Monthly Archives: January 2015

My Zen Den

In a corner of my house, I constructed a 7-euro Ikea coffee table on which there are baby photos of each of my kids, some inspirational objects and books, and a few candles. I added a floor cushion, and made my own sacred space, a place where I come to center myself and find some peace through meditation. This is my zen den, and my goal is to be in this space for at least 20 minutes every day, to take time just for me, which means first thing in the morning before the rest of the household is awake.

I am a meditation novice. I don’t follow a specific style; I probably couldn’t even tell you what all the styles are and what they are supposed to achieve. I just do what feels right.

Almost always, I begin by reading a passage from one of the books, a mix of self-help, Buddhist literature, a notebook of quotes, even the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I choose a sentence that resonates with me and use it as a mantra. Thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh, I might repeat, “Nourish seeds of happiness.” This is one of my favorites, because it reminds me that if I express joy or patience, I am cultivating a positive state of mind, and if I express anger or impatience, I am cultivating a negative state of mind. And what you put out there (joy or anger) is ultimately what you get back. I also like to use my core values as mantras. So, I might repeat, “May I be compassionate to myself and others” or “May I be forgiving.” The mantra I use sets the tone for my day, so it’s helps to say a mantra that speaks to where I am, what my needs are.

Another practice I like to do in my sacred space is metta meditation. This involves repeating certain phrases of loving-kindness (metta). I start with myself (“May I be happy. May I be free from suffering. May I be at peace.”). Then I extend these wishes outward, to my friends, family, and all of humanity.

Sometimes I just breathe and try not to think about anything, which, it turns out, is actually quite challenging.

I love this space, my zen den, which is now in my living room, because it is my little haven. It cost next to nothing, but its gift to me is priceless.

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I’d Be Laughing, If I Weren’t Crying

 

I now have the dubious distinction of having been a patient at a psychiatric hospital on 2 different continents. Try to top that one, peeps! Actually, don’t try to top that, because, let’s be honest, that is not something to aspire to in life.

My stay in the German loony bin happened when I had a melt down last summer. This melt down was not of unprecedented proportion, if you’ve been witness to my crazy spells, but let’s just say it had been over a decade since the last one, which was truly a total come apart (see Tuesday’s post). I had been depressed for months. I was angry. I was drinking. And I had a bottle of Xanax. The combination resulted in a 36-hour (semi-comatose) stay in the ICU of the University Hospital followed by transport to the psych ward.DI arrived on the ward around 1am on a Monday morning and was literally dumped by the emergency technicians (for some reason I was transferred by an ambulance from the ICU to the psych ward, although they were the same hospital) in a bed in a patient room with 3 other beds. Roommate 1 was sleeping in one of these beds. The other 2 beds were empty, but it was obvious that I had 2 other roommates; who knows where they were. After this unceremonious, middle of the night arrival, I was on my own. No one came to check me in (‘Welcome. I’m Nurse Birgitte’). No one came to provide me information. (‘Breakfast is served in the kitchen at 8. Group therapy is at 10. Medication is dispensed before bed.’) No problem. I was still in a Xanax stupor so fell asleep immediately.

The next day I woke up when someone in a German National team soccer uniform – it was the summer of the World Cup – bounded into the room screaming, “Mittagessen!” Lunch. It wasn’t casual Friday. It was Monday. So I guess they had a lax dress code at this hospital. Honestly, you would be hard pressed to differentiate the nurses from the patients, especially when they’re all huddled together in the smoking room that was adjacent to the kitchen. Yes, there was a smoking room. Inside the hospital. Oy.

Despite the invitation to partake in Mittagessen! I went back to sleep. Apparently, it takes some serious work to sleep off a bottle of Xanax, even if the prescription is expired. When the doctor on duty showed up that afternoon, however, I had to get up and talk.

“I see you suffer from depression. Do you take medication for this?” he asked.

“Yes,” I told him, “but my meds are at home.”

“Well, have someone bring them in so you can take them while you’re here.”

Wait, what did he just tell me? I didn’t mean to question his professional judgment but I was in a psych ward. For an intentional overdose. But, in an attempt to be a good patient, I called my husband and told him to bring in my anti-depressants.

“Bring some clothes, too,” I said since all I had was the Victoria’s Secret slip in which I’d been admitted and the hospital scrubs ICU dressed me in for the transfer.

My husband showed up that afternoon with some clothes, my meds, my iPhone, and a Sudoku book. Without work or a child, I was practically on vacation. The rest of that day, I laid on my bed playing Words with Friends and Sudoku.

The next day, I finally went to the bathroom. I won’t go into details here, but suffice it to say that they must have given me a lot of activated charcoal in the ICU.

Roommate 1 left the hospital that morning to spend the day with her boyfriend, but, in her absence, Roommate 2 showed up. She introduced herself and announced that she was going to therapy.

“What kind of therapy?” I asked since no one had bothered to inform me of my options.

“It’s one where you make things with paper and cardboard,” she said in her broken English.

“And how exactly does that help?” I asked.

“It’s better to have something to do than to sit around here,” she said, casting me a certain look.

Did she mean something by this, like I was just sitting around doing nothing? I mean, I was sitting around doing nothing, but only because (1) I didn’t even know about arts and crafts therapy until right now, and (2) I couldn’t see how cutting and pasting would help me.

Roommate 2 sighed heavily and left. I laid face down on the bed and proceeded to sob. Maybe I should have gone with her. Maybe making a half ass piñata would have provided me with an emotional outlet when I ultimately destroyed it.

My wallowing was interrupted when the entire staff of resident psychiatrists came in to evaluate me. The Head Professor of Psychiatry introduced himself to me and began to ask me questions while his posse stood around and stared.

“Miss M, was this was a suicide attempt?” he asked.

“I don’t think so,” I said. “It was more of a screaming message that I hate my life right now.”

“Why would you hate it?” the Professor asked.

“Because I hate living here.”

“And why is that,” he asked.

“No offense, but look at yourselves.”

Yes, I actually said this to 6 psychiatrists who were all standing there staring at me while I sat on my waterproof-sheeted bed, crying like a baby.

I continued, “No one smiles here. It’s unfriendly here in general. I’m from the South. It may be fake to wish someone you don’t know ‘Good Morning’ or say ‘Hello’ to a stranger, but there’s a reason that whole happiness movement is going on in the States. Because it works.”

One doctor in the entourage smiled, stifling a laugh.

“See. That’s all I need,” I said. “I am a human being, and I need a human connection. Really, you guys should work on your bedside manner.”

The Professor wrote down some stuff. The one doctor continued to smile, and the other doctors continued to stare at me. Then they all left, and I returned to my wallowing.

That afternoon the lunatic left the asylum. My husband came to get me, and we took the subway home. I carted my ICU scrubs and Sudoku book in a garbage bag, like a homeless person. Crazy and back on the streets.

A few days later, I went to see my psychiatrist. She wrote the paperwork for me to take medical leave for the rest of the month, which meant I could stay in bed and cry all day if I wanted. Except that I couldn’t because I have a daughter, and it turns out my daughter had just gotten her first case of head lice. Friends, remember that overnight farm trip she went on with her kindergarten the previous week? Well, her roommates were the 3 kids who had lice at school (that same week) plus the one kid who’d had strep throat the week before. I should have asked the damn kindergarten teachers to see if they could find a kid with chicken pox to throw in the mix. You know, just get it all done at once. Luckily, we live above an Apotheke, and all I had to do was buy some shampoo that treats lice in one wash. So the second I finished my mama chimp head grooming routine, I got the shampoo and nit comb and went to town.

And just when I thought it couldn’t get more challenging, that same day, as I’m nit picking, my husband came home diagnosed with pneumonia. Yes, pneumonia. Now he had a stay-at-home-for-2-weeks medical leave pass, too.

Friends, I wish I could say that the worse was over. But, of course, it wasn’t. (Damn you, life!) That very night, I shit you not, my daughter complained of an itchy bottom, which, when I played doctor on Web MD, meant she had pinworms. What?! I’d never even heard of them before. I could confirm this internet diagnosis by waiting until my daughter fell asleep, spreading her little ass cheeks, and shining a flashlight to look for “moving threads”, because the female pin worm only comes out at night to lay eggs in the anus of the child. Sigh.

I considered checking myself back in to the loony bin at this point. Seriously. This shit is my life. Oh. My. God.

 

How It All Begins

Depression is insidious. It eased its way into my life a little at a time, so that I never really recognized it until it had become part of who I am.

 

Depression first gained its foothold when I was a little girl. My Daddy was a mean drunk, and he was drunk a lot.

At the time, I’m not even sure I knew what it meant to be intoxicated, but I associated it with Daddy’s loss of control and my cowering and crying. As a 6 year old, I didn’t know what to say or do with my feelings, so I learned to hold in my fear, to bury it somewhere deep inside me.

Whether he was drunk or not, Daddy was like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In one minute, he was belittling my brother mercilessly and in the next minute, he was doting on me. I was confused, because I loved my brother. He wasn’t any different than me. But I didn’t speak up, because I wanted Daddy’s love and not his fury. I swallowed my pain, and depression took up a little more space in my head.

When I was a teenager, a parade of older men – a stranger to whom I gave directions at the park, the housekeeper’s husband, and a relative – trapped me. They pawed at me or spoke to me in ways that they shouldn’t have, ways that frightened me. I felt shame, but I knew to keep this hidden. Depression got a little stronger.

By the time I was married with two children, I could recognize the unpleasant feelings – disappointment that I got pregnant at 19, resentment that I put my education plans on hold, loneliness and mental and physical exhaustion because my husband worked nights and weekends while I finished school and worked during the day and took care of babies during the night. I could recognize the emotions that didn’t feel good, but I only knew to make them go away. So I started to drink, and I drank to be numb. I drank to forget. I drank to ignore.

By the time my marriage was disintegrating, depression was my habit of mind. It wove its tentacles in and out of me until eventually it became my second skin. It embedded itself so deeply in my psyche that I could only hear its messages. They played on an endless loop, night and day. “You’re worthless. You’re unlovable. You will never be happy.”

Noticing my withdrawal, friends asked me, “What’s so terrible? You’re life is great.” But the cloak of depression was so thick these words meant nothing to me. I was indoctrinated, like the victim of a cult. All I felt was the overwhelming weight of despair, and all I heard was the endless loop of negative thoughts.

At some point, I felt myself sinking into an abyss from which even I knew there was a point of no return. I went to a psychiatrist, seeking help.

I remember telling her, “I’m sad all the time. I drink because I don’t know what else to do to make the hurting stop. I don’t have any tools to deal with this. Please help me. Please give me tools.”

She scoffed and told me that I had a drinking problem, not depression. She denied my emotions, just as I always had. She and my depression were united in their plot against me.

Still, each week I went back, filling out the same check sheet, supplying the same answers.

 

Do you feel hopeless? yes

Do you have trouble sleeping or do you sleep too much? I don’t sleep

Have you lost your appetite or can you not stop eating? I don’t eat

Do you have negative thoughts? yes

Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself? yes

 

Weeks went by and nothing changed. I started to think about driving my car off a bridge, getting in bathtub and slitting my wrists. But, every day, I got up and went through the motions, because all I knew was how to put on a front, how to look okay for the outside world while quietly suffocating on my own trauma.

Then one day, something happened. I was like a pot of rice, simmering on the stovetop. I had clamped the lid down tight, but when the water came to a boil, the steam rose up and spilled over the sides of the pot, leaving a messy residue burned onto the stovetop. So it was with me. A switch was turned, and every negative emotion came rushing out all at once. Every negative thought was magnified a thousand times. In that moment, I realized that I could not live another minute like this. The depression had grown like cancer, eating away whatever was good and healthy in me. It had spread like wildfire, leaving the charred remnants of the woman I was. I had to extract the cancer. I had to stop the fire from spreading. It had to end.

Depression told me, “Just do it and get it over with. Just do it, and get out.” So I swallowed an entire bottle of Klonapin, then lay down and drank 4 beers as fast as I could. I closed my eyes and welcomed the darkness.

 

 

Depression is insidious. It eased its way into my life a little at a time, so that I never really recognized it until it almost destroyed me.

 

Random Things on the Web I Dig Right Now (January 2015)

1. Poop Bread Recipe http://www.mynewroots.org/site/2013/02/the-life-changing-loaf-of-bread/

Okay, this isn’t really called poop bread, but that’s what I call it (to the chagrin of my husband, because you know how he feels about my potty mouth). My former community college students can tell you that I have a thing for poop. The consistency, color, smell – poop is important. It’s a window to your health. If you aren’t intimate with your poop, you need to be. Anyway, I found this recipe on line; this bread is gluten free, vegan, and will keep you regular. I have a pan that makes 8 mini loaves and I like to bake this bread on Sundays so I have a small loaf (ha ha, poop joke!) ready to eat every day of the week. I’ve found you can mix the recipe up a bit. I tend to add cinnamon and ginger and dried fruit or an overripe banana. Enjoy and may your poop be solid with this.

 

2. Funniest blog post I’ve read in a while http://tracyontherocks.com/whats-up-doc/

When I found this post, I laughed so hard and sent it to all my girlfriends to read. The girl doctor visit can be an awkward thing. You’re sitting there naked while someone makes small talk with you and inserts some probe all up in your private parts. I’ve usually had 5 cups of coffee before my visit and my doctor presses really hard on my flabs (that’s how I lovingly refer to my entire abdominal area) to feel my ovaries. “Your bladder is full,” she says in her German accented English. Yeah, no shit. She’s lucky I didn’t just pee on her. One time, I told my German gyno, who is not the most fluent in English, that I felt a lump in my breast. She said, “Don’t worry. I will taste it when I do the exam.” Whoa! Really? Now this is full service, I thought. But, she caught her mistake and, red faced, said, “I mean touch it. I will touch it.” Okay, so this Tracy on the Rocks post is along those lines. I hope you are as entertained by gyno humor as I am.

 

3. Inspiring podcast lectures on Buddhism http://www.audiodharma.org

Okay, enough with the 7th grade humor (can I help it? I raised 2 boys on Dumb and Dumber movies). Every morning when I run I listen to audio podcasts. Right now, I am so girl crushing on Andrea Fella of the Insight Meditation Center in California. She is a Buddhist practitioner and is wise and compassionate and really speaks to me, right where I am, right now. So, when you need to feel inspired and want to embark on your path of self actualization, listen to some of her talks. They will give you much food for thought.

A Painfully Personal History of Drinking, Part 1

My relationship with alcohol started years before I took my first sip of beer as a teenager, before I ever got drunk and threw up, before I blacked out and hid bottles. It started when I was a little girl, and it is etched onto all my memories of being with my daddy. Charming and funny at times I mostly remember daddy being mean and scary. The difference was alcohol.

As the children of divorce, my brother and I lived with our mom but spent every other weekend and all summer with daddy. He drove up from San Antonio on Friday afternoons, collected us at our mom’s house in Austin, and drove us back to San Antonio for our weekend visits. Saturday nights, we went to one of my dad’s siblings’ houses, either to my Aunt Josie’s or to my Uncle Fred’s. The grown-ups, my dad and aunts and uncles, played nickel poker and drank. They let us kids, 7 of us all within 3 years of each other, run around fairly unsupervised. We played the Bay City Rollers or Stevie Wonder on the stereo and choreographed dance routines for our parents to watch. We stayed up late watching movies on TV and drinking Big Red. In the background, our parents joked in Spanish (their first language but not ours). It was family time, and it was great. Until it wasn’t.

Every high has its low, and that was never more apparent than over the course of a Saturday night with daddy. At some point, after a certain number of Pearl beers had been drunk, the whites of daddy’s eyes changed from clear and bright to red and bleary. His jokes and playing around became mean and hurtful.

Around midnight, the poker game ended, and everyone got ready to leave. This is when things quickly fell apart. My brother J and I hugged our aunts and uncles, and walked outside with daddy and our stepmother. J and I stood together, next to the car, while daddy shattered the stillness of the night (it was usually past midnight when we left), arguing with our stepmother about who should drive home. What was to argue about? She didn’t drink, and he was drunk. But this was years before Mothers Against Drunk Driving. There was no such thing as a DUI in those days.

Daddy was intimidating. “I’m not giving you the keys,” he would say. “This is my car, and I’m going to drive it. Now get in.”

Ten years younger with a sense of subservience I never understood, our stepmother was no match for him. Sometimes she cried. “Frank, let me drive. Please. Think about the kids.”

When she mentioned us, my brother and I just kept silent. We eyed the interaction with resignation, because it always ended in the same way. We never said anything to either one of them. Getting involved meant having daddy’s wrath turned on you. We were young but we weren’t stupid.

On the drive home, daddy grew angrier, insulting our stepmother, before finding my brother’s face in the rear view mirror. Seeing my brother turned a switch in daddy. He forgot about my stepmother and turned his attack onto J. Nothing was ever good enough. My brother was never good enough. I tried to close my ears while dad berated J for the length of his hair, his sensitivity, his clothes, or his lack of interest in sports. I wanted to protect my brother, my oldest friend, the boy who stood up for me at school, but, at the same time, I didn’t want to say or do anything, because if daddy was yelling at J, then I was safe. So I said nothing. I did nothing.

 

Driving back to Austin on Sunday afternoons was always a roll of the dice. Because it was late in the afternoon, and the weekend, daddy typically had already been drinking. He wasn’t drunk when he started the drive, but these were the days of open containers, and naturally he had them with him, so he was drunk by the time we got to New Braunfels or San Marcos, halfway to Austin.

My brother and I sat in the back as the car careened down the interstate, weaving in and out of traffic. I tried to keep my eyes closed, but the horns of eighteen-wheelers blared, and I always looked, fearing we were about to be killed. My brother and I would have felt better sitting next to each other, but we sat glued to the opposite sides of the backseat. If we were closer together, that meant someone would be sitting in the middle seat. Daddy had a habit of reaching back, taking his hands off the wheel and his eyes off the road and pinching whomever he could reach. His hands flew out of nowhere and attacked you.

When we finally got to our mom’s house, where we had our own rooms (unlike my dad’s house where we slept on the couch or a cot or the floor), when we finally got home, after what seemed like an eternity, we stumbled out of the car and raced into the house. We didn’t look back and we didn’t say goodbye.

 

But fleeing to safety was all for naught. Two weekends later, there we were again, sitting in his car at the end of a weekend of daddy’s drinking, waiting for the long drive home.

 

 

The Three R’s of Proactivity (or How I Can Be My Own Best Friend and not My Worst Enemy)

I had an epiphany the other day when I came to the realization that I cause suffering for 2 of the people I care most about in this world. It sounds kind of crazy when I say it out loud or type it on the keyboard, and it’s definitely unintentional, but I choose actions and words that sabotage my own happiness and that of my marriage.

Why on earth would I do this? I do it, because I react out of habit. It goes something like this…

 

My husband gets home from work and, calling from the hall, asks me, “Did you do the laundry?” He’s had a long day, full of meetings with no time to meet with his team, so he may be stressed and that comes out in his tone.

Meanwhile, I’m sitting on the couch, having the first free moment of time since 7 this morning. I’m tired. I’m hungry. I’m overwhelmed. So when I hear his question, I immediately bristle. It’s a physical reaction as well as a mental one.

“Did I do the laundry?” I think to myself. “When the fuck would I have done laundry? I’ve been up since before you. I worked all day. I’ve spent the last 3 hours, since I left work, with our daughter – playing with her, checking her homework, reading to her, cooking her dinner, giving her a shower.”

And, I’m off, down a path that’s destined for unhappiness. I snap back at him with the laundry list (no pun intended) above, the things I’ve been doing all day. This drives him crazy because he likens it to showing off, like I have a I keep track of who does what, and I always do more. I’m hostile, because I think that he thinks I don’t work enough (that I should have had time to do laundry), and he’s hostile because he thinks that I don’t think he works enough around the house.

And now, we’re both put out with each other. Even if we don’t say another word about laundry, the negative energy is brewing just under the surface, and it colors our interactions for the rest of the evening. I suffer because I feel devalued. He suffers because he feels devalued. Our relationship suffers because we’re both stewing about how annoying the other person is.

(You know what I’m talking about, don’t you? Please tell me I’m not the only person who gets pissed off about stupid shit like this.)

This was the epiphany. I realized that sometimes when I react, I cause suffering. I end up unhappy, and that’s not good. So what I’m working on is being proactive, not reactive, and this involves the 3 R’s.

  1. Recognize – I’m learning to recognize the triggers that set me off. When I first feel myself bristle, that’s a trigger. I stop and acknowledge it. “Okay,” I tell myself. “This is the trigger, and it makes me feel immediately defensive.”
  2. Relax – I take some breaths, a short time out, or close my eyes and repeat a mantra, whatever it takes to calm myself down. Do I want to end up angry? No, of course not. Calm blue, water. Peaceful, easy feeling. Whatever it takes to get to my happy place in that instant.
  3. Reset – I start over. I choose not to engage with that side of myself that will bring anger or hostility to the situation. Compassion is one of my values, and I need to be my own best friend and then probably a best friend to the person with whom I’ve chosen to spend my life. So I don’t speak or act in a way that goes against that.

Ultimately, to be proactive, I have to be consciously aware of what I am experiencing and thinking. By doing this, I am able to develop the foresight to see what will happen if I react and what will happen if I don’t. Then, I’m able to respond appropriately to the situation, because I recognize the trigger, I relax, and I reset my frame of mind.

 

“Did you do the laundry?” he asks again, poking his head in the doorway of the room where I’m sitting.

“Nope,” I say, smiling.

 

Mantras

Starting my meditation time with a mantra is part of my morning ritual. Sometimes the mantra comes from a reading I’ve done just before meditating, and other times it comes from the mental state in which I find myself that morning. If I’m feeling down, I repeat an encouraging mantra. If I’m feeling philosophical, I repeat an introspective mantra. If I’m doing a free, online, Deepak and Oprah meditation class (oh, yes, I did!), I repeat the Hindi phrase Deepak gives me. Regardless, I find myself going back to that mantra throughout the day to refocus my energy and think about how it applies to me.

 

Here are some of my favorites. Sorry, Deepak, none of yours made it.

 

I am awesomesauce!

Last year when I was struggling, I wrote to my friend Melinda about my problems. She replied back, “Muse, you are awesomesauce.” Since I no longer have a teenager in the house, I had to use an online urban dictionary to define it. Awesomesauce means more awesome than awesome. That makes me smile. It makes me happy. Now, It’s part of my vocabulary and when I want to feel empowered, I say this to myself.

 

Shit happens.

There are times when life sucks. My boss gets mad at me (over something minor, let me just say). My daughter decides she has to go poop right as we’re walking out the door, late to school. I lose my iPhone. Again. Whatever. It’s part of life. If there’s an up, there’s a down, and sometimes those down spells are dark and long. I don’t have to like the sucky parts – and I don’t –  but I have to accept that they’re part of life, and I cannot allow myself to add some justification or judgement as to why the shit is happening. That only makes it worse. So, shit happens, but, because the universe has my back (see below), it’s all gonna be okay.

 

Every day, I move in the direction of my dreams.

You know all those lists you see on Facebook – 10 traits of happy people, 9 ways to fight depression, 8 ways to practice gratitude, blah, blah, blah? I print out those lists and keep them in a folder. I read and re-read those lists to remind myself that I have to do something. Maybe doing every bullet point is too much (that’s an understatement), but I can start with one. The bottom line is that I can’t continue engaged in the same behaviors and expect things to miraculously change. If I want happiness, a purpose filled life, to have my dream job, then I need to start taking steps, however small they might be, to get there.

 

The universe has my back.

Sometimes, I have to trust that everything is going to work out. Even when, no, especially when, I can’t see how or where or when it will happen, I have to let go of my anxiety and fear and just accept that. If I keep moving toward my goal, accepting that detours and setbacks will happen along the way, then I trust the universe will help me get me where I need to go. As Paulo Coelho wrote in The Alchemist, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it.” These days, this is how I choose to think. The universe is on my side, and that’s pretty awesomsauce.

 

If you have a favorite quote or saying you tell yourself to give you strength, encouragement, or a reality check, share it here.

(Potty) Mouth Wide Open

“Take it easy there, Sailor,” my husband will say to me when I start swearing. He says this, that is, unless (a) our daughter is present or (b) he’s not feeling very generous with me, which is most of the time honestly. He doesn’t like my potty mouth. He doesn’t even like me to euphemistically curse, which I find really funny.

“I can’t say Fudge around Emmy?” I’ll ask, smirking. “But, it’s not even a bad word.”

“It is if that’s your intention for saying it,” he’ll respond. “Tone is powerful. Words are powerful.”

“Seriously? Then what the fuck am I supposed to say?”

This is the point where he rolls his eyes, sighs heavily, and walks away.

 

When I taught high school, my preferred profanities were “Hot desert sands!” and “My stars!” The former I yelled when I was put out. Like, if I actually stepped on some hot desert sand, I would probably scream, quite angrily, “Fuck!” “My stars” was for when I was a bit dumbfounded or in awe, like “Holy shit! That really just happened?” Of course, on occasion a real bad word did cross my lips in front of our impressionable youth. One time, I was opening a freestanding locker in which I kept a model of a human skeleton (I was an anatomy teacher) and the entire skeleton and locker fell on me. I screamed, “Shit!” trying to hold up this huge weight. All of my 18-year-old students just sat there, staring at me. Finally, one sweet girl who always wore shirts that exposed her cleavage – which was so lovely that even I was distracted by it so I have no clue how the boys her age actually sat across from her in class and learned anything – jumped up and helped me right the locker and put the skeleton back inside on its hook. I apologized for swearing in front of my class. Again, the students just stared at me. And why did I even bother?

One of my former gang banger high school students once told me a favorite quote of her grandmother’s, “Profanity is the crutch of the conversationally crippled.” I like that quote and have repeated it often (like when my students cursed in class). But I am not conversationally crippled. I don’t curse in front of my 90-year-old Granddaddy or at work functions. I don’t drop the F bomb in every sentence I utter, but in front of my friends, or my immediate family, I’m not censoring myself.

In general, I am not known for having a good filter. If you meet me and ask me a question, I’ll be honest. Sometimes this mouth-wide-open quality gets me into trouble; sometimes it upsets people. But, those are probably the people I don’t want to be good friends with anyway. My life is an open book. My mouth is wide open. Deal with it.

Yesterday I was listening to an On Being podcast interview with the Lutheran pastrix Nadia Bolz-Weber. She is also a sailor and if I were a Christian, she is totally the kind I would be. Nadia cusses a blue streak and prays things like, “God, please don’t let me be an asshole today.” Her response to people questioning her language is, “Hey, this is the community I come from.” Truth be told, she grew up Church of Christ, and I’m 150% confident those people didn’t speak like she does, so she must mean her current community. She is the pastor of Denver’s House for all Sinners and Saints, a diverse congregation that, according to their website is “Christo-centric, social justice-oriented, queer-inclusive, incarnational, contemplative, and irreverent.” Sounds pretty badass for a church group.

About an hour after I listened to that podcast I was surfing Facebook when I saw a post about women who have embraced their foul mouths. Now I’m thinking this is a sign. The language gods are either telling me to go ahead and cuss like I want or to stop it altogether. Which way do you think I interpreted it?

Fuck yeah.

There are no dumb questions, but there are really awkward ones

After last week’s heavy posts, here is something a little light-hearted from my past life as a teacher. Oh, the stories I could tell…

 

Despite being 23, I looked about 12 when I first started teaching high school. My classes were filled with Latina girls who outlined their lips in black and penciled their eyebrows into the thinnest possible lines. The boys sported homemade tattoos and wore colors, bandanas for the gang of which they were purportedly members. A few students were pregnant, some with their second child. In addition to these kids, the regular lot, my classes always included a large percentage of special needs students. I’d like to think it was my passion for teaching and skill with all learners that got these students into my room, but, honestly, it was because I was a first year teacher and too naïve to know better or demand something different from the administration.

“Today, we will discuss the parts and what they do – using strictly biological terms. Tomorrow, you can ask questions, but you must use the correct, biological terms,” I said as I introduced my first lesson on sex ed.

I was mostly saying this for my own reassurance. While I was fully prepared to answer questions like, “Can you get pregnant if you have sex for the first time?” or “Can you get pregnant if you have sex in a pool?” I thought the students should have some correct information about the parts and process before we engaged in the kinds of questions I anticipated their asking.

The students labeled a worksheet, male and female reproductive anatomy, while I stood at the board and talked. I sensed their growing disinterest. The drawings did not look like what they’d seen in movies, or in person, and the word ‘vagina’ was only funny the first few times I said it.

But I persevered, launching into the comparison of male and female gamete production, where and how eggs and sperm are made.

“In human males, sperm are produced continually from puberty until death. They are made in the seminiferous tubules of the testes and over the course of about 70 days they mature and travel to epididymis, where they are stored until they are ejaculated during orgasm. Males can ejaculate several times a day, each time producing about 150 million sperm.”

“On the other hand, human females are born with all the eggs they will ever have. Then for a defined period in life, typically around 30-40 years, the female body releases 1 egg a month, regardless of an orgasm, which is viable for 36 hours or so. If it isn’t fertilized, that’s the end, no continuation of life. When you think about these numbers, it’s a wonder anyone ever gets pregnant.”

I was feeling pretty confident. No one had interrupted me. However, it wasn’t because the lecture was so engaging. The silence was more likely due to the fact that many students were utterly bored. Some had their heads on their desks, sleeping through the lesson. Others stared at the windows, which looked, rather anti-climactically, onto the dumpsters and the teacher parking lot.

‘Really?’ I thought. ‘I just said the word ‘ejaculate,’ for crying out loud. That didn’t even register a snicker from the class?!’

Sighing silently, I was about to continue when a short, round girl in the 2nd row raised her hand. Apparently someone was paying attention! But before I could call on her, LaQueenta began to speak.

“Mizz Moe-reen,” she said, in her carefully articulated Southern drawl, “I know a man know when he’s havin’ an orgasm. But how do a woman know?”

What?! All those students who had been napping or writing notes to friends or staring off into space suddenly showed an interest in the lesson. Heads snapped to attention. Jaws hung agape, and every face, every eye, was looking to me, waiting for my answer.

Unfortunately, I was totally stymied. I needed to say something, but what? How does a woman know? Is this even appropriate for a group of 14 year olds? (Okay, many were repeat freshmen, so may have been 17, but still.)

As I was composing my thoughts, LaQueenta continued.

“My momma tole me,” she said.

‘Oh, sweet, baby Jesus,’ I thought. ‘Is she going to tell us how her mom knows she’s having an orgasm? Wait, would her mom tell her that? Oh, shit, please, don’t say anything, LaQueenta.’

While I was standing failing to send LaQueenta my telepathic message not to continue, she did just that.

“My momma tole me when she’s having an orgasm she get all cold and shivery. Is that true? And why is that?”

There was about 2 seconds of silence in which I stood dumbstruck, jaw agape like my students. Then their riotous laugher broke the spell. LaQueenta smiled when her classmates started to laugh, but she was earnest. She really wanted to know how a woman knows when she’s having an orgasm, and if her mom was correct in her assessment.

At that moment, every bit of knowledge left my head. I was utterly flustered by the thought of LaQueenta’s mother, a woman I had never even met since she didn’t bother to come to Back to School Night, having her cold and shivery orgasms and then sharing this experience with LaQueenta.

The laughter died down and the students sat silently. They looked at me. They expected an answer. I could read their minds. They were silently screaming, ‘Well, is that true?!’

In a clumsy and hurried voice I blurted out, “You just know, LaQueenta. Believe me, a woman knows when she’s having an orgasm.”

I sat down at my desk and contemplated my career choice.

Memoirs – Fucked Up Lives

Note: if you try to find this genre on Amazon or in the iTunes store, you should probably just search under “memoir” and leave my (colorful) descriptor out of it.

 

The beauty of these memoirs is that reading them will make you realize how mild your own drama is in comparison. Remember this. Someone else always has it worse than you. You think your drinking is problematic, just read. You think your parents were horrible people, just read. You think your marriage was the worst, just read. Someone else always has it worse than you.

That’s why I’m drawn to these books. “See, Muse,” I tell myself. “Your childhood wasn’t so terrible. Even if your druggie-alcoholic-turned-born-again-Christian-dad did his psychological damage on you, he never physically beat you or dropped you off to live indefinitely with his therapist.” Of course, had my dad seen a therapist before or during my formative years, maybe some of the shit he did wouldn’t have been so devastating for me and my brother.

Or I say to myself, “See, Muse, your life isn’t so bad. Two stays in the loony bin is not the end of the world. At least your stays didn’t happen in the 1950s when you probably would have received electric shock therapy and/or a lobotomy.” Small mercies.

Abandonment, abuse, addiction, crazy parents, crazy siblings, it’s all here. These my top picks for memoirs about some seriously fucked up lives. But, don’t worry, gentle reader. I think (almost) all of these people got their stuff together, so there’s still hope for me (and you).

 

A Piece of Cake – Cupcake Brown

Running with Scissors – Augusten Burroughs

Burn Down the Ground – Kambri Crews

The End of Eve – Ariel Gore

The Girl’s Guide to Homelessness – Brianna Karp

Orange is the New Black – Piper Kerman

Everything I Never Wanted to Be – Deena Kucera

Breaking Night – Liz Murray

With or Without You – Domenica Ruta

The Glass Castle – Jeannette Walls

 

Care to share a memoir about fucked up lives? Comment here.