Vapor Trails

Home for me brings about a happy melancholy. Yes, contradictory, but very real. I often think about what home means. To me, it’s not just a place. It’s a time and experience, every bit as much as the house you grew up in. It’s memories. Watching a huge blizzard, the snow piling up in white, frozen swirls, with a beloved cat snuggling on your lap. That experience is from a house, but the physical location fades into the background of the time and place. Of the emotional and visual experiences. Our families are “home” no matter where we hang our hat, and I’d be lost without them – and as a teen I was very much lost without them. But even my true family, my wife and children, they change with time. There’s no going back to my daughter’s first step. But, there it is, just in front of me as I write this. The faded images of two people who no longer exist.

Memory is like the vapor trail of our life, fading and thinning with time as we jet along. The longing to look back is what makes us human. I think that’s the origin of a dying man’s memory of a childhood sled “Rosebud” in Citizen Kane, a man wracked with longing.

Our “home” is constantly lost and remade. It’s in us, and the longing to recapture what it was is elusive. Present in an intangible way, but very real. It’s there inside our heads.

I wrote The Ocean Rose as a a release, catharsis for the emotional scars brought about by the abandonment I experienced growing up. Not true abandonment, as in kicked to the street to fend for myself, it was emotional abandonment. A ringing silence by those who should have comforted me when I most needed help, during a time of crushing homesickness, loneliness, and the beginning of a life long battle with depression and anxiety. That story is perhaps the best and only way I can convey just how hard it was.

Nemesis

This is the first chapter in a book called “Nemesis”. I’ve spent a great deal of time polishing this, in an exercise of “how good my self-editing skills can be”, other chapters are in the works

Latest Revision: 4-16-2019

Nemesis

Chapter 1 – The Ascent

Once I regain consciousness my last clear memory is the large club leveled at my head. There’s no sensation in my limbs, no throbbing pain from what must have been a nasty knock to the head. Surrounded by total darkness I’m unable to move, as if suspended in the vacuum of space, weightless, frozen and without a sense of up or down. Count heartbeats but there are none, cry out but there’s no sound; I’m a speck of consciousness in a sea of oblivion.

I recall stories where soldiers awaken to find themselves locked inside bodies bereft of all senses, yet with minds fully capable of reason. If hell exists that would be it.

In an attempt to move my arms and legs I feel a tug, not unpleasant but extremely odd, like the slow removal of a rope from my chest. I’m elated when my eyesight returns, but repulsed by the pair of lifeless, unblinking eyes that greet me. Not a nice way to wake up, nose-to-nose with a corpse.

I begin rising upward like a feather in an updraft and the body of a young woman comes into view, sprawled on a dirty floor strewn with refuse, her arms and legs askew, face splattered by blood from a gash on her temple. The only light comes from a single barred window and the narrow, dust filled shafts of sunlight illuminate her delicate, angular head, which is surrounded by a mane of curly red hair the color of honey-laced rust.

Green eyes, fair, but pallid skin, and a thin scar that runs from just beneath her left ear to the chin.

It’s me.

I try to scream, but nothing issues from my non-existent mouth. I grope for my torso, to find my only connection with the material world is a silvery thread attached to my transparent, rising spirit, the tether unfurling like my dead body decided to go fly a kite. There has to be a way to regain my body, a way to conjure my powers and pull myself back from the brink. The ability to reason, to see, and experience emotions suggests I’ve only one foot in the grave, nearly a doornail, but not done yet. I try with all my might to gather the latent energy that fuels my spells, but the powers do not manifest fully and remain elusive like grabbing a fist full of water.

Death approaches and the thought seems unreal, a dream.

Will Mom appear soon, the unborn sister I never got to hold?

The possibility of being reunited with her, to meet my sister at last, momentarily makes me wish to let go of the scraps of energy I’ve gathered, to die and finally be at peace, but my weakness infuriates me and a deep-rooted stubbornness spurs me to redouble my efforts, to return to that damnable cage of flesh and blood. A thumping in my chest begins, insistent, rhythmic and powerful. As the summoned energy enfolds me a tingling spreads through glassy limbs that sprout from my silken, transparent spirit. Newly formed hands allow me to grab the silvery cord to haul myself back to my body, but as the ground inches forward an intense pain causes me to falter. Like ragged shards of glass slowly being inserted into my chest, the torment worsens the harder the pull and forces me to let go.

Perhaps I’ve gotten what I deserve, even wanted in some deep morbid corner of my soul. I chased after the demons that attacked my deadbeat Dad and I, and this is my penance: the pell-mell Darwin award for drunk, stupid witches who think they’re invincible.

I couldn’t loose him again, no matter what the cost. But, I did fail him, just as I failed to save Mom. Perhaps turn about is fair play, for he failed us. Failed me.

After years of being separated, I recently found him lurking in the Seattle underground, a witless vagabond. Our reunion should’ve been happy, but my temper got the best of me. Instead, he received the full blast of my anger, the blame for everything that’s gone wrong in my life, my fury that he’d left us all those years ago. On one of his more lucid days he claimed Mom encouraged him to leave. If true, she lied to me about what happened, and I find that hard to accept. He wouldn’t tell me more than that so I can’t shake the feeling the worldwide demon uprising is somehow his fault. But that’s unfair, I was angry that the man I found wasn’t the father I remembered.

Now he’s likely in some adjacent cell, dead or dying.

Mom where are you? Come to me like you promised!

Just before she died, Johanna told me the year leading to my 26th birthday would herald great danger, that the demons would become far bolder and aggressive. She said this with a glassy, faraway look and, though she looked my way, her gaze alighted upon me as if I stood behind myself. With great effort, her voice weak and raw, she promised she’d return and that we’d be reunited when things were at their worst. She summoned our family’s familiar; a white cat that has served us for centuries. Chester appeared, went wide-eyed and then disappeared as my mother drew her last breath.

I was left alone in a burning building, scared, covered in blood and filled with rage. I wonder if Mom watched me screaming at her side while she floated away.

She’d been right in one respect; in the past year I’ve been fighting demons, lots of them, with the unexpected bonus of protecting an imbecilic father, but so very wrong in the only way that mattered to me. She failed to come back. Yesterday had been my 26th birthday and … nothing, nada, bubkis, despite her reassurances. The day crept by, hour upon excruciating hour, Dad and I cooped up in our hideout. As the day waxed and waned my despair grew and one drink led to another as my anxiety got the best of me. I’m not sure what I expected, her ghost to come floating out of the wall like some beneficent Jacob Marley with answers to all the questions about life and death? As stupid as it might seem, that’s exactly what I expected, because I trusted her, because the thirteen-year-old girl that watched her mother die never really grew up, clung to her promise, and so desperately needed to be held and comforted.

But, instead of being visited by my own ghost of Christmas past at the stroke of midnight, I awoke to a pack of demons and a serious hangover.

Mom would’ve been 169 today, if I’d been strong enough to save her. We should be wearing pointy little hats – the one’s with cartoon ribbons and balloons, not the other kind – and eating cake. Instead I’m mostly dead, and she’s pushing up the daises. Pretty damn unfair, but that’s life isn’t it?

The impending likelihood of my departure from this world gives way to a whole series of regrets. I’ll miss Seattle, with it’s cloudy, but mild, winter afternoons, the white peak of Mount Rainier peering down on the coffee capital of the world. I’ll miss Pike Place Market, walking along the piers eating clam chowder and feeling sorry for myself, or pretending to read books in Pioneer Square, but really spying on happy couples as they walk along James street, browsing shops or strolling toward the Seattle underground.

I’ll miss watching Cedric perform at the 5th Avenue Theater and to never again have the opportunity to repeatedly loose my nerve to approach him. I couldn’t live with myself if a demon took his life because of me, so I shadowed him for years, gritting my teeth when he went out on the town, wishing it was my hand he held, my lips he kissed, instead of his girl du jour. After our imaginary dates I’d lick my self-inflicted wounds at the aptly named Rock Bottom Brewery, where I could drown my cowardice in a strong Irish coffee. Or two. Or three. Sometimes minus the coffee.

Coffee. I’ll miss that as much as the whiskey. I’ve the notion to summon a mouse with a little waiter’s apron carrying a latte, and have the rodent force it down my throat. Perhaps the caffeine would jump start my heart. I’d lean against its little chest and drone on about the inequities of life, lament the conviction that my dream of being reunited with those I love is nothing more than an illusion, a sick practical joke.

Just when I thought the situation couldn’t get any worse my life begins to flash by, a barrage of memories that fill me with happiness and a deep melancholy. Life before my mom died. Carefree days. Happy times with my parents, before Dad left. How handsome and confident my father once was, so gentle and loving. I’d been so safe and warm in his arms. Not like now, with his unkempt hair, terrible BO, and constantly shifting moods.

I want to scream, why did you leave!?

The demon should have swung harder. If my brains had been bashed in I might have awoken on my comfy little cloud with harp in hand, and not been subjected to this slow, excruciating ascent to the afterlife.

Happily, the Memorex moments end abruptly when I butt up against the ceiling like a helium balloon. The pain has returned, the silver cord taught and humming like a plucked string. The tether goes lax and the room becomes pitch black. A tunnel opens beneath me and I fall faster, and faster, and faster toward a white light.

Here comes Heaven; my ticket has finally been punched, but no pearly gates greet me on the other side. Instead, the after life is a bright blur that smells like salt water. When my eyes focus, the brilliant blue of Puget Sound spreads out below, covered in whitecaps and dotted with the backs of gulls that dip up and down, much as the rolling waves beneath them. A ferry tosses on the chop, the bow slicing into the water with V-shaped plumes that wash the sides of the boat in white, glittering spray.

I know this day. The day I lost everything.

A redheaded girl leans over the railing, arms outstretched, laughing when the wind blown water covers her face. Behind her, Johanna steps onto the observation deck, her hands folded across a swollen belly.

Just before I fall feet first through my younger self’s brain cap, I wonder if the outcome could be changed, our fate altered.

My descent ceases with a jolt. A plume of ice-cold spray covers my face and arms. I’m elated, joyous, because we’re close to Victoria, where Mom will give birth, safely guarded by the others in our coven.

“Happy birthday, Sibyl,” says Johanna leaning her hip against the railing.

I try to scream RUN, but say instead, “What are you going to name her?”

“Petra, and she will be powerful.”

Johanna covers her mouth, eyes widened. “I’m sorry,” she says at my deflated countenance, her eyes soft, filled with the unspoken sadness that those shortcomings evoke. “I didn’t mean it like that… Your powers will come, I know they will.”

“You know I love you. Forever, no matter what.”

I swallow hard to tamp down the knot in my stomach. As my conscious melds and fades, I know there’s nothing I can do but watch Mom and my unborn sister die again.

Zen and The Art of Being Alone

This post came to me the other day riding on an exercise bike. Boring as heck. My mind, as it often does, began to chew on the past. To take a darker road. I became melancholy and angry too. Then I thought of Katniss and the kids, their happy faces wide-eyed with a deep appreciation of life.

Had I lost that? If so, why?

You’ll never completely loose the ability to be happy and filled with the love of life. If you feel that you have lost these things, no matter who the black haired, mustache twirling villain is or may have been, you only have one person to blame for keeping alive the flames of regret, anger and bitterness: yourself.

I smiled at the thought and peddled faster. I cleared my head and tried to solve a physics problem with some mental gymnastics. Poof, the 30 min ride ended and I couldn’t remember how I got so sweaty (ewwww).

Until quite recently I sat high upon my throne of suffering. A place as empty as a desert and as crushing, cold and dark as the depths of an ocean.

Like any barber chair, you can keep ratcheting yourself higher and higher until you see nothing below but an opaque fog. In the mirror your reflection is a person with gaunt eyes filled with defeat. Often you’re so bent upon a cry to the heavens, with a fist to the air, you miss the opportunity to just be.

A state of simply being.

To me that state is found by answering the question: “How do you be alone? Truly alone.” A state of being “alone” doesn’t necessarily mean being by yourself. It is a state of mind no matter who is with us. How many times have you had a hand waved in front of your face – “HELLO! Anybody there?” Unfortunately, more often than not you weren’t alone in your head, quite the opposite.

It’s not OK when our experiences drive us to be isolated and lonely. In fact, when in the throes of self-immolation you isolate those around you and then become truly lonely. This is when bitter grief and anger can grow unchecked. “No one understands me! I don’t need them.” This state is a place that drives us like the crack of a whip, while you pull the oars on only one side of the boat, spinning it in a circle.

I’ve had several “ah-ha” moments recently, and one of them came to me when I thought, “Who is the one person you’ll be with the most, throughout all your days?” Many might come to mind, such as your parents, siblings, spouse, or children.

Nope, lets be a little narcissistic here… yourself.

How much time do you spend between your ears? It can be your WHOLE LIFE! But, that’s the rub. Do you constantly have to be between your ears?

Here are a few examples of my own that suggest the answer is no, absolutely not.

A watched a blizzard for several hours when I was 9, sitting in front of a big bay window. I focused on the swirling white drifts and the blowing snow. Huge gusts of wind bent and shook some Boxelder trees in my front yard, as if they were shivering in the cold. There was the contended purr of my cat Scamp, the warmth of him on my lap. The day careened by and all I remember is snow and purring.

When I first moved to Ames I recall another wonderful blizzard. I sat with a window open, the cold air bracing. I was mesmerized by the snow globe effect of the streetlights. I may have sat there for 20 minutes, or hours, I don’t remember.

Endless hours of physics homework. Lost in the equations and the delicious complexity. Happy when I found the solutions.

In those moments I was alone – truly alone. I was nowhere to be found. I was not there. But I was. A silent observer.

If my mind is tumultuous, I can fall into the seductive lure that I can think my way to some solution, that wallowing somehow helps – that this path will usher in some kind of calm and happiness eventually.

BS – if you attempt to salve your troubled mind in this way all you are doing is recognizing yourself as stuck on that throne of suffering, helplessly looking at yourself in the mirror. This solution to finding peace is like filling a glass with the faucet full blast. All that happens is the water curls up and out and you achieve nothing but frustration.

When the mind is dark and you are on that throne of suffering, think of the difference between intelligence and wisdom. You’re smart enough to know a path leads you nowhere. So seductive, so easy to give in – the apple, the snake, the justifications and desire, the feeling of an external force pushing you down the wrong road. Yet you choose that path. You and you alone.

Be wise enough not to take it.

Give yourself the gift and pleasure of recognizing the solution to the art of being alone is to leave yourself alone.

Vital Signs Part 1

Vital Signs – Indications that a person is still alive, which include a heartbeat, a pulse, breathing, and body temperature.

God forbid that the definition might include any higher reasoning, moods, and mental capacity or activity, for you can seem alive and be dead to the world.

* * * The stigma of metal illness * * *

have bipolar disorder (bipolar II to be precise).

I will never say I am bipolar. Ok I have, but I don’t like doing so or hearing others describe me that way. It doesn’t define me. In this world we tend to label those with special needs or mental illnesses with an “is a” instead of the more appropriate “has a”.

For example, you would never refer to person x is a broken leg, person y is a concussion, or that so-and-so family have a cancer child (or have a child that is a cancer, but of course that has its own set of very rude connotations). Such descriptions are nonsense for physical aliments. It should be nonsense for mental disorders as well. Yet the language used to describe each is very different in our “enlightened” society.

Why discuss my disorder in such a public forum?

To share, educate, and make aware. After all, isn’t that what the caring bridge web site is all about? To write about one’s battle with cancer for all your friends and family to see, or to have loved ones participate in your online journal as you struggle to survive.

Where is a mental health caring bridge? There isn’t one, though bipolar disorder can be equally deadly.

Though only 10% the number of deaths from cancer, bipolar disorder kills about 5,000 people each year through suicide.

Some think of those with a mental illness as loons that go on rampages and kill, commit suicide, are weird or dangerous, or that shuffle about in institutions or push shopping carts around in alleyways.

Perhaps this is a bit of a melodramatic description, but it’s also a description that far too many believe. None of us would hesitate to say we have a hernia, a broken leg, or any other physical aliment. However many keep mental illnesses to themselves, worried about how people will perceive them or misunderstand what such a condition means.

There are HR web sites devoted to how to “deal with employees with mental illness”:

http://smallbusiness.chron.com/deal-employee-bipolar-disorder-1244.html

Whereas there are web sites entitled how to “accommodate employees with cancer”:

http://hr.toolbox.com/blogs/why-i-love-my-job/accommodating-an-employee-living-with-a-cancer-diagnosis-45735

Language matters.

I think it’s necessary for a perception shift within the general public about the realm of mental disorders. To be open and honest and not to treat these conditions like some dirty little secret.

Here is a quote by Natasha Tracy I like very much (some of which I paraphrase):

“Emotional pain, like physical pain, is a matter of degree. Everyone experiences sadness – which is the problem. An average person who experiences sadness thinks they know what it is. And they do. They know sadness over a normal range, perhaps acutely when a loved one dies. But they don’t know the sadness that is so big that it destroys your world.

Similarly, people can get upset and get anxious before a test or a job interview and think they know anxiety. But that isn’t the grating, jagged, writhing beast that eats you from the inside of your flesh.

People seem to think they understand severity – thinking that their pain must be the worst pain, and if they got over it then so should everyone else. No one would compare a twisted ankle to a shattered femur and expect the shattered one to “walk it off” but with emotion, that’s exactly what we do.”

* * *

“People go mad in idiosyncratic ways.”

– Kay Jamison, An Unquiet mind

My first major hypo-manic episode occurred when I was 21, followed by another at 24. Both were mingled with depression in a witch’s brew that stirred my brain painfully. I was unaware at the time that it was a manifestation of bipolar disorder. I chalked it up to “I freaked out.”

I don’t experience euphoric mania, but a miasma of swirling anxiety, anger and irritation all at the same time with feelings of sadness and worthlessness. Last summer I wore a trough in the sidewalk outside the building where I work. I felt very much like a shark in a tank that has to be constantly moving in order to keep the water flowing through its gills.

I had a penchant for crying for no reason or becoming so agitated I had to move, move, move. Or, in a healthier vein, write, write, write and write some more – for writing is not only cathartic it’s also a productive form of kinetic energy.

The worst aspect of being bipolar, as I alluded to above, is my “mixed state” mood swings. I am now taking Lamictal, an anti-convulsant mood stabilizer, which has helped tremendously. So does psychotherapy.

Here is the formal definition of mix state mood swings from Wikipedia:

“In the context of mental disorder, a mixed state, also known as dysphoric mania, agitated depression, or a mixed episode, is a condition during which features of mania and depression, such as agitation, anxiety, fatigue, guilt, impulsiveness, irritability, morbid or suicidal ideation, panic, paranoia, pressured speech and rage, occur simultaneously.

Typical examples include tearfulness during a manic episode or racing thoughts during a depressive episode. One may also feel incredibly frustrated or be prone to fits of rage in this state, since one may feel like a failure and at the same time have a flight of ideas. Mixed states are often the most problematic period of mood disorders, during which susceptibility to substance abuse, panic disorder, commission of violence, suicide attempts, and other complications increase greatly.”

All that aside, Katniss and my family are my best medicine. I love her: she keeps my demons at bay as much as anything or anyone, as do my children. They are my whole world. I’d be lost without them.

For years, despite the incidents in my 20’s, I had been able to suppress my feelings. Graduate school at Iowa State University was my personal renaissance, despite the hypo-manic incident when I was 24. ISU was a wonderful place, filled with great friends and happy, carefree, fun days and memories. It’s also where I met Katniss. Getting married, having children, a false start in a career, and then switching to a new one, kept me sane and happy. And the demon at bay.

So what caused it to come back now, later in life, in such a visceral and forceful way?

In addition to having bipolar disorder, I have PTSD. Two years ago it all came tumbling out when someone I worked with was aggressive, petulant and angry with me. The PTSD, during these set of encounters with this person, triggered a brain short circuit, like a war vet who has seen too much battle and reacts to a car that backfires. The demon in my head stood before me – corporeal, wagging its finger back and forth at me. I couldn’t believe the intensity of my reaction.

I’m empathic.  I can read/pickup people’s emotions. I can read facial expressions, body language, eye contact, etc. Call it a sixth sense. Sometimes it’s unconscious and only later mulling over conversations do I realize what I’d picked up on. Not always, of course, and it’s not like I have crystal ball.

I also have a fairly common side affect of bipolar disorder: hypersensitivity. Being hypersensitive I can, and do, misinterpret the emotions I sense. I often believe that negative emotions are directed at me, or that I have done something wrong. It also means that I feel like I’m always saying or doing the wrong thing, which will anger or offend someone.

I have been likened to a sprinkler system, which normally goes off in the presence of a fire. I’m so sensitive to those around me, all someone has to do is enter the room, light a match and I’ll react.

So, stir together the PTSD, bipolar disorder and hypersensitivity in the cauldron of my brain, add that encounter 2 years ago, and you get:

Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

Fillet of a fenny snake,
In the cauldron boil and bake;
Eye of newt, and toe of frog,
Wool of bat, and tongue of dog,
Adder’s fork, and blind-worm’s sting,
Lizard’s leg, and howlet’s wing,
For a charm of powerful trouble,
Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

Where’d the PTSD come from, you might wonder? That condition, after all, isn’t a manifestation of bipolar disorder. Read part 2 of Vital Signs, and I’ll try to explain.