self-ease

Summer 1980, age 21 — I was certain, then, that no one could be more monstrous than I was. I look at myself then, so fresh and young and pretty, and can’t imagine how I saw what I saw. I still can remember what I saw, and it makes me shudder.

The really terrible thing about being seen and described as a monster by your mother is the way that gets internalized, right from the start, before you even have words of your own. It’s like a slug of radiation, slow-leak-poisoning you for decades. She did her thing, and I finished the job for her long after I left her and never saw her again. I believed I was the monster she saw. I believed I was a fat cow, as she called me. Her words transformed into the very lenses in my eyes. The clinical term for it is body dysmorphia, but that seems so bloodless. It’s confusing to other people who look at you and see a perfectly ordinary human being. Maybe they see beauty, maybe they see plainness, but they just can’t see what you see yourself. They have normal lenses. 

The changes that come with aging are twofold. First, if you’re lucky I suppose, you simply become more comfortable in your own skin, which at that point is softer and sagging. And second, also if you’re lucky, you dig out those old lenses, delete and replace those old stories, and find a new voice in your head that wishes you well.

Here I am with Nancy, my boon companion. Isn’t she lovely?

Selfies are fascinating to me. Young people seem to take them to practice different ways of self-presentation, to be flirty, to show their youth. Selfies can show you in a special place — here I am, on Machu Picchu! At the Parthenon! In a little boat in the middle of the Mekong River Delta! Here I am with my daughter, my granddaughter, one of my grandsons, my friend.

And sometimes I think people take them for the same reason I do, which is to try to see themselves clearly. To snap a picture and then gaze at it, ah, that’s me. That is my nose, that is my smile. Taking selfies has helped me learn how to see myself. I look closely at all of them, the awkward ones, the ugly ones, the mid-grimace ones, the lovely ones, looking for myself. It’s a digital effort to build my own database of myself. I have a folder on my laptop full of them, and I keep trying to remember to delete them all in case I die unexpectedly and my kids find them and think I was surely narcissistically self-centered. For some reason it’s easier to see a photograph than to see in the mirror, where I move and live and my face morphs. I too easily get distracted by my thoughts in a way that I don’t, with a picture.

When I started sharing them a couple of years ago, people’s comments and responses were extremely difficult to take. They made me uncomfortable, and I wondered if people thought I was fishing for compliments. If they had been inside my head they would have known the truth of my humiliation, and the courage it took to share them. I’d thank them, and for a very long time I thought they were just lying out of kindness. And then, about a year later, I started to think it wasn’t that they were lying, but that their vision of me had everything to do with them and their generous hearts, and little to do with me. So I thanked them for seeing me with such grace and love. 

January 1, 2017, in my 58 years of glory

When I share one now, and someone leaves a generous compliment, my gratitude is very different. I see a bit of what they see. And best of all, I can’t see what my mother saw, no matter how hard I try. I see an aging woman with a kind face (usually), with a nice smile and a generally attractive appearance. I usually like my hair (especially that glorious white streak that frames my face, how I love that!). I’ve come to like my nose well enough. I see echoes of my father and his mother, both of whom I was always told I resembled. Actually, I was told I looked JUST like them, and in fact I have their hands exactly, although my hands have never been violent.

OK. That’s me. I see.

I guess this post is just an alternative way for you to think about seeing people’s selfies — and especially if it’s a somewhat older woman sharing them. Maybe it’s not at all about showing off, or hoping for compliments, or about narcissism. Maybe she is just trying to see. Be kind. Help her.

destabilization

It was not the first time he raped me, but it was the first time my mind severely broke. In the middle of it, while I was crying, my stepfather said, “I don’t know why you’re crying, I’m not doing anything to you.” My mind felt like it was bulging so hard it was going to shatter my skull, and at some point I completely dissociated and went away. The conflict between what I knew was happening, and what I was being told was happening, was too great. Before I left, I remember thinking that I had to pick one or the other, what he was saying or what I believed, and so I consciously picked believing him because the constancy of his and my mother’s versions of reality was so overwhelming, and they had all the power because I was a child. Obviously this wasn’t the first gaslighting experience in my childhood home; this technique was constant, daily, and applied to lies big and small. But this time, the conflict was so great, my body was screaming at me in pain, and my mind could not endure it any more.

The gaslighting that’s happening in my country is definitely hitting me hard, and it’s obviously affecting me because of my history. Except to watch Saturday Night Live, I have not turned on the television since the election. During the campaign, I rushed to mute it or turn it off anytime a Republican was on the screen, but since the election the risk is constant that he or his liars will appear — since they are causing chaos every single day — and so I’ve just kept the television off completely. I keep my computer speakers muted because some websites autoplay ads or videos and I once had to hear his voice before I could get to the mute button. If I have to read their lies, my stomach gets wet and wobbly, and I feel a kind of panic that is hard to convey in a way you can really understand. My eyes fill with tears, my breath becomes shallow, I instantly sweat, I feel frantic and start pacing like I have to run to save my life, it’s that intense. It’s hard. I keep thinking I will eventually get used to it, maybe this will be good, by throwing me completely and headlong into a non-stop gaslighting government, I will become inoculated and immune. Maybe that would be good. Hasn’t happened yet.

These flopped. Tough, hard, unpleasant.

But what has happened is that since the election, my cooking has failed every time. My knitting has failed every time. I have been making cinnamon rolls since 1979, and until now, I only had one batch that wasn’t scrumptious, back in ~1988. Even then, they weren’t a failure as much as they just weren’t as soft and puffy as usual. Since the election, I have tried to make them five different times, and they were all complete failures. The Moroccan chickpea soup that I can make blindfolded, with one hand tied behind my back, failure. The shakshuka? Either the eggs are cooked too much, or they’re slimy and the whites are raw. Chocolate chip cookies, the most reliable thing ever, nope. Lemon cakes, nope. Flops.

These at least worked, although I’m not very proud of any of them (but I am proud of my friends).

Except for the pussy hats, curiously enough, all my knitting has failed too. I’ve tried to make hats for grandkids — failures, either giant or tiny. The Kai-Mei socks, that pattern I’ve made easily in the past, gloriously beautiful socks, failures. I have to completely frog the one I made in New York and start again. I’ve been making patterns I’ve made before, simple things, and each one has failed. Scarves, shawls, hats, socks, failures one after another. I try to be mindful, to pay attention, to be present; I put on music that I love and enjoy, I remember to breathe, lower my shoulders, find the pleasure of making, which is my oldest pleasure after reading. And yet it all fails.

My self-care has been hard to maintain, too, but like with my cooking and knitting I do keep trying. I have a sense that all those things are important to helping me keep going. My already failing memory is worse than ever before, and I’m sure that’s related too, connected to the mental overwhelm of trying to battle for the truth of things.

I’ve had a LOT of therapy, and especially I’ve worked on learning how to trust my own perceptions. According to this site (and validated by my own experience, “People who are victims of gaslighting may behave in ways that cause them to appear unstable because they have learned that they cannot trust their perceptions and cannot count on the validation of their thoughts or feelings. They are also less likely to continue to voice their emotions and feelings, knowing that they are likely to be invalidated.” YEP. My sole strategy at this point is to avoid, leave, run away, turn off, disappear however I can, but I wanted to see if there were known strategies for dealing with gaslighting, and I found this kind of horrifying article — horrifying because it’s like they looked at the current slate of Republicans in charge and just took notes. For each strategy used by these people, the article lists some counter-strategies you should employ. I’m in no way strong enough even to stand and listen, so they won’t work for me but I’m glad to share them in case you are stronger than me in this regard.

I just want to be able to cook and knit again. I just want to comfort myself with those things, and show my love through them. It has taken me a while to notice that this is a long pattern, now; at first it was just weird. Huh. Why did my lemon cakes flop? Or That’s weird, I know how to knit a fucking hat. I finally realized that this has been going on since November. I want my cooking and knitting back. Any ideas?

perfect knowledge

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about perfect knowledge, after realizing that again and again I was wishing for it — I just want to know exactly why people came to vote for the completely monstrous Trump, for example, how did that happen? I don’t mean the equally monstrous alt-right people in this country, I mean all the rest. How did that happen? I want to understand it completely. That’s maybe not even the best example of the spate of wishes I’ve had lately, but it’s the only one I can think of because I am so absolutely terrified of him right now my fear is consuming me.

f1And then, without quite [at least perfectly] realizing that the book focused in part on this theme, I started reading Frankenstein for the first time. I actually started reading it because the Lars Book Club was reading it (especially fun to follow via her Instagram account, because she finds the most extraordinary images to accompany each book). This is one of those books I always meant to read but for one reason or another I thought it wasn’t right for me, like my idiocy in thinking I wasn’t smart enough to read Moby Dick….and we see how that turned out! I’m not sure what deep prejudice kept me from reading Frankenstein, because I did always want to. And it’s extraordinary, and what surprises me most is how much I detest Victor Frankenstein. Detest him, completely. He sought perfect knowledge in terms of creating life, and then when he did, and looked at his creation, he flung him away and threw his hatred on him, again and again and again. And everyone suffered for it.

f2Of course this is the same moral as Adam and Eve in the garden; everything but perfect knowledge, y’all — can’t have that, the consequences will be fatal. “How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow” (Mary Shelley, Frankenstein). (Without meaning to circle back to Trump, though, that quote reminds me of the recent report showing that one big predictor of voting for him is if you still live in the same hometown you grew up in. Hmmm. The danger of not seeking knowledge, right there.) Setting aside the fact that perfect knowledge simply isn’t attainable, no matter how much we may yearn for it, why is it always cast in such terrible terms, I wonder? Is it just our Bible-focused western culture that raises that spectre, that threatens us? Is it that this framework only allows God to have perfect knowledge, so anyone who attempts or reaches for it is threatening God, or seeking to be like God? Is that it? As a method, science understands perfect knowledge as an accretion, each scientist adding his tiny thread onto the pile, a final Truth very rarely acquired and held in place with the eternal possibility of a conflicting finding toppling it to the ground.

In my recent obsession about this idea, I’ve also been thinking about my desire to be known . . . fully and accurately. I got on a jag of watching every version of Annie Lennox singing “Why” that I could possibly find. The line from that song that always crushes me — crushed me when I was getting divorced and feeling completely unknown by my husband, and crushes me still to this day is

And this is how I feel
Do you know how I feel?
‘Cause I don’t think you know how I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
I don’t think you know what I feel
You don’t know what I feel

Of the many versions, I think this my favorite because of the way she performs the last stanza, with the dramatic STOP.

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That kills me. I’m no slouch at telling people how I feel, and I’m pretty sophisticated at understanding and describing my emotions. No alexithymia here, folks. But there is a huge gap between what is said and what is heard, and everything falls into that gap. The listener doesn’t hear perfectly, and even in the telling, the teller gets it wrong. I even get it wrong, in part because the current moment is attached to so many different things that plucking it out of that constellation to tell it gets it wrong. But how I long to be perfectly understood — for my mistakes, my longings, my fears, what’s underneath, what I’m trying to do. And how I would love to perfectly understand those in my life! I long to do that.

The world is stewing in hate, and the temperature is coming to a boil. Why? Why? I want to know, I want to understand, and it’s a HUGE picture to take in, so many variables feeding in, but perhaps it’s just one or two, and the story is too complex to see since I only have my tiny spot to stand on. And what would I do with that perfect knowledge, anyway? Maybe it would be a torment, because I could not change anything. Maybe I would see that it’s really simple, but it looks a terrifying mess and unless everyone else knew, too, it would simply come to its rolling boil and I would understand why but be helpless. I’m helpless now, anyway, and it feels terrible. Would it feel more terrible if I understood, perfectly?

I’m getting nowhere except lost-er. Scared-er. Despairing-er.

on the misnomer of “mentally ill”

meBefore I say anything else, I’ll claim it: I deal with mental illness. I’m not embarrassed by that, or ashamed of it, and I don’t think it means I’m weak, or broken, or less-than anyone in the world. This simply is, in the same way that I am tall, I have blue eyes, and my smile is gummy. All that simply is. (That doesn’t mean I’ve always been accepting of and happy about those things, except the blue eyes, but they’re all true whether I am happy and accepting of them or not. They simply are true of me.)

But I do very much take issue with two things: the idea that this relates to weakness or brokenness, and the terminology. I assume this was first termed “mental” illness to contrast it with “physical” illness — as if those are discrete, non-overlapping islands of experience — but my own experience, and the experiences of others I know, relate more to a framing as an emotional or psychological illness. I’m not sure what bugs me so much about framing all these struggles as mental illness, exactly, but I do think it’s the apparent separation from physical, which is mystifying, and also that it just drifts too far away from the experience, which then means people are on the wrong track when they try to understand others.

If I told you I suffer with an emotional illness, what would you ask me? Are you sad? Are you anxious? Are you scared? Do you feel despair? Do you feel like it’s too hard? Those questions get right at the nub of it, don’t they? Yes, when my depression is with me again, I am sad, and scared, and I feel despair, and like it’s too hard. When I answer those questions you understand something about me. I could also tell you that my brain chemicals are wacky, but what do you do with that, exactly? That’s a potential treatment approach that a doctor might help me with, but it doesn’t tell anyone anything.

And then there are other kinds of emotional/psychological illness, some of which I also deal with but have learned to keep closer to my chest because they are too frequently misunderstood. I’m not being cagey about them, and again I don’t think they mean I am broken or weak or less-than anyone, but they require more careful language and much more careful listening (and frankly, it’s the more-careful listening that’s the biggest problem). I’m talking here about different kinds of psychosis, for example, some of which are transient, some of which are nevertheless understood by the person in the midst of the experience, and some of which are devastating and debilitating, like the real tragedy of schizophrenia. People are starting to talk more openly about psychosis, and if you don’t know her already, Elyn Saks is an extraordinary woman with schizophrenia that roared forward while she was a student at Yale. Her memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, is exceptionally good at letting you see that illness from the inside, and her TED talk will leave you amazed. I saw her speak in NYC and with the rest of the audience, listened with my mouth open, in amazement.

But even more than my wish that these experiences were called “emotional illness” instead of “mental illnesses,” I wish they were conceptualized differently. They do not mean that we are broken. They do not mean that we are weak. They certainly don’t mean we are less than anyone else who does not have these experiences. Having these experiences simply means that we have these struggles, these painful experiences, these difficulties to deal with. Maybe they become so debilitating that it’s hard to keep a job, but much more often they simply mean that we suffer, and we too often feel all alone with that suffering. I hate that. I won’t draw the kinds of parallels that people usually draw with a physical illness (most often to diabetes or cancer, both of which people are also blamed for, at times….), but I will say that the suffering is real. If you know that someone you love is suffering and you dismiss it, well, you might want to examine that a little bit.

I do suffer. Partly I suffer even without emotional illness because I feel everything so intensely, and because I truly think that to live my life the best way I possibly can, that’s what I’m here to do. I’m not here just to deeply experience the “happy” bits, and to shunt off all the rest as quickly as I can. I’m definitely not here to take the position that well, that doesn’t serve me so I won’t feel it. I think it all serves us, and deepens us, and allows us to grow and learn more about who we are. And so I suffer when my experience is painful. AND I suffer quite terribly from periodic and chronic depression, and sometimes from suicidality. AND I suffer from PTSD, which also includes some strange experiences I’ll write about one of these days. And you know what? Not only do I reject anyone’s notion that therefore I’m weak, I instead say (with a bit of a fuck-you attitude) that actually, I’m stronger than most people I know. I’m strong enough to go there. I’m strong enough to come back. I’m strong enough to stand there and look at it in the face. I’m strong enough to go from here to there:

Yep. Strong enough to go from there to there and back again, strong enough to endure and get richer, and sometimes just strong enough to survive it. Strong enough not to be broken by the pain and sorrow and struggle. It’s the opposite of weak to sit inside that suffering, man, and anyone who has ever been there will give a very loud AMEN to that.

Can I get an amen on that up in here?
Can I get an AMEN on that up in here?

I’m satisficed

satisficerThat’s not a typo in the post title — it refers to my stance as a satisficer. According to psych research, one is a satisficer or a maximizer. When you’re trying to make a decision, what is important to you? Being sure you get the VERY BEST option, or being happy enough with what you pick?

Here’s a real-life example of this. My husband and I eat dinner at a neighborhood diner in NYC on the nights he finishes working around 10PM. If you’ve ever been to a NY diner, you know that their menus can be huge. Here’s how we approach deciding what to eat:

ME: I start with the section I’m most likely interested in — let’s say salads. I read the first option on the list, then the second. Which of the two do I want? Then I take that option and compare it to the next one on the list, which of those do I want? With a series of pairwise comparisons, I end up with the one I’m most interested in from that section. (And actually, if I pick the same one two or three times in a row, I figure that one must be the one I’m wanting so I don’t even read the whole list.) I’m satisfied! It’ll be good, I’m done. And if I don’t know what I want, I do this same exercise with the sections first. Sandwiches vs salads — ok, a salad. Salads vs the daily special — ok, still a salad. Salads vs burgers — ok, still a salad. Then the pairwise comparisons within that section, and I’m done. I’ll be happy with my salad, because it’s just dinnerIt’s just a salad. It doesn’t have to be the most amazing meal I’ve ever experienced. Hell, it doesn’t even have to be the most amazing salad I’ve ever had!

MY HUSBANDHe begins at the top of the menu and reads every single item on the menu, beginning to end. He pauses, mulls each option (I wonder if the onions are grilled….do you think the tomatoes are good yet? Bad tomatoes would ruin the burger), goes back to an earlier option, keeps reading, keeps interrogating me and the waiter, and this is a slow process because he’s also extremely dyslexic, and when he gets to the end of the menu, several big laminated pages later, he needs to re-read the beginning page since he doesn’t really remember what those options were. Finally he’ll pick something, and as soon as he places his order he realizes that he really should’ve ordered the other thing, what he ordered won’t be as good as that would’ve been.

What matters to him is that he get the very best meal he can possibly have at the diner. I always feel sad for him, because he rarely enjoys his as much as I enjoy mine. And how could he? It carries a heavy burden! It has to be the best! Mine just has to be good enough to be an enjoyable meal. There’s a lot of evidence that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers, and of course the distinction brings a lot of stuff with it, like temperament and personality (maximizers are more likely to be neurotic, for instance, and which came first, being neurotic? Maybe!). If you’re curious about yourself, here’s a little quiz:

satisficer

My score is 75 (the possible range is 13 to 91), so I’m not completely without standards. 🙂 Like everyone else, I care about the things I care about! It’s just a question of how big an umbrella that is, right? Do I care about my meals? Yeah, sure, I like tasty, healthy food. Do I care about what I’m wearing? Sure, I guess I care enough. Do I care about my family and friends? OH HELL YES. Do I care about my ethical concerns? ALL THE WAY. Do I care about my car? Sure, to the extent that it’s safe and cost-effective. Do I care about how well my home is decorated? Enough. I still haven’t done anything at all with the dining room, and I’ve lived here almost four years.

Like temperament, I think this is kind of a “just who you are” deal. If you tried to force me to be a maximizer at that diner, I just don’t think I could do it. I might fake it if you held a gun to my head, but I’d be faking it because really, it just needs to be a good enough salad. I’d pretend to read all the choices, but I’d be thinking about something else. If you forced my husband to be a satisficer, he’d get kind of paralyzed and pick something because of that gun to his head, but he’d hate what he ordered and would be torn up the rest of the night thinking about the perfect meal he didn’t get.

And thus ends today’s psychology lesson, offered after a lengthy telephone conversation with my maximizer husband going over possible hotel options in Laos, with me saying, “Sure honey, I like that one! Well yeah, that one sounds great! I don’t know, I like that one too!” I probably drive him crazy. 🙂

aphantasia

mindeyeMAN! This is the coolest thing, the most interesting revelation about my experience I think I’ve ever had. I do not have mental images — just nothing! I can’t close my eyes and see your face, even if I have known your face from the moment of your birth. I can’t close my eyes and count the number of windows on the building across the street, the one I’ve looked at for ten years. I can’t close my eyes and imagine how this thing would look if placed over there. It’s just always been that way, my whole life, and I haven’t ever really cared about it or missed it being otherwise, because it’s just always been.

I’ve heard people talk about being able to do this, to have mental images, and it never made any sense to me. It wasn’t that I thought they were lying, it’s just that I thought they had some way of imagining that they were imagining something. Isn’t that funny — I thought everyone was like me, but they’d learned some kind of trick to pretend to do this thing, this seeing images in their minds’ eyes. Although once in a while when I’d mention it to someone, as I did once with Marc, the response is confused. Lots of questions — but can you… but don’t you… but what happens if you…. The best explanation I could give was that I ‘see’ words, but that’s not right, I do not ‘see’ the letters because I do not ‘see’ anything.

When I try to see an image in my mind, it’s just a dark, blank screen. I can hold concepts and ideas, but they’re present in word form, in story form. If I try to ‘see’ Marnie’s face, it’s word descriptions in my mind — she has that pretty mouth, and big brown eyes, and very nice teeth, and strong eyebrows. But I’m not ‘seeing’ her face as I think that description. At all. Unlike my husband, I’m not faceblind; when I’m actually looking at things I’m brilliant! My memory is fine, my recognition skills are ace, my corrected vision is just fine. I just do not have a mind’s eye — even a nearsighted one.

I never really thought it was a “thing.” I thought it just was. So I wouldn’t expect to learn a surprise about having hair any more than I’d thought to learn a surprise about this mind’s eye business. Same normal.

Then I read this article in The New York Times, and it turns out it IS a thing! It’s called aphantasiaAs it was first being uncovered, it was studied in people who had once been able to see mental images, but due to illness or an accident lost that ability. That’s great, because it lets researchers understand the functional part of the brain that contributes to this ability. But then they started figuring out that there are people like me — and lots of us, apparently! The researcher who is focusing on this has invited people like me to write him, so I did. We’ll see. I’m just so curious! I’m extremely verbal; on that subtest of the GRE I scored at the 99th percentile. I wonder if that’s common for people like me.

But the really cool thing about it is that I have a different understanding of so many things that have stumped me.

  • Drawing! I can draw what I’m looking at with a reasonable sense of recognizability (thank you Marnie), but how in the world do people draw something they aren’t looking at?? That has felt as mysterious to me as the ability to, oh, I don’t know, sing a piece of cake into existence. What?? I’d watch Marnie sit and draw, I’d watch figures and landscapes come into existence from lines that made no sense, until all at once they did, and I would just have NO clue how she did that. It really was like magic. I think this is why! I have no images in my mind at all.
  • Various aspects of design — like quilting, for instance. I can replicate someone else’s quilt top beautifully. I am a master technician. But to just imagine a design? To just imagine shapes and color combinations? This is so literal, I can’t even just hold bolts of cloth next to each other and imagine how it’ll work in the quilt, I have to see the pieces cut out and in place before I can know anything at all about it.
  • Directions. I’m remarkably good at following a map, but if you just tell me directions, and it’s more than a turn or two, forget it. I am not constructing the route visually in my mind because I can’t. I’m better if you tell me landmarks — turn right at the Exxon station, it’s across the street from the car wash — but in that case I’m remembering those words.

This has really been the coolest revelation. Ah! Now I get it! It wasn’t that I ever beat myself up about these various inabilities, it’s more that they were mysterious to me. I’m going to be 58 in November, I seriously doubt that at this age I’ll somehow find a way to have mental images (and believe me, over the years I’ve tried), so it’s just about answering a riddle. I love little more than getting riddles answered. Now if I could just solve the riddle of the giant red itchy spots I get in exactly the same locations whenever we travel in SEAsia, I can rest easy.

so amazed I want to fly

flowering teaA couple of days ago I wrote about this stunning insight I had that probably sounds dumb to anyone else, the way insights are. Yeah, I knew that all along about you, obvious. And? But an insight changes everything, so it’s not just the mustard seed of the thing itself, it’s the way the world changes as a result. That insight just keeps unfolding, like flowering tea. It does feel like a flower is blooming inside me and it just keeps blooming.

Over the years I’ve come to believe that we are born with a temperament, we’re born who we are. I used to think differently, that we’re born kind of a blob and we become who we are, but that’s just not right. And fundamentally, we are who we are throughout our lives. I look at sweet little Oliver, such a happy, even-keeled boy, curious and self-contained, busy and a little cautious and laughing so easily. He was born that way, it’s who he is. I imagine it’ll ebb and flow as life happens to him but it’s fundamentally who he is, and he’ll return to that even if he wobbles. This is supported by a body of research; people who are in devastating accidents and become paralyzed and people who win the lottery have an immediate response, becoming devastated or overjoyed, but with time they return to whatever level of happiness they had before. So temperamentally happy people will adjust to paralysis and find their way back to themselves, to their ordinary happiness. A curmudgeon will adjust to having money and after the initial thrill, will return to being a curmudgeon. We are who we are, and we are born with ourselves. That’s not to say, of course, that it’s a fated full-on deterministic thing, but it’s a temperament, and I do believe that. I don’t know why I knew and believed this about everyone else and just didn’t see it about myself. Maybe, like others who hear about my younger life, I was just blinded by the circumstances.

So more unfolding in two tectonic directions:

My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
My mother, age 16, right before she ran away with my father and immediately got pregnant with me.
  • I never could really understand why my mother hated me as much as she did. I knew that I ruined her life, she said that over and over. And I can even get that; she ran away from home just before she turned 17 and married my dad, who was 18 and also running away from home, and she probably imagined she was now going to have the life she wanted…..and BAM. Pregnant. So that part I could get. I understood what she meant when she said I ruined her life. But she hated me, viciously and frighteningly. I always thought, but I was a sweet little kid…. and that left me so confused. But that’s exactly why! How obvious! She hated me and I had the nerve to be happy anyway. She would be so cruel and vicious it would take your breath away, and then a little later I’d be happy about some little something. No matter what she did, no matter how hard she tried, I could still be happy. I’d still dance around the coffee table. Each time I was happy, it must have made her just double down, it must have been so galling, so enraging. I totally get that! Not from my own experience, but as a dynamic. I think it’s very common — like someone we think is unworthy, maybe a bad writer, wins a prize for writing, and they’re a much worse writer than you! Much worse! So you hate their writing and them even more. The world is unfair, why do they get the rewards? I think it’s that dynamic.

So she hated me because no matter what she did, I could still be happy. I can’t tell you what a relief it is to understand that, and her. She is a psychopath, but that’s just a diagnosis. I always said she was a black box, completely impossible to understand, but it was just a small, mean thing all along. After 57 years, I finally understand her. Unlike with my dad’s suicide, I never thought it was my fault she hated me, because I didn’t choose to be born, but it was so bewildering, and finally I have an answer.

  • And the other thing — gosh, how could I not have seen this before? — relates to an explanation I always gave for my survival. “It was just a failure of imagination,” I’d always say with a wry smile. Why didn’t I become a prostitute as a way to get money? Why didn’t I turn to drugs or alcohol to escape? “Failure of imagination. All I could think of was to find some place to do my homework and sleep and then go to school the next day. Failure of imagination.” One thing I did, and I’d tell this story, was to go to the disco in our small town (this was the late 70s) when it was bitterly cold, or when I was filled with despair. I’d take my one dress and change in the bathroom, and then go out on the floor and dance and dance, spinning around until I got out of myself and into a kind of bliss. Hours would pass and I’d be warm, and I’d be out of my real life. But that wasn’t a failure of imagination, or a “gee I’m so clever” tactic, I was just being myself. That’s all. No more, no less, no failure, no admiration. I was just being myself, that’s all. I am so grateful that I was born like that.

You cannot imagine how earthshaking this is — and I’m not being dramatic, that’s not hyperbole. The ground has shaken and I see myself there, I understand myself then, my life then, my mother, my father, my family. Finally, I understand. Finally. I understand. I was there all along. Do you remember these little handheld games?

dexterity
these are called dexterity games, for some reason

You had to roll it, tilt it, try to get ALL the little BBs into the small holes. Aaah, you’d get 2 in, but when you’re trying to get the 3rd in the others roll out! So frustrating for a little kid! But this is how my early life is now. My mother is in her little hole. My father is in his. I am in mine. And the game is done — and I win. 🙂