Story Time

It is the longest night of the year. Our planet leans away from the light, and we lean with it.

At the same time, it’s THE HOLIDAYS, an inescapable set of events, obligations, rituals, colors, sites, sounds, smells, and stories. As I’ve explained before, I don’t love it. With the year drawing to a close, it is time to look back, I suppose.

And forward.

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The Atlantic examined our tendency to anthropomorphize the year in a recent story.

People have been complaining about how awful 2016 was, and I don’t disagree. But in many ways, I found 2015 much harder. Lots of bad things happened in 2016, sure, but I was just a witness. In 2015, bad things happened to me. This year, not much happened to me at all. Which is, in its own way, a problem. Sometimes I feel like I am in a story that has no plot.

Here is what happened:

I taught two classes in the spring and another in summer. One went well, one went ok, and one was a disaster. I continued my administrative responsibilities and managed to negotiate a pay increase for my troubles. Unfortunately, that means I have to keep doing it, which exposes me to the toxic hysteria of academia-in-decline. I took a few short trips, one to an academic conference, one to an invited speaking engagement, and a few to my grad school home town to visit friends and enjoy the pace of country life.

This fall, I was on “research leave,” which has been unproductive in the traditional sense, but very productive in other ways. Basically, I figured out definitively that I do not have a second book in me. I had all the time in the world, but I just couldn’t do it. I don’t know why, and it doesn’t matter. For the time being, I will continue to pretend to colleagues and supervisors that I am making progress, but now I can stop lying to myself. That’s something!

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How beautiful is that!

This year, I picked up three more nursing prerequisites and had a wonderful time doing it! I got to dissect a fetal sheep brain, a fetal sheep kidney, a fetal pig, and a cow’s eye. Tapetum lucidum, the blue-green shimmer coating that allows animals to see at dusk, is possibly the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I remain confused as hell about my path forward: Stay in academia and find a way to make it work? Quit my job and go to nursing school full-time? Split the difference and go part-time? Find a different job altogether? With just three more classes to go, 2017 will deliver me to a crossroads.

My personal life is pretty dull. My friend got married, which was wonderful, and I have enjoyed getting closer to her and her husband as a couple. They are family to me. Other relationships have proved challenging, with four friends doing the friend equivalent of taking a shit in my purse. The common denominator is me, I know. But it’s also my ability to pick friends. I am hardwired to put up with other people’s shit. Figuring that out took 40 years. It will probably take another 40 for me to put a stop to it.

My family drives me crazy. That’s really all there is to say about that.

The last date I went on was back in January. I am just…done.

In terms of what happened to me this year, probably the worst thing is that I sprained my ankle. That phrase really doesn’t do justice it, though. The initial injury was excruciating, and I still question whether I don’t actually have an avulsion fracture. The night it happened was beyond depressing. I could not walk, and efforts to find someone to help me gather my things and go to urgent care were fruitless. A neighbor I barely know finally came over and helped me into an Uber. I spent a Saturday night at urgent care, getting wheeled around by various medical personnel who parked me in a series of empty rooms. The room where I waited for the radiology tech contained enormous trash cans for medical waste, compounding the feeling that I had been discarded. The next day was better, so much better, as two friends helped out with groceries, meals, and comfort. But it was a hard two weeks, carefully planning each trip up and down the stairs and timing the long, arduous trek to the toilet. I contemplated peeing in a jar in my kitchen but cut back on my water consumption instead. Almost seven weeks later, I am still in pain and wonder if it will every fully heal.

Probably not.

But I am lucky, right? Because that is the worst thing that happened to me this year. On the other hand, I bore witness to a lot of bad shit.

My dad’s eye exploded during a “routine” cataract surgery, leaving him partially blind and unable to take care of my mother for several weeks. My sister and I filled in, and we have decided to take a more assertive role with their medical care (to the extent my dad, who has serious control issues, will let us). Smash cut to me, my dad, and my mom conversing with a very frustrated gastroenterology nurse practitioner about the consistency of my mom’s poops. (My mother cannot effectively participate in her own medical care, but she rages if we treat her like she can’t. It’s tricky.) My father also recently purchased his first smart phone and a new laptop, and I am his on-demand tech support. It has not escaped my notice that my sister’s interactions with my parents consist of game nights and apple picking, while mine consist of Apple tech support and discussions of my mother’s bowels.

It’s fine.

I also went to four funerals in 2016, which kind of seems like a lot for someone in their 40s. One was for an old friend’s young son, hit by a car while riding his bicycle. One was for my friend who died of cancer the year before. One was for my neighbor/friend, who died of an accidental overdose. And one was for my cousin, who killed himself. I felt tremendous grief this year, but witnessed even more.

When someone dies, all that’s left are memories, stories. The story lives as long as there is someone to tell it. My friend’s son was just 10 when he died last April, and the story of his story is that it ended too soon. His parents have done an incredible job of hanging on to life, attending concerts, taking trips, and talking enthusiastically about their boy. Almost every day, my friend posts a “memory” on Facebook that features her son. I wonder, What will happen next year, when there are no new stories, when all she has to post are memories of the memories?

I will never understand this story.

My friend who died of cancer–there were stories at his Memorial Day service too. I learned so much about him that weekend, as friends and family swapped tales and jokes that gave me a glimpse into private facets of his life. A narrative emerged: after years of unhappiness in our shared workplace, and then a year of professional humiliation (he was denied tenure, which is like dangling from a cliff for 12 months and then falling anyway), he had one good year before he got sick, a year in which he was content and hopeful. That made the nine months of dying not so bad, I guess?

I will never understand this story.

In August, my neighbor Damon died of an accidental overdose–prescription drugs, booze, and maybe spice–in another neighbor’s house down the block. He was getting high there because he wasn’t allowed to be altered at home. A story emerged at his funeral that Damon was never the same after his mother died in 2014. The story gave his senseless death a patina of romance–a young man who loved his mother so much he sought to join her in the afterlife. But he was troubled long before she died: he had a baby at 16 that he did nothing for, and he was a high school dropout, in and out of jail, unemployed, disengaged, high all the damn time. I suspected years ago that he suffered from depression and self-medicated with drugs and alcohol. Still, he was a sweet guy, and he was always kind to me. I helped him get out of jail the last time. He was my friend. His family never acknowledged how troubled he was, so they could never really help him. The silences of his life were profound. At his funeral, a born-again Christian pastor presided over his coffin, but Damon was a muslim.

I will never understand this story.

My cousin died two days after Damon. The story at his funeral was that he suddenly died of Crohn’s disease. The truth is that he had Crohn’s, but he died of depression. He was suicidal, and he owned guns, and his wife thought she had hidden the key to the gun case. At her urging, he voluntarily committed himself to a mental health treatment facility, then snowed the clinicians into thinking his suicidal ideation was just a side-effect of medications prescribed for the Crohn’s. Once the drugs cleared his system, they released him, and maybe legally they had no choice. But they didn’t even tell his wife. He drove home, found the key to the gun case, and blew his head off. His wife found him hours later when she got home from work. In her remarks at his funeral, she shared the fiction that he dropped dead of Crohn’s. That’s her choice, and those of us who knew the truth abided by it. But the lie is not without consequence. The stigma of depression intensifies its effects and prevents other people from getting help. How powerful it would have been to attribute the death of this beautiful, successful, winning-at-life man to suicide. Who might have been helped by that? And then there’s the boy. My cousin’s young grandson has Crohn’s and plaintively asked if he might die suddenly too. But on the other hand, how do you explain suicide to children?

I will never understand this story.

I tell stories too: I am writing a second book, I am going to quit the job I hate, I am going to be a nurse, so-and-so loved me or even just liked me a little. The truth is, I don’t have anything more to say, let alone write, as an academic. The truth is, I buy new clothes at Target to avoid doing laundry, so it’s highly unlikely I will get it together to change jobs. The truth is, I have two FWBs who aren’t very nice to me. The truth is, J* replaced my friendship with podcasts, which makes me wonder whether he ever cared for me. When we broke up as a couple, I had the same feeling: Was any of it real? Some people, when they are done with you–it’s not enough to withdraw their love or friendship. They have to take your memories too.

The truth is, stories are so much better than the truth.

Even so, 2016 was better than 2015, for sure. And 2017 will be better still! This long, dark night will end, and we will lean towards the light once more. That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it.

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2015 Year in Review: Poisoned, Set Adrift

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2015 began with a poison kiss.

I didn’t even know I had New Year’s Eve plans until a few hours before midnight. J* texted me while I was at the gym to see if I wanted to spend the evening with him, and I rationalized, “Hey, better late than never.” We agreed that he would pick me up at 7 to drive an hour to visit friends of his in a far suburb. That gave me a leisurely two-and-half hours to finish my run, stop off at the store, and slap on the pretty stick. About 30 minutes later, he texted again, wanting to know if I could be ready to leave at 6, just an hour hence.

I was still on the treadmill.

With a mighty effort, I managed to get home, stop sweating, and be ready when he arrived to pick me up. We were trying to be there in time for something called “an Irish toast,” though neither of us understood what that meant. Because I thought we were going to his English friend’s home, I imagined a custom of some import, a break in the evening’s festivities at which our absence would be noted. J* drove with urgency and then like a madman. At one point, lost in conversation, he missed our exit, trapping us on an airport service road. He got angry. Then, when we missed the last bailout, he got angry some more.

I had witnessed one of his outbursts on the phone, but never in person. Now, I was trapped in the passenger seat of a car that felt like it was going way too fast, driven by a grown man having a tantrum. He muttered and yelled, addressing himself in the second person. He slammed his fists on the steering wheel. He shifted the manual transmission in waves of anger. When he slowed in the airport parking lot to ask for directions to the exit, I looked at the glittering terminal in the distance and wondered if I should make a run for it. I froze.

I dated a violent man once, so in those seconds of uncertainty, I reverted to what I knew: be quiet, stay still, act small. Even so, when J* challenged me to confront him, I foolishly took the bait.

“Go ahead, say whatever you’re going to say,” he demanded.

“I’m not going to say anything,” I fumed, “because I don’t want to get punched in the fucking face.”

In the twisted logic of our relationship, my words became the most grievous transgression of the night, a presumed accusation–that J* was an abuser–we never quite got past. I offered context that he declined to consider and apologies that neither of us quite believed. He offered very little, pushing back hard that my words exceeded his actions in their terribleness. In retrospect, that argument exposed the power deferential of our relationship: his ambivalence towards me could put me on my heels even if he was in the wrong. In the end, having resolved nothing, we just moved on.

We arrived at our destination–not an English home, but rather an Irish bar–about ten minutes to seven. J* bolted from the car without a second’s pause, leaving me trotting after him in heels across the icy parking lot. We exchanged no words to bridge the angry divide between us. Moments later, I was meeting his friends for the first time, smiling a plastic smile that I hoped would hide my deep discomfort.

As it turns out, an Irish toast is simply an acknowledgement that it is midnight in Ireland. The bar distributed little flights of Guinness, a canned version of Auld Lang Syne blared from the PA system, and then it was done. A piece of actual toast would have been more satisfying.

It was 7:01 PM, and the five hours to midnight spread before us like a cold and lonely road. I drank a lot, I ate too much, and I spent a lot of time in the ladies’ room. As the hours passed, J* and I found our way back to each other. He held my hand, he touched me lightly under the table, he checked to see if I needed anything. At midnight, he smiled broadly as he took my face in his hands and rendered that sweet but fateful kiss.

I was wary but hopeful as our lips met. Lost in softness and warmth, we failed to notice the poison seeping like a fog. Within hours, I was toxic. Within the month, I was adrift.

We went to J*’s friends’ house, where we watched them drink themselves into oblivion. Then we drove back to my house, where J* dropped me off as unceremoniously as a taxi service–no hug, no kiss, no promise to see me again.

Days later, my body started to go haywire–my first bout with the fun! fun! fun! of serious hormonal imbalance.

Two weeks after that, J* broke up with me in a brief text message.

Three weeks after that, a trusted neighbor assaulted me in my living room, violently groping me and attempting to tear off my clothes. I fought him off but did not call the police, because he was leaving the country the next day, and I wanted to put as much distance between us as possible. Even now, he lurks at the edge of my dreams. And when he returned to his house, just 16 feet away from mine, last spring, I found myself feeling panic every time I had to walk the dog.

Spring semester, I endured a two-month bout of bronchitis and a crushing to-do list: teach three classes, give four presentations at three conferences, attend a hundred meetings, grade a thousand typed pages (that is sadly not an exaggeration), write a million emails. All of it felt like work. By fall, I felt broken.

My relationship with my sister deteriorated. In January, she unfriended me on Facebook for a slew of infractions she declined to mention until I noticed I could no longer tag her in family photos. She made it nearly impossible for me to see her children, who used to be the lights of my life. Where we once had monthly excursions, I took them out just twice all year. My parents remained neutral or erred, understandably, on the side of seeing their grandchildren. Throughout the year, my family gathered frequently without me, having decided preemptively that I was too busy to join them. My mother started to forget me.

My friend was sick. He got sicker. In May, he died. My friends, also his friends, lost their friend. My friend, his widow, lost her husband. My loss was so small compared to hers, but still–the losses associated with this one man piled up atop one another, so that everywhere I turned I saw someone I cared about struggling to breathe through their grief.

Days after my friend died, I reached for J* and he reached back. After months of silence, we struck up an amazing, awkward, amazing friendship. It was an invitation to healing but also more pain. In August, I fell into a hole so deep I could barely see the sky. J* pulled me out. Then he left the country without saying goodbye.

The remainder of 2015 was defined by depression, loneliness, workplace misery, family problems, health problems, and another painful breakup. I could not make anything turn out right, as though the poison coursing through me wilted everything I touched. In that powerless state, I felt adrift.

The year began with a crazy night and a fateful kiss, but, like all measurements of time, midnight on New Year’s Eve is an arbitrary beginning for a period of decline that probably started years before. In some corners of this story, I can say comfortably that someone else was the agent of my misfortune. But in others, it was fate or chance or no one, and in still others, it was me. I made choices too. I opened a door, or closed one. I said things I shouldn’t have said and failed in a hundred different ways. J* kissed me, and I kissed him right back, even though I knew I shouldn’t. Other people–who knows, maybe even 2015 or the Universe itself–might have shoved me out to sea, but I’m the one who untied the raft from its moorings.

Now I write this blog, as if from the safety of that raft. Life often seems like a forbidding sea, and only the moon and stars at night help differentiate sky from the dark water all around me. The writing helps.

I tell my story, I vent the poison.

I plan a new future, I chart a course to safety.

I don’t know what 2016 has in store for me. But just in case, I am staying in this New Year’s Eve.

And the only person I’m kissing… is the dog.Photo on 2013-11-04 at 16.58 #6