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I first tried to read Sylvia Plath’s novel The Bell Jar twenty years ago, while I was in college.  But I got about fifty pages in, just to the mass food poisoning scene, and I quit.  And I didn’t pick up the novel again until this past weekend.

I wish I’d finished the book twenty years ago;  I also wish that I hadn’t had a serious case of OCD and depression, both of which are what stopped me from finishing the book.  I had such fear of food poisoning that I couldn’t even read about it. How’s that for neurosis?

Esther’s descent into depression is one I’m well familiar with, and Plath is able to nail it with poetic language and startling imagery.  Esther seemingly has it all:  she’s smart, driven, focused.  She wins a scholarship and travels to NYC.  But during this trip, as in everywhere else in her life, she fails to connect to others.  As she grows more and more depressed and realizes that she can’t envision her future, she starts planning her suicide.

Esther becomes very paranoid about others; as her own confidence fails, as her disinterest in her life grows, she begins to distance herself from others, and from her life.  This is classic depression:  losing interest and beating a quick retreat from everything.  If life is too painful, just quit.

After Esther makes a good attempt at suicide (modeled after the author’s own first attempt), she is sent from hospital to hospital, eventually ending up in a private country club sort of facility, the 60’s version of a psychiatric hospital.  She has shock treatments, first at one hospital, then the private hospital.  There aren’t many details about the treatment itself, but it was common at the time.  ECT is still in use today, but not as common as chemical treatments.

The other treatment Esther is given is Insulin Shock treatment, which makes her gain weight, but seems to have little other effect.  Talk therapy is ineffective as well, so what is it that changes so that she is freed from the hospital?  Is it time that makes her better? Is she really better?  Is she back to her ‘normal’ self?

In the throes of depression, this is a thought that often surfaces for me:  why can’t I just be myself again?  The problem with this line of thinking is that, most likely, I wasn’t really feeling like myself before the sudden onslaught of depression, and most likely was already feeling unlike myself.  Romanticizing the past (and thinking of what you’ve lost or given up) is detrimental to you, but it’s a self indulgence few can resist.  Esther is no exception:  she looks back at her life and wonders why she couldn’t enjoy her achievements.

Again, is she cured?  Has she improved?  In the last few pages of The Bell Jar, Esther’s thoughts:

“I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart. 

I am, I am, I am.” 

Bragging over still beating, or bragging because she failed at her suicide attempts?  The ending can be seen as positive, with Esther returning to school and leaving the hospital.  But what has changed?  Is she cured, or will she return to a similar state in the future?

The answer depends on your view of mental health and psychiatry.  There are no known cures for depression or anxiety or bi-polar disorder; there are only ways to control the symptoms.  Every generation has its panacea for these ills:  electroshock therapy, lobotomy, life commitment.  Our generation has seen Prozac and other SSRI’s claim to battle our ills with little white pills.  Even further in our past, there were holes drilled in heads (trephining), blood let from our veins.

Mental illness doesn’t happen in a vacuum; it’s more of a spectrum.  It can also be episodic, with remissions lasting years, decades.  I don’t know what happens to Esther after she is discharged from the hospital, but i do know what happened to the author.

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I’ve been thinking about women’s narratives today, and how they are often overlooked and discounted.  And that led me to the VIDA Women in Literary Arts count for 2013.  Here’s how women stack up against men in major literary journals.

 

The VIDA Count 2013 | VIDA: Women in Literary Arts.

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?

Sure, a nail polish that changes color when exposed to certain drugs is pretty cool.  But, there are some issues with this.  I’m sure the creators weren’t trying to cover all women when they invented this:  it seems this is useful mainly for women in public who want to test their beverage for date rape drugs.  However, not all women use nail polish, and not all women are drugged at bars.  

According to RAINN, about 2/3 of victims know their assaulter.  Which means it could be someone they trust, someone they know.  Which means they are less likely to worry about a drink being tampered with, in public or in private.  Furthermore, if a woman went on a date and used the nail polish, how would she discern who actually tampered with her drink?  I say this because there have been incidences in Nashville which involved someone going to different bars and randomly contaminating drinks.  How can you know if it was your date, your bartender, or some random prankster getting off on drugging random folks? 

Those are just the practical issues.  There’s also the more deep-seated and disturbing thought that once again, women need to protect themselves.  Women have been told to avoid rape by changing their clothing styles (nothing  revealing!), change their habits by not going out at night alone.  They are told to travel in groups, not wear suggestive makeup or clothing, and to avoid drinking too much.  Once again women are being told to restrict what they do, while men are told nothing.  

Nail polish isn’t empowering and it’s not going to stop the epidemic of rape in America.  It’s not reassuring, it’s insulting.  It’s time to start focusing on the perpetrators, not the victims. 

 

(Note:  I Twittered about this and a male who wears nail polish said we should teach women to stop raping as well.  The stats I’ve seen show that most rapists are male.  However, this doesn’t take into account the number of unreported rapes. I suggested a nail polish for men too.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

I should just call this post Anxiety for the Anxious, honestly.

During my terribly exciting trip to the ER a month ago, the doctor asked if I was feeling anxious about anything. My reply was yes– I’m feeling anxious about what’s happening to me right now! Hyperventilating, shaking uncontrollably… Who wouldn’t feel anxious? Dumb question.

And then I tried to go back to life as it was, and found that not exactly possible. Or easy. Everything seemed to set off an anxiety attack: normal, everyday actions and events suddenly seemed overwhelming. When you are experiencing this kind of anxiety, everything is dangerous.

It’s hard to be in this world and not be scared, considering the amount of hate and spite that runs rampant around us. It’s also really hard to be happy when you are afraid of everything.

A particular quote from an Arthur Miller play keeps popping into my head: in “All My Sons”the son asks the father, “Don’t you live in the world?”

Different context, obviously, but my answer to this question is always ambiguous in my head. Part of trying to live in this world involves a certain amount of denial about what it really means to be human. There is also the need to know things, and knowing things is hard. And knowing things and seeing things and experiencing things brings anxiety.

So I guess if anyone ever asks me if I live in the world, my answer will be ‘sometimes.’ And always with a certain amount of help.

I am both fascinated/repulsed by competitive eating.  I don’t know the how or the why of competitive eating.  Why would you eat until you’re sick?  How does one even get involved in such things?

And how much glory is really involved in competitive eating?  Not much, I’d say.  Although everyone seems to know who Joey Chesnut is, including me.

Anyway, I watch Man Vs Food all the time– and I’ve no idea why.  I can’t stand being full (just one of my many issues surrounding all things edible), yet I am fascinated by a man who can gorge himself on a variety of comestibles on a regular basis.  And do it on TV, no less.

All this just to say that lately it’s been me vs. food on a daily, miserable basis.  My main nemesis?

Wheat.  Gluten.  All things related to wheat, and gluten.  Oh- and soy.  Soy protein, soy flour, soy sauce.

You’d think it’d be easy to avoid two simple little ingredients.  But you’d be so fucking wrong.

You see, the problem is that our food is way to processed.  And while you think you know what’s in your food, you’d be surprised to find all the shit that’s also in your food. Every time I think I’m safe in what I”m eating, I find out I’m wrong.

For instance:  cheesecake.  New York Cheesecake, to be specific.  Didn’t eat the crust, got way sick. There’s flour in cheesecake!

Also, potato chips:  wheat flour in potato chips.

Also, I cheat.  I cheat like a mutherfucker.  Like most kids who grew up in the South, I grew up eating a lot of breaded & fried stuff.  Also, in my quest to avoid meat, I ate a lot of bread.  I love bread.  I could live on bread and butter.  Or, at least I used to be able to.  Not any more.

I don’t know what causes Celiac Disease (the official name of my ailment) and it doesn’t really matter.  Because really, it’s all the over-processed, factory-farmed food that is probably the likely cause.  Nobody knows from whence their food came, nor do they care.  But I’m starting to.

I hate reading labels; I hate asking at every restaurant what’s in the food.  I hate being so picky about it all.  But when I’m not diligent, as in the case of the cheesecake incident, I’m sick for days.

Is this what my eating experiences will be like from now on?  Worrying over what’s in everything I put in my mouth, anxious that it might cause lengthy and painful reaction?

Awesome.

 

This month, federal funding to the program Planned Parenthood was cut, and channeled into the Metro Dept. of Health.  This will affect thousands of women who have no health insurance and need inexpensive reproductive care. Well, doesn’t that just suck?

Cutting funding to a necessary program to support women translates as this, to me:
Women of Tennessee, we hate you.  We don’t care about your reproductive health, we could not care less if you can actually afford preventative care.  We don’t care if you can’t afford birth control.  We don’t want you to have any preventative services whatsoever.  Sorry you don’t have health care; now we’re going to make this just a little bit harder on you and take away affordable health care that’s based on your income.  We are going to fund other programs but we won’t be able to help you.  Essentially, we hate you and hope you die.

Brian Harris, president of Tennessee Right to Life, says (in an article in the Tennessean) that Planned Parenthood is an “abortion business.”

Saying that Planned Parenthood is an “abortion business” is completely off the mark.  That’s like saying that McDonald’s is a “coffee business” because they offer coffee, in addition to multiple other (and more important) items.  Planned Parenthood doesn’t  derive most of their income from abortions; they derive it from wellness exams and preventative services.  It’s like saying that prostitution is a “blow job business.”  Sure, they offer blow jobs, but is that all?  Of course not.  All you freaks & kinks out there know what I mean.

Because certain groups have an inability to focus on anything other than abortion, which it totally fucking legal, btw, this funding cut has hurt thousands of women.  97% of Planned Parenthood’s services are services other than abortion (see this article).

So, my question is this:  Are you against Planned Parenthood, or are you against women?

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