Saturday, May 06, 2017



My life closed twice before its close;
        It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
        A third event to me,
So huge, so hopeless to conceive,
       As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
       And all we need of hell.

- Emily Dickinson

I first read Dickinson’s poems in 11th grade, less than a year after I’d been discharged from the Institute of Living. Though probably a hundred and fifty years had passed since she’d written these lines, I understood them as if they’d been my own. At only 15, I’d know I was mentally ill for more than half my life. And I’d known what it was like to be held against my will in treatment - and in misery. For some reason, this poem became a touchstone for me and ever since reading it that fall in 1990, I’ve circled back again and again, wondering: did this event count as one of the “twice?” Was this dramatic enough to say “my life had closed?” It became like a silent pact I’d made – only with myself – that I got two strikes. And then I’d be out.

By 15, I could already identify many decent candidates for the first time my “life closed.” The previous winter my dad slammed my head into the kitchen wall and held me, half-hanging by my neck, as he screamed into my face. That night was a front-runner. I’d dared question his unalienable right to beat our family dogs. At that moment he hurt me, my life as someone who could explain away my father’s occasional violent outbursts as mere authoritarian parenting closed. I was now a person who had been physically abused. He could deny it all he wanted, but I couldn’t any longer.

Another close runner up for my first “close” happened during my 14th summer on a teen camping trip. My sexual impulsivity had finally been exposed and suddenly my life as a sweet, innocent closed. I was now dirty, lewd and worse yet, needy. I learned that night that I could dissociate – that I could even go catatonic for days at a time if need be. The next day I emerged from my tent with the knowledge that this newfound power might be the best tool I had to keep myself from suicide.

And that discovery – the realization that I had the power to end my own pain – that came at age 8 at the top of the jungle gym when I realized that a quick break of my neck would fix everything. Until that year, the large, Irish-Catholic family next door had largely raised me. I was like their fifth child, they said, until they inherited a windfall, picked up stakes and left to run a resort in the Bahamas. Upon hearing the news, my life as someone who could rely on others closed. Ending my life seemed like the easiest way for an eight-year-old to handle things.

There were more. I could easily round out a top-ten list of life-closing moments by age 15. But who was I kidding? The night I was locked in isolation in the “side room” at the Institute of Living was always going to be the winner. I’d disobeyed the staff and hesitated to tell on my roommate when she became destructive after a particularly difficult day. I tried to talk her down but before she was completely calm, the staff found her and the inevitable battle ensued. They eventually tackled her between our beds and, once the intramuscular Haldol took hold, zipped her into a “body bag” and carried her off as I sat watching. Then they came to lead me off for my 24-hour punishment in isolation. My last request was to be allowed to brush my teeth so I could pretend I was merely going to bed. But the moment they took away my glasses and locked the door to the isolation room that life closed. From that point on, I was now a mental patient – someone who could be treated however society chose fit. I was no longer a person.

- - -

Now, in my 40’s, the second time my life closed is equally easy to spot. Again, there were so many runners-up between the ages of 15 and 27. So many times I thought: oh this. This might be the “twice.” This might be my life closing again. But when your life actually, truly closes and you are on the threshold of never returning to a world remotely like what you’d known before, there is no mistaking it.

I was lying on my back, looking up at the stars wheeling above my head. The Northern California sky seemed clear and black and I placidly kept track of the time by the position of the constellations each time I regained a bit of consciousness. When I heard the men’s voices asking, “Señora, ¿estás bien?” I was annoyed by the intrusion. Clumsily, I got up, ran to my car and locked myself in with my now-empty vodka bottle and still-full bottle of acetaminophen. Finally, I agreed to open my window to the policeman whose persistent knocking was interrupting my sleep and was promptly escorted to my own private cell at the local station. The next day my husband admitted me to our local hospital’s substance abuse unit and I went about the business of pretending to be just your run-of-the mill alcoholic. But that wasn’t the moment my life ended; I was only on life support.

My life closed on my third day in the hospital. As the nurse fiddled with my blood pressure cuff for the twentieth time, she reassured me that all my systems were normal. I stared at the list of twelve steps stapled to the bulletin board in front of me. It had a flowered border that someone had colored with magic markers and suddenly, it occurred to me that my systems were very, very not normal. Three hours later I was still sobbing. I put the blanket over my head and concentrated hard on counting the strands of yarn in the weave. My doctor came in, sat next to me on the bed and asked what was happening.

That flower vase in the day room; I couldn’t stop thinking about it, I admitted. I couldn’t stop thinking about killing myself. The doctor patted my hand and said he'd be back. When he came back he said he thought I’d do better across the hall - on the other ward. Did I know about that unit? I could feel the snap right then. It was hard and quick like breaking the neck of a bird. I was crying so hard I couldn't see or breathe. All the hope – that I could be a real person, a person with a job and an apartment and a car and a husband – fell through my fingers onto the floor. That life closed. Now I was more than a mental patient. I was insane.

- - -

Now that my life has closed twice, I’ve fought hard to get better. For a full year after that day, I devoted all my energy to treatment: first inpatient, then IOP, then group home, then daily group and individual therapies. I had the inevitable setbacks: instances of self-harm, readmissions, even re-arrests. But always in the back of my mind was the idea that immortality might yet “unveil a third event to me.” Somehow, I knew: that third event would be the “huge, hopeless to conceive” parting that Dickinson had promised. I knew that I’d pushed myself, my family, my options, and frankly, my luck to its limits. I knew that on my third strike, I’d be really and truly out. I would die.

--> But unlike all the other times in my life, I didn’t actually want to die. I still wanted to hurt myself, to raise that ultimate red flag and signal to everyone around me that I needed to take a time out. I struggled with suicidal ideation and para-suicidal behaviors for years. But I’d finally managed to start to build a life worth living. I liked having a job, an apartment, a car and a husband. Hell, I just liked living away from my parents. For the first time, I’d begun to realize that parting was not the heaven I’d envisioned. It was the hell I’d been living in.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

I have a decision to make.

As I mentioned in my previous post, we got into a fight with my parents at Christmas and we haven’t reached any kind of resolution. To make a long story short, it was a fight over money. They did something they thought was nice, but because they didn’t consult us, we asked for additional information. They found our request insulting. Basically they thought we were looking a gift horse in the mouth. Words were exchanged that gave us insight into how they see us. It wasn’t pretty. 

January was tense. I avoided them at all costs. By February, when they still hadn’t provided us with the additional information we’d requested, I contacted their estate planner – something they’d said I could do. This provoked a very nasty email from my father, which gave us even further insight into how they think about us. It was… ugly. Thankfully they’ve been out of the country ever since.

(BTW, our financial advisor assured us that having the additional information was a wise idea.)

So we’re kind of… done. Exhausted. Unwilling and unable to continue. 2016 really showed us their stripes in a way that was somehow fundamentally different. All the bad visits we had and all the words that were exchanged added up. I’m sure it’s also because my husband and I found the 2016 sobering: we dealt with deaths, illnesses, surgeries and greatly increased responsibilities at work. Perhaps it’s because we finally have financial security and this makes my parents feel unnecessary, and maybe even uncomfortable about having judged us.

They’re coming home in a few days and I have to deal with this. I can continue to avoid them and say that we’re just busy. And we could continue to have contact with them very sporadically and just keep trying to write off their behavior with various excuses. But inevitably they’re going to impose some larger request on our time: to stay at our house, to have us come visit, or to travel with them. And we’ll need to decline. And all the neurocircuitry in my head is screaming: “you have a filial obligation!” and “you owe them because they paid for grad school/fertility treatments/ski trips!” The loudest neurons are screaming: “they conditioned you to never disappoint them!”

I met with my therapist today and we discussed this last thought pattern. I’m terrified of disappointing them because they terrorized me growing up. However… when we began to talk about this fear, it seemed kind of ironic. Despite my never-ending quest to please them, they’ve always given me the impression that my husband and I are a continual source of disappointment. With the exception of recognition for achievements from external sources of authority (like degrees or promotions) they consistently offer critiques about our lives. When someone treats us like children at our age/tax bracket/education level – what are we left to think? 

They just think we aren’t very good people.

And you know what? If I were to really be honest, I’ve bought it hook, line & sinker. My husband always asks why I think I’m not a nice person when – on paper – I am a VERY nice person. (I work with sick kids, I volunteer, and I treat people in my life kindly.) I’ve always pointed to my more borderline-y moments and argued that I’d made some fundamental mistakes in the past which have hurt people. He just shakes his head.

But… ever since this damn fight at Christmas, I keep going back over our actions and thinking: we’re not doing anything wrong, so why are they implying we are? Why do they ALWAYS make us feel like we’re doing something wrong? And why do I keep people in my life who fundamentally, don’t respect us? Yes, they’re my parents and they know they need to take care of me but this is not how it’s done. This is not care. This is control.

I have a decision to make. I have to grab the controls. And I have to decide how.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

DSM-5 301.81

You know how the country is kind of falling apart and everyone feels like they’re going insane? Like how suddenly wrong is right and up is down? Like how half your family/friends/acquaintances/countrymen literally don't understand what you’re saying anymore? Like how you’re scared to stop being constantly vigilant but you’re also completely exhausted and just want to hide under the covers? Like how sometimes screaming at the top of your lungs feels like the only thing that makes any sense?

Welcome to life under the control of a narcissist. 

THIS. This exact feeling of spinning out of control and never knowing what kind of chaos you’re going to encounter around the next corner – this is what it feels like to be subject to the control of a pathological narcissist. THIS is what it’s felt like for 42 years, being my parents’ child.

I’m not going to link to all the articles in the popular media lately on this topic – but they’re there. I’m not going to link to all the peer-reviewed scientific studies of treatment failures for this flavor of personality disorder – but they’re there. Let me summarize them all for you: 

pathological narcissists are incurable and impossible to deal with. 

And I don’t mean “impossible to deal with” as in: “oh, knock it off, you’re being so difficult.” I mean: there is literally nothing you can do or say that makes the situation better. Ever. You can’t try reason or logic, you can’t try mollification, you can’t even try anger. NOTHING WORKS.

I guess in some ways, the last three weeks – despite being deeply unsettling and not the least bit triggering – have been oddly validating. For the first time, I could (should I choose to) say to another rational adult: “Hey, you know how this president is making you feel? That guy is like my dad’s clone. So I’ve had some struggles.” And that rational adult might actually, TRULY, understand what I’d felt.

So my parents came for Christmas and it was, predictably, horrible. Four days of counting the seconds until they left. My father made oblique references to future visits and I literally did not reply because I’m not actually sure I can tolerate being around them at this point. After 4 VERY unpleasant visits in 2016, I’ve reached a point where I’ve pretty much given up. We don’t have a relationship. I can barely tolerate calls with them at this point. (See previous statements about nothing working, being impossible, ect)

The argument that began at Christmas has actually dragged into February and I, quite literally, do NOT have time for this shit. My husband and I are both trying to navigate very demanding new responsibilities at our respective jobs while also trying to maintain our health and relationship. Dealing with added nonsense is well, just that. Nonsense.

You know how everyone just wishes we’d wake up from this awful national nightmare and we’d literally never have to talk about these terrible people again?


Sunday, November 13, 2016


You know what's nice? When you have family that offers to help out when you're scared and having surgery.

I remember when my dad had a cardiac catheterization when I was in college. He told the nurse that it was important I take him because I wasn't sympathetic enough to his illness - that I didn't understand the seriousness of it. He said I was self-centered like all people my age. (He didn't think I could hear him but I was standing in the hall crying; I was so worried about his condition.) But I heard him and that's why I made it a point to attend - or at least offer to attend - every major surgery my parents had in my adulthood. I drove to CT when my mom had lumps removed in her breasts and her varicose veins done. I flew out to Ohio to help my father recover from his open heart surgery and his spinal stenosis. As an only child, it just seemed like the responsible thing to do.

I always knew it didn't go both ways. My parents get pretty preoccupied with their own lives; they're retired, and they want their retirement to be fun. Besides, when my parents visit it's always about their needs, so having them around when I'm sick never really works in my favor. That's why didn't tell them about the week I was in the hospital in 2004 or the week I was in the hospital in 2008. Stupidly, I decided to tell them I was having surgery this week. As an only child, it just seemed like the responsible thing to do.

Of course they didn't offer to help. They didn't offer to come keep me company or help out with cooking and chores. They just complimented me on how capable my husband was of taking care of everything - which I guess is something because for the first 8 years of our relationship, all they did was tell me what a terrible person he was. Ironically, they started liking him when he took care of me when I was in the hospital! I guess they really do think that he can just take care of everything!

Anyway, it's just nice when you have family that offers to help. Even when you don't NEED help, just the offer makes you feel less alone during a scary time. Or at least, I guess that's how it makes you feel - I wouldn't really know.

Friday, October 07, 2016

honestly, baffled

August: wife of best friend dies

Mom: I’d like to get her something – what do you think she could use?
Me: I don’t know but I’ll ask. Thinks to self: oh, I dunno, a housekeeper, driver, nanny…

Me (to best friend): hey there, my mom wants to buy you something – anything you need?
Friend: Actually… you know what… I would like to go do a spa day with you to rest & relax.

Me (to mom): She said a spa day. Don’t know if that’s what you had in mind but it was the first thing she mentioned – and she doesn’t usually ask for things.
Mom: Sounds like a great idea!

September: horrible visit to parents’ house

Mom: So what spa do you want to go to?
Me: Um… I have no idea. I don’t know a lot about spas. I know there’s one near her house – you could try there?
Mom: Well I don’t know about spas in your state! What do you want to have done?
Me: Thinks to self: bullshit, you lived here for 30 years and you go to spas all the time. Well… I guess just a day-package type thing. Can’t you just do a gift-certificate?
Mom: Well I don’t know what you want to do. You have to tell me.
Me: Let’s just table the idea. I don’t really have time to research this right now since I’m helping her find therapy and other basic needs.
Mom: Well let me know when you have time to look into it.
Me: Um… if it’s YOUR gift, shouldn’t YOU look into it?

October: emails from hell

Mom: I was just thinking about the spa idea for you two.  Let me know when you decide on a place that works for both of you.
Me: OK. Here are 3 spas near her house. Just pick whatever you're comfortable with.
Mom: I have been doing a little investigating of the places you have suggested for a spa day. Are you thinking of trying to do this before you have your surgery on Nov. 11th?
Me: Thinks to self: um, that’s not my surgery date…
Mom: One place, while I'm sure is lovely, is out of sight price wise. The other place, not surprisingly, because it is a day spa, is much more reasonable. I can do a gift certificate online for two packages.  It sounds like this is what I can afford right now. I have a lot of charity expenses right now, too, but I think I can swing this.  Thanks to Uncle Sam and my Social Security checks!

Me: Um… if you can’t afford this, you aren’t obligated to do this. I’m sure my friend forgot we even talked about it; she has so much on her mind.
Mom: Well, it is too expensive, but I will honor the commitment I made.
Me: Okaaaay….? Also, it’s very unlikely we’re going to fit this in before my surgery. I’m only free 1 of those weekends and we both have so much going on right now I don’t want to pressure her to fit it in if she can’t.
Mom: Well do you want to call her and make a plan?
Me: Not really. She’s struggling with getting laundry done and making the kids’ lunches right now. I don’t think scheduling this is a top priority at the moment. We’ll do it eventually.
Mom: Well I wanted to get her something she can use now. I guess just let me know when you want to do this and I’ll order the gift certificate online.
Me: Thinks to self: well that’s clearly not going to happen. And who cares what YOU wanted. YOU didn’t think of something, and she didn’t ask for that.

And. Scene.