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I’m not a religious person, and so when asked why I wasn’t in the ‘Christmas spirit’ this year, I was surprised.  Yes, I do normally participate in all of the pagan rituals of Christmas, without the church-going.  But this being a tough year for me, and with my aversion to leaving my safe apartment and actually going out into the world and being around people, I really don’t want to shoulder any of the shame or feel the retributions of others who feel I should be ‘in the spirit.’

I’m not; and regardless of the many reasons, why should I feel bad about that?  Why am I required to feel a certain something just because it’s December?  This may be a national holiday and it may be a long-standing tradition, but that in no way impels me to participate.  I’m not bitter. I’m not opposed to anyone celebrating any damn thing they please.  I’ll give to charity and I’ll gift my family members.  But my spirit will be what it always is, one that is always giving, one that is a non-believer.

I’m the Charlie Brown of Christmas: I know I should feel something, but I only feel let down.  This is the same feeling I had when I actually realized that I was in fact, an atheist. I used to feel like I should feel something, but it just wasn’t there.  It was a lie that I told myself.

And I’m allowed to feel what I feel, right?  This is another frequent argument I have with others.  Don’t tell me how I should feel; I have a right to feel whatever emotions that come, regardless of what others want me to feel.  I think this is where empathy is very important; allow others to go through their emotions and stop dictating what you think those emotions should be.  Stop saying “Oh you shouldn’t feel that way!” and start allowing emotion to run it’s natural course.

Allowing me not to get the ‘spirit’ is only fair, to be honest.  I don’t go around proselytizing to you about becoming a non-believer, so stop pressuring me to participate in your religious rituals.  I feel this is a good compromise.

And, considering all the times I wrote ‘feel’ in this post, I feel I should end it here.

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Was awakened super early Saturday morning to the sound of destruction.  A quick peek outside my front door revealed this: photo (2)

I am not a fan of change, most of the time.  I must be dragged to it, kicking and screaming.  And in the past several years, my neighborhood has been one of the ‘hot’ spots for new condos and apartments, new roads, new stop lights.  Which all means more traffic, more noise, more people.

This place used to be a hidden gem:  right off of a major road, close to downtown, quiet.  Nothing gold can stay, though, right?

I’ve heard through the neighborhood grapevine that it was my landlord, in fact, that has purchased this plot of land, and had the house dozed.  Which is all fine and good, as long as nothing new goes up in its place, save a nice garden.  We’ll see.  It’s all speculation at this point.  I’ll try not to obsess, but, no promises.

Three non-fiction books and one short story collection is not necessarily a great mix.  I think the proportions are a little off, though, in truth, the short story collection reads like actual stories taken directly my childhood.  I grew up in the 70’s and 80’s, and Lorrie Moore’s collection Self Help reads exactly as the title suggests:  a manual for your childhood and early adulthood.  I love it, painful and uncomfortable as it is.

I just finished reading Alan Cumming’s memoir  Not My Father’s Son.  The title suggests some paternal issues, but it’s so much more than that.  There are many revelations in this book (none of which I will spoil here) and to a sensitive soul such as Alan, they prove difficult to navigate.  Cumming’s journey begins with the TV show “Who do you think you are?” — a show that searches out your roots, your genealogical secrets.  There are dual stories running throughout the book, as well as dual timelines:  the present (2010, during which he is filming the TV show) and chapters of “Then” which flash back to his childhood.  Cumming’s father was a brute of a man, abusive to his family in multiple heartbreaking ways.

What sets this memoir apart, in a spate of celebrity memoirs, is that Cummings is incredibly insightful; he has a strong sense of self. He is articulate without being self serving. Yes, he is emotional, but who wouldn’t be in the midst of the family revelations and drama he weathers? At an early age, Alan decides he will not feel shame about himself; this, to me, is in large part why he stays so strong.

Cummings writes short, descriptive episodes, writing dual stories about the present (which was 2010) and his childhood (only titled Then). There are some delightful photos throughout, and candid revelations. A quick, interesting read.

Two other outstanding books I’ve read recently: The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, and Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. Both incredibly smart, talented writers who put together two brilliant essay collections. (See also what Cheryl Strayed had to say in the New York Times regarding the “golden age for women essayists– why do we need a qualifier?)

Next, a return to fiction.  Can’t decide between Tartt’s A Secret History or Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay.  Any thoughts?

It’s my constant battle with myself:  to stay and face the danger, or flee from it. 

Except, there is no real danger.  My brain is playing games with me.  

Except, it doesn’t feel like a game.  It feels real.  It feels like actual danger.

The past twelve months have been book-ended by two truly unhappy events.  Last August, I was at Nashville airport ready to board a plane to San Diego, what would have been my first trip to California.  It’s a long story, but in the end, I didn’t make it to San Diego.  I sat in the airport and cried, and popped Xanax.  I even got another flight for the next day but never made it.  I haven’t written about it because it was too painful.  Too embarrassing.  

It was like something you’d see in a movie, or see happen to someone else.  It’s something you never imagine would happen to you:  this is what would happen to someone else. This would never happen to you because you are in control, you can control your anxiety, you are strong.  This is the narrative in your head.  This is what you tell yourself in crowds, in movie theaters, on planes.  You are strong.  You’ve been through worse.  You have anxiety but it’s under control.  You would never let it get out of control.

This narrative has worked for you for years.  You don’t need medication because it’s under control.  

And then, you find yourself screaming in the last seat of a plane, a plane that is taxiing away from the airport, a plane already heading towards the runway.  You scream until they turn the plane back, go back to the gate.  You have to get off of the plane.  The entire cabin full of people knows it’s you because the captain has announced that there is an ‘anxious passenger’ that has to get off.  You are in the last seat and so you must walk past each and every passenger on the way to the door. You are embarrassed, humiliated.  

Two nights ago, Tori Amos played at the historic Ryman Auditorium.  I had a ticket and was looking forward to seeing her again at the Ryman.  I live less than five miles from the Ryman.  I took a xanax and got ready for the show.  

Well, you can guess how this turned out:  I never made it to the show.  Just being in the car caused me to panic.  Agoraphobia?  Probably.  But it’s been a year– a year in which I had ups and downs, went back and forth to work, traveled.  It’s tiresome, dealing with anxiety.  It wears me out.  It tears me down. 

In our culture, people don’t take anxiety (or depression) seriously.  Everyone has felt anxious about something in their lives: speaking in public, or flying overseas.  There are a thousand reasons to feel anxious, to feel nervous.  But having an anxiety disorder is so much different than nervous butterflies.  It’s so much more threatening.  Constant anxiety isn’t healthy and it’s not productive.  I myself have not taken it as seriously as I should have.  It’s already caused tremendous changes in my life: I’m unable to work, I’m unable to function like normal. I can’t bear to be away from my apartment.  I feel stuck, unable to make necessary changes.  

My body and mind are in constant fight or flight mode.  The question I’m asking myself is this:  will I run away or stay and fight?  

When having a bad day, what narrative runs through your mind? What do you tell yourself to get through difficult times?

Joan Didion said that “We tell ourselves stories to survive.” What story do you tell?

Recovery from any physical or mental trauma takes many forms. Sometimes, the road to recovery can surprise you. Mine was in the form of 100 steps.

The Hill, located on UT Knoxville’s campus, is a place of legend and mystery. Haunted by the ghosts of Civil War soldiers, and possibly a wolf, the Hill stands as the oldest part of the university. Walking up the Hill, from any side, was a veritable hike up a mountain. If you were unfortunate enough to have classes on The Hill, as many engineering/science/psychology majors do, then you were whipped into shape, and quick.
On the far side of The Hill, looking towards downtown Knoxville, you had a perfect view of the giant golden phallus, or as it is properly named, the Sunsphere. I was privy to this view several times a week for one or two semesters. I also had the best ass of my life, from climbing the 100 steps that rose up that side of The Hill.
For two semesters, I rented an apartment right on the river, close to downtown. This meant I had to walk down the main street towards campus; The Hill is the first building you come to from that side. Once you got to that side, you either had to bite the bullet and climb the steps, or you had to walk several blocks further and walk up another easier set of steps.
Steps are steps, right? Not in this case. The steps that faced the Student Center on the other side of The Hill were wide, with rails, and large landings between flights, so students carrying their weight in books could rest.
The steps on the downtown-facing side of The Hill were small, narrow steps, with few landings. They were steeper steps, inclining at an angle that was nearly straight up. By the time I reached the top of this flight, I was panting hard and my heart was beating nearly out of my small ribcage. But I did it every day and, with practice, and the help of two home-made cinnamon rolls from the Student Center bakery, I finally was able to climb those steps with ease. This was much more important than just climbing a mountain, this was saving my life.
How did the 100 steps save my life? Here’s how: exercise increases appetite, which forces one to eat more, which causes one to gain weight. And I needed to gain weight.
When I moved to Knoxville (for the second time) in 1998, I weighed in at 75 pounds. When I left in May of 1999, I had gained up to 95 pounds. And I owe it to two things: persistence of will, and that Hill.
I had an 8 o’clock class at least three days per week, and I would walk from my apartment to the Student Center most mornings, if I had time, and get two large cinnamon rolls. Then I would gather my courage and my books and walk up that Hill. I had to stop for breaks often, but I never quit. I even tried to drive to classes on the Hill on occasion, but there is a small circle of parking and with nearly 30,000 students on campus, chances of getting a space on the Hill were slim, almost nil. So I sucked it up and walked up the Hill.
On mornings when I didn’t go to get breakfast first, I had to walk up the less traveled back side of the Hill, the narrow steps. I met other students occasionally, but there was much less traffic. And when I left classes, I would catch a view of downtown and the Sunsphere, as I made my way back down the Hill.
During Christmas break, I came back to Nashville to visit with my family. They were so shocked to see how much weight I had gained that they took pictures. An aunt or cousin actually took a photo of my ass. I still have that photo, a happy reminder of what I had overcome. A happy reminder that even if you are down, you can pick yourself back up again. You can conquer whatever it is that has attacked your mind and body. You can do anything you set your mind to. Anything.

I’m eternally grateful for that Hill, though I cursed it during those long treks up. When I was finally able to go and purchase new jeans, I was thrilled with the muscles in my legs, and in my butt. I was proud. I had reason to be. I had gained twenty pounds, and it was because I had the courage to walk up that Hill every single day.

Years ago, there was a hugely popular theme park in Nashville called Opryland. It was torn down and replaced with a mall, stupidly, and I think whoever made the decision to tear down a perfectly wonderful and popular theme park to put in a horrid discount shopping mall must be regretting it. At least I hope this is the case.

Anyway, my dad, who is a carpenter by trade, did some work on Opryland, and was able to test ride the famous Wabash Cannonball. I used to love telling this story to friends, adding that my dad rode it before they ‘slowed it down.’ I’m not a huge fan of coasters, but I did ride them when I was younger. Until, one day, when, of course, I had a massive freak-out. In the middle of a ride.

I was 19, and my family, along with an aunt, uncle, cousin, and my best friend, all drove down to Disney in Orlando. After spending a few days in the parks, we drove over to Daytona Beach, just an hour or so from Orlando. Daytona Beach has a boardwalk right on the beach, filled with shops, Ski-ball, the usual attractions. But this boardwalk also had an indoor amusement park, which, to this day, I don’t understand. Why indoors? Especially on a beach?

So I took my young cousin in and we decided to ride the Scrambler. That may or may not have been what it was called, but there was a ride just like this in Panama City Beach (at what used to be the Miracle Mile Amusement Park, also now a shopping mall) and it was called the Scrambler. Two people to a pod, with the pods spinning on their own while going in a circle, and also the arms moved up and down. Quite thrilling, if you like that sort of thing.

This indoor park was really quite shabby, and as we whirled round and round, I heard noises and creaks and things that didn’t sound exactly safe. Not to mention I’m pretty sure that the ride was going way faster than is allowed. Which says a lot– at 19, I was what was termed a ‘speed demon’ and had just earned in the neighborhood of 8 speeding tickets in one year.

The faster we spun, the more unsafe I felt, until finally I couldn’t stop myself from screaming. I screamed until they stopped the ride and let me off. As I write this, it’s hard to decide whether to laugh or cry. There is enough distance in time from this event that it’s funny, but with recent events being what they are (a subject for another day), and my anxiety levels being at an all-time high, it’s hard to hold back the tears.

Surely I’m not the first person to do this, but I’ve never witnessed anyone else having a meltdown on a ride. Thank fuck there were no cell phones back then to record my meltdown. I guess that is one huge positive note in an otherwise sad tale.

One of my favorite lines in Pulp Fiction is by Fabienne: “Pot bellies are sexy.”

I find this line so intriguing. In America, we don’t want fat, we don’t want pot bellies. We want tiny, thin, slips of women. We want unreality. We want Paula Deen diets and 90-pound women. We want to eat the fried butter but we don’t want the look of fried butter.

I could go on & on about Tarantino and his take on pop culture, but I write about this line for another reason. When I was a kid, I had a pot belly. There’s even a photo of said belly somewhere.

I thought of that photo today, after visiting the gastroenterologist. He was commenting on my recent weight loss, asking the usual questions. Did I mean to lose weight? Was I eating? What’s the most I’ve ever weighed?

I thought of that photo: me, shaggy hair, huge thick glasses, cut-off shorts, and this huge, round belly. It’s grotesque. Not because I have a pot belly, but because the rest of me seems normal sized. And for the first time in my life I am really curious as to why.

Why do I feel that lately there are underlying health problems that should have been addressed years ago, possibly when I was a teenager (or perhaps before then)? This gets into another area, mainly the responsibility of caretakers, but that is beside the point at this juncture. I have to move forward.

Another funny anecdote from my glorious childhood: according to my mother, I was so fat at the age of two (2!) that I had to be put on a diet of cottage cheese and tomatoes. How fucked up is that? No idea if it’s true or not. Regardless, it’s beginning to feel like a fucked up metaphor for my life.

Looking through my family tree this week, I’ve discovered some unpleasant surprises.

While its true that I’ve always known that my biological father and maternal grandmother died of different cancers, what I failed to pay attention to was their ages. Both were relatively young, and I was very young at the time they both died (19 and 25, respectively). But now, 20 years later, I’m not so young. And I’m very close to the age my father died, which was 47.

At twenty, 47 didn’t really seem that young to me. Now I realize it was incredibly young, especially considering modern medicine. And now it terrifies me. Terrifies.

I hate that lately I’ve had these horrifyingly clear epiphanies about life in general, and my own life specifically. I have obsessed over these realizations, wondered why it took me so long to get to them. How had I not known that I’ve had serious anxiety all my life? Why wasn’t I treated for it? Is it because I minimized it in an effort to seem strong, or did everyone around me minimize it for whatever reason? Why have I suffered through trauma and not be treated for that either? Why are my parents so bad at taking care of their health problems and why have I followed that stupid and dangerous pattern?

It seems my genes have doomed me in a way, have made the possibility of fatal diseases of the mind and body damn near inescapable for me. I’ve often felt, in the last month, in the midst of the multitude of health issues I’m facing, that I was also going through the proverbial mid-life crisis. Which may or may not be the case. With a father dead at 47 and a grandma at 65, it doesn’t seem very likely. My sister did remind me, thankfully, that our great-grandparents lived to their 80’s and 90’s.

All of which has brought me to here and now. And the future. And what I want it to be. And some very big questions.

The first time I visited the psychiatrists office a few weeks ago, I was a quaking wreck of a girl. I could not sit long enough in the waiting room to fill out the paperwork, instead pacing nervously around the room and hallway. I felt ridiculous and not just a little bit like a circus act. The kids in the room stared.

I went back to that same waiting room today and talked to a therapist. We talked about a lot of stuff, but two things stood out to me as being very important and immediate: I have symptoms of PTSD, and those symptoms have never been treated.

I told her my sordid and long history of ‘mental illness’ (including my mother’s history as well) and she asked had I ever done any therapy for the trauma. I hadn’t and wondered why not? I had done behavior therapy, cognitive therapy, why not this too?

I’ve felt, very deeply, that what I went through was traumatic, even if no one else ever said it. I
am glad to finally have some validation of this. The event was 20 goddam years ago, and here I am, still dealing with the effects.

How can one not know that an event that changes your diet, your daily routine, your entire perspective on things and your life, in general, would be considered traumatic? Of course it is.

I do feel somewhat relieved in the fact that there are non-chemical therapies, and that my therapist had some book recommendations for me on other, newer therapies. I’m intrigued by the EMDR but trepidatious as well. Or terrified, as is my normal response.

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