Jan

Have you ever seen a kudzu vine? They’re all over the south, their bright green leaves waving gently in the hot, humid air. At first you’ll think that they’re kind of pretty, but once you realize that they’re capable of, you’ll never look at them the same way again.

They’re an invasive species, the kudzu vines; native to Japan and China, they were introduced to America to help prevent roadside erosion. They spread quickly – statistics show that they’re taking over the American South East at a rate of 150,000 acres annually. Kudzu will grow nearly anywhere, on anything, and its advance seems impossible to stop.

Once kudzu starts to take over a field or a forest, it slowly but surely replaces all existing vegetation. It starves the trees and undergrowth by cutting them off from sunlight; once the kudzu has done its work, all that remains is a swath of green, leafy vines, still in the shape of the things they have killed.

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Sometimes I think that kudzu is the most accurate metaphor for depression that I can come up with. Not just because, at times, it feels like I’m overwhelmed with depression, suffocated and blinded  by it, but also because sometimes I wonder how much of my actual self has been choked off, starved to death. I wonder how much of the me under there is already dead.

Like a tree that’s been covered by kudzu, I don’t look very different from the person I was. I maintain the same shape, the same colour. Outwardly, I’m indistinguishable from someone who isn’t living with depression. And if there are subtle signs that something is wrong – a funny look in my eyes, or a slump to my shoulders – well, those things are easily written off or ignored. With enough effort, I can pass as a person who doesn’t long to spend her days sprawled out on the couch watching re-runs of M*A*S*H, eating chocolate and sobbing.

I am a person who used to be happy. I am a person who used to look forward to things. I am a person who used to laugh, frequently.

It’s not hard to see how much being depressed has altered my life.

What I really wonder, though, is how much of the self I used to be is still intact. When depression first claimed me, I thought that it would be a matter of a few pills and then I would be back to my old self. Now, after years of fighting what Winston Churchill referred to as his “black dog”, years of thinking of it a disease, a medical condition, something that I could recover from, I wonder if it’s possible that the depression is me.

Certainly my life, my choices and my very self have been warped and shaped by depression. At this point, it seems impossible to separate who I really am from all the grinding misery, sadness and negative self-talk that my brain has put me through. When I think about the bad decisions that I’ve made, the not-so-great life choices and the hurtful things that I’ve said, I wonder who or what I’m supposed to blame for them. It seems ridiculous to say that depression didn’t play a part in the fact that I chose to lie in bed, crying and reading trashy novels, instead of doing any homework for basically all of 11th and 12th grade. But it seems just as ridiculous to say that I, myself, the non-depressed, rationally-thinking person who lives somewhere inside of me had absolutely no control over the situation. Surely, at some point, that part must have lacked the will-power or the desire to do what it knew was right.

On especially bad days I begin to believe that I let myself become depressed. I believe that I didn’t fight hard enough or long enough or well enough and, through laziness or lack of discipline, allowed depression to consume me.

Blaming yourself for feeling bad is a slippery slope that never leads anywhere good.

I often think about getting well. Most days it’s the only thing I think about. The truth is, though, that I don’t even know what well is, or what it looks like, let alone how to get there. If I’m being honest with myself, the way that I’m living now feels normal, because it’s the same way that I’ve been living for over half my life. I don’t remember who I was before all this started, and I don’t remember what it was like not to feel like this. I don’t remember what it’s like to get up in the morning and not dread every single thing that has to happen to me before I can finally make it back to bed again.

Someone said to me recently, accusingly, that my problem is that I don’t want to put the necessary work into getting better. The funny thing is, they’re right. I don’t. I’m too tired to do any kind of work. It’s bad enough that I have to get up every day and drag myself through yoga and parenting and writing; I don’t want to have to do any extra work on top of that. Thinking about having to work in order to get well makes me feel exhausted before I’ve even started. Of course I want to get better, but maybe the truth is that I don’t have the energy to do that right now.

It doesn’t help that I don’t really know what people mean by work. Do they mean endless doctor’s appointments? If so, check. Therapy? Check. Medication? Check. Buying self-help books that I’ll never read? Double-check. And, I mean, it’s not like these things are totally useless (except maybe the books), but they’re not really fixing anything, either; mostly they just keep me afloat until the real help arrives. Except that I’m not sure what the real help is, or if it even exists.

The other night, as I was reading through decade-old journal entries, I was struck by how little I’ve changed. I mean, my circumstances have changed, certainly, but the sadness and fear and naked self-loathing I found scrawled on those pages haven’t. Not really. I might be better at hiding those things, better at handling myself in social situations, but truth is that I’m still just as miserable now as I was when I was twenty.

Ten years is a long time to be that miserable.

I also found a quote that I’d copied from Margaret Atwood’s short story, The Sin Eater, which seems just as fitting now as it did then. It’s part of a conversation between the narrator and her therapist, discussing coping skills for her emotional problems:

‘Think of it as a desert island,’ he said. ‘You’re stuck on it, now you have to decide how best to cope.’

‘Until rescued?’ I said.

‘Forget about the rescue,’ he said.

‘I can’t,’ I said.

I can’t forget about the rescue, either.

Because it’s not a nice desert island that I’m stuck on, not one of those tropical ones where you befriend the wild animals and make bras out of coconuts. My desert island is some craggy mass in the North Atlantic, maybe off the coast of Nova Scotia. It’s grey and miserable and wet here, and everything edible tastes like cardboard. It’s always cold, even in the middle of summer. The wild animals are mean, ugly and prone to biting.

The worst part, though, is that the mainland is so close that I can see everyone I used to know going about their daily business. I can even hear them as they talk about all the things that I used to care about. And I’ve tried to get back there. I’ve built boats, dozens of them, to try to cross that narrow strip of water; you can see them there, lined up on the shore of my island, with names like Zoloft and Psychiatry and Therapy painted on their prows.

Nobody ever taught me how to build a boat, though. My crafts are hopeful, but never seaworthy.

Can somebody please send me instructions on how to build a boat?

Winter

30 Dec

I am not a winter person. Given my choice of the seasons, I’ll pick summer every time. I love the heat, and I even love the humidity. I like it when stepping out my front door feels like walking into an oven. I like the sun, the warmth, and the long evenings that are perfect for picnicking or taking your kid to the park or drinking sangria on patios with friends. I love lying in the grass and reading for hours on end. I love summer.

Winter is a tough time for me. It’s not just the fact that it’s so cold that, after coming in from a long walk, I have to stand in a scalding hot shower for fifteen minutes until I feel warm. It’s not just the fact that my muscles ache because the cold makes me tense up, makes me walk around hunched over in a desperate effort not to freeze to death. It’s not even the fact that it’s already too cold for me, and I know that it’s going to get colder still. It’s more than that, and it’s subtler than that. It’s the light, both the dim, chilly quality it assumes this time of year, and its waning quantity, meaning that we only get to see the sun for a few paltry hours every day. Even though we’re past the solstice and, logically, I know that the days will be getting longer from now until midsummer, it still, somehow, feels as if the days are growing shorter and darker as we head into January.

These days I feel as if I’ve lost the capacity for joy. I’ll catch myself mid-laugh and realize that I’m faking it, and I’m faking it so well that I’ve nearly got myself convinced. In the same way that it’s sometimes hard for me to believe that spring will ever come again, it’s also hard to believe that anything will ever make me feel good or happy again. I have these thoughts, like, hey, maybe at the beginning of my life I was handed out a finite number of good experiences and now, in the winter of my 30th year, I’ve somehow managed to spend the last one.

Part of it might be the fact that everyone seems to be making their year-end posts, tallying up all their successes and bundling them together into one neat little blog post package. I thought about doing one of those, but I know that I won’t. Every new year always seems to me to be like a fresh, white sheet of notebook paper, but by December 31st it’s so marked up, so wrinkled and worn, so covered with revisions and smudges and holes where I rubbed the eraser too hard that I can’t make sense of it anymore.Rather than dig through my year to find material for a year-in-review post, I just want to throw the whole thing out, baby, bathwater and all. As 2013 approaches, 2012 is still too close to give me the perspective I would need, and all my hurts and failures feel too fresh for me to be able to dissect them. Even my successes seem slippery and hard to pinpoint. The other day, as I was watching the hundreds of comments going up on the article I wrote for the Good Men Project, I messaged my friend Audra and said, “Is this what success is supposed to feel like? Because I feel awful.”

Sometimes succeeding feels just as bad, just as anxiety-inducing, as failure does.

Mostly I just want everything to be over. I don’t mean that I want to die or anything like that, but just that I’m so tired of trying to guess what’s coming next. I’m so tired of trying to figure out what to do next, how to take my next step, or which direction I need to go. I want all of my experiences to be over and done with so that I can sift through them and sort them into boxes labelled “good things” and “bad things.” Then, once I’ve done that, I’ll be able to sit back, write a life-in-review post, and judge whether, when looking at the big picture, the scale tips more towards happy or sad.

I’m so tired. So goddamn tired. The worst part is that I can’t even begin to imagine when I won’t feel like this. Maybe next year? Or maybe when Theo’s in grade school? High school? When he moves out? I can’t help but feel like it’s partly my fault, or even mostly my fault, for not sleep-training him, for breastfeeding for so long, maybe even for choosing to have a kid in the first place. I love my son, but I don’t think I can function like this for much longer. Then again, what would not functioning even look like? Will my legs just give out one day, my knees buckling under my weight, and I’ll have to lie on the ground until I’m rested enough to get up again? How do these things work?

If you asked me what I needed in order to feel better, what it would take to make me feel happy, I wouldn’t even be able to tell you. That’s what’s hardest about all of this: feeling as if it’s whatever it is that’s going to save you is totally beyond your control. If there is something that can save you. If that something, should it exist, ever manages to find you.

Sometimes I think that all of the little things that happen throughout my day, the meals, the conversations, the rote interactions, are nothing more than activities designed to get me from one minute to the next until I can finally lie down in my bed at night and sleep (or not). When seen this way, a life is nothing more than a string of days, days made up of pointless experiences meant to propel you through time. I mean, of course my experiences aren’t meaningless. Or maybe they are. I’m not sure.

I’m trying to think of some kind of life lesson to put in here, some kind of moral to this story, but I’m coming up totally dry. Maybe you can try to find your own moral, because sifting back through this mess of feelings seems like so much work. Everything seems like so much work, to be honest. I feel as if I’ve been sucked totally dry of any and all will or ambition or desire.

The winter here is beautiful. The snow, and the quiet, and the bare trees are beautiful. There’s a hush this time of year that you never feel in the summer, and I know I would miss it if I never felt it again. I don’t hate winter, and I don’t even necessarily need for it to be over, like, right now. I don’t even think I would like to live somewhere that was hot and sunny all year long. I just need something to pin my hopes on, something to look forward to, something to hold out for. I need something to focus on when everything seems so dark and cold that I don’t think I can stand it for one minute longer.

I just need to know for certain that spring is going to come.

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