Chapter 10: You Got To Dance With Them That Brung You
Last Friday, I attended another of Beth Bornstein Dunnington’s Big Island Writers’ Workshops. I wrote about workshops, retreats in general, and my attendance at Beth’s last one in a gratitude post you can read here. In her workshop, Beth gave us many prompts to choose from and a time limit and then we wrote our hearts out. Prompts can be an image, a verb, a sentence fragment—anything that lights a spark in us.
Why am I telling you this?
Because Chapter 10 is about nostalgia, it's about owning and embracing our childhoods and where we come from in this world and in this life. The more I thought about what I wrote, the more the word “nostalgia” came to mind, so I’m going to go ahead and share one of the pieces with you. I never intended to make this public, but I’m going to because this is exactly why I'm writing my book. It's my passion. I believe it's one of the reasons my family faced what we did. That reason is to use my voice and our story to help combat the stigma that surrounds talking about mental illness. I think all of us have learned enough from Brené by now to know how important owning our stories is to the healing process.
I'll comment again at the end of the piece because I don't come across in a positive light below, but at the beginning, there are a couple of important things to know. One is that both my daughter and my husband are aware that I'm writing this blog and writing a book about our story. They share my passion–ending the stigma around mental illness–and know that the best way for us to do that is to continue to tell our story, unapologetically and with as much honesty and integrity as we can.
One day, we hope the conversation around mental illness and negative coping mechanisms like self-harm will be as common to our vernacular as the discussion around that of addictions, like drinking, drugs, gambling, shopping, sex, eating, smoking, etc.
People we love are suffering in silence. 1 in 4 adults and 1 in 5 adolescents, right now, are dealing with mental illness. Most of them feel alone, like no one could possibly understand what they are going through. That thought is simply not true, but we have to stop being afraid to talk about it. Harder than it sounds, I know. We have to stop believing that mental illness is anything other than what it is: a medical illness like any other medical illness. It is not weakness of character.
Here I go. The prompts I used for this exercise were: Me, on a stage, watching my child sleep, a carrot dangling two inches away, I created, and I envisioned.
Me, on a stage. That’s how my story starts. Me, on a stage. Every dream, day and night, was me, on a stage when I won my Academy Award. Me, on a stage, in the limelight. Me, on a stage being adored. Finally loved the way I’d always longed to be loved. Every dream was the same—me, on a stage, only it wasn’t me, exactly. It was a me that looked like Farrah Fawcett or a me that looked like Lynda Carter. It was me—still somehow young, but also all grown up. Me, who was beautiful and smart and funny, a me who was none of what I actually was: chubby and freckly, and ordinary. Me, who led an ordinary life doing ordinary things being ordinarily insufficient.
Real me obsessed over Sean Cassidy and Ralph Macchio. Real me stood, tippy-toe, on my bed to kiss the boys’ flat lips, the ones affixed to my walls in the form of endless posters I pulled out of Tiger Beat magazine and hung next to the puppy and kitten posters ordered from the Scholastic Catalogue. Sean and Ralph and Parker and the boy from On Golden Pond. Real, ordinary me got asked out by the most popular boy in school on April Fools’ Day. Real, ordinary me was plain and lonely and boring. Then, there was me, on a stage.
Me, I created, was glamorous and taking the world by storm. People clamored for my attention. Every night, real me waited for one of those boys to come and take me away, to knock on the door of my little house in nowhereville New Jersey. No matter I was eleven or twelve years old. I never stopped to wonder why Sean Cassidy might knock on my door. He wouldn’t have, of course. And never did. But I envisioned him coming because I was sure that the letter I wrote—in pencil and then held under the faucet to make it look as if I’d cried all over it—would be enough to make Sean come running to my rescue. He’d rescue me and sweep me away to Hollywood where I’d be discovered because I was, after all, an Academy Award winning caliber actress. I just needed to be discovered. When that happened, when me, on a stage in my mind became me, on a stage in reality, every dream I had ever dreamt would come true. I would finally be enough. I would finally be living the life I deserved. My tear-stained letter and my hero Sean would be sure to make it all happen.
I invented a reality for myself that was constructed entirely of fantasy. I loved my fantasy reality. Who wouldn’t? Gowns and jewels and gorgeous men. Mysteries and problems that were tidily solved in two hours or less. The perfection I sought, the perfection I chased was a carrot dangling two inches away from me, or rather, it was the carrot dangling two inches deep inside my brain.
This was not much of a problem, really. I was able to keep my fantasy life under wraps. Until I grew up. By then, I lived near the real Hollywood and the real proximity to my fantasy reality confused and bewildered me. I worked, sometimes, with real movie stars nearby, but they never knew my name. They never recognized me or invited me over to their house. I met a good man, a true man, and married him and then became obsessed with Kevin Costner and that stupid movie with a stupid message in a stupid bottle. Every goddamn day I was pissed as hell that my husband, Tom, walked in our front door and not my husband, Kevin. If Kevin, not Tom, had walked in, my baby’s toys would not have been scattered around the house, it wouldn’t have been like walking through a minefield where one unfortunate step would mean you twisted your ankle stepping on a block or you wrenched your back sitting on a giant Lego. If Kevin walked through the door, or even my husband, Ben Affleck (that was during my Pearl Harbor phase), then I would have been the me that’s on top of all the shit: the house clean, the dinner cooked, the toys away, and dressed to the nines AND wearing a smile to be greeted by and doted upon by long-fingered Kevin or crooked-smiled Ben, not by Tom who, after being gone at work for sixteen hours per day, often asked, “Why is the house such a mess?”
I never stood watching my child sleep when she was little. Most nights she actually slept next to me in my bed—she hated to go to sleep and letting her sleep with me was easy. Besides, my imposter of a husband, Tom, who was not Kevin or Ben or Sean, was relegated to the couch because, most days, I didn’t recognize him and I was confused and wondered where any one of my real husbands was and why they were not, in fact, rescuing me from this horse shit life of ordinary insufficiency that had followed me from my childhood all the way to my grown up life. My grown up life wasn’t supposed to be like this. My grown up life was supposed to be me, on a stage, not me dressed in extra-large size sweats and driving my SUV around trying to get my baby to go to sleep and cooking and being bored and tired and lonely, and well, plain. I was supposed to be extraordinary.
So, I never stood watching my child sleep until I started to spend my nights sitting on a pillow outside her bedroom door with my entire body on high alert waiting to hear the noise, the breath or the sigh or the quiver that meant she finally did it, that she ended it, that her blood was rushing out of her body and all over the floor.
I can tell you for a fact that using a razor blade to cut skin doesn’t make any noise at all. Watching your blood course through your veins doesn’t make any noise at all, either. I can tell you that while sometimes, assuredly, wanting to die is very noisy, most of the time it is very quiet.
Many nights I couldn’t be sure, so I unsteadily got to my feet. After so many hours on the hard wood floor, I leaned against the wall for a minute, as much to bolster my courage as my body, and then tiptoed into her room with my mini-flashlight. First, I checked the floor. No blood. Then, slowly, filled with dread, I crept to the side of her bed and shone the light toward her chest area to illuminate her face, not flood it. I stood watching my child sleep looking for signs of life. Or signs of death. Rosy or ashen cheeks. Twitches of eyes under lids. Soft rising and falling of chest.
I begged, pleaded, and postured with whatever or whoever it may be that’s out there to please, let it instead be me. Fantasy over.
Sean, Ben, and Kevin. They all left. I was abandoned in my time of need. I was left with ordinary Tom and ordinary me to figure out what it would take to keep the one thing I touched in this life that was beyond sufficient, that was extraordinary, that was as close to perfection as anything can be—my daughter—to want to stay alive. The end of fantasy was the beginning of beautiful reality, it just took a while.
Please watch one young woman, Bekah Miles, share her story of what she did to combat her feelings of shame, stigma, and lonliness around suffering from depression here.
Here's what else I want to say. Part of me will always be that lonely little girl from New Jersey who got asked out on April Fools’ Day—part of me will always be the little girl who thought life would be better when…when I wasn’t me anymore or when I looked right or when I learned enough to finally be perfect or when I was rescued. I will always be the little girl whose parents loved her and who did the best they could for her, but whose love, for whatever reason, fell short of piercing her heart with an arrow.
When life didn't turn out "right," I often felt, as BB helped me identify, like an exposed imposter. Life couldn't have gone more wrong than that initial year of my daughter's illness.
Moving forward from here will always include trying to identify, as BB also says, whether my expectations are rooted in nostalgia, the version of me that once was and all that she entails. My rumble: I am enough and I don’t have to be perfect to prove it. Also, I understand just how easy it could be for what I've written here, these few words about a story that's as wide and deep and vast as stories can be, to be misunderstood. The innocent bystanders, my husband and my daughter, have at times, I admit, been collateral damage in the story that is mine. However, what could be construed as decades of my negative emotions spilling out all over the place, was usually less dramatic than that and was a reflection of me, not of them.
Hence, this rumble, this reckoning and this revolution. To own my story and write my ending so it doesn't own me or the ones that I love.
P.S. Thank you Janice, Patty, and Stephanie for your participation here during our bookclub. Also, Steph wrote in the comment section of last week’s post that she is a professional photographer. Check out more of Steph’s work here.
Up Next: Chapter 11, our final chapter, spearheaded by Heather Higinbotham