I’m leaving it all up to you

7 08 2011

It was so obvious I forgot to mention it: the Big Fear.

About The Unexpected Neighbor, I mean, the main reason I hesitated to tell people  I knew that the book was now available at Smashwords.

And no, not whether or not they liked it. But whether they’d think less of me for this story. I mean, they could like it, but think it a trifle, and thus consider me. . . trifling.

Y’know how I mentioned a couple of posts ago that, however foolish the attempt, I nonetheless try to control what people think about me? Wasn’t kidding. Not one bit.

So here I tell people—you, my friends in New York, a friend in Wisconsin, my mom—that I wrote this book. Because I want you to know that I wrote this book. And I might even want you to read it.

Maybe.

But if nobody I know reads it, I don’t know if I’ll be more disappointed or relieved. I want you to like the story, and I think the story is likable, but I’d like you to like it quite apart from me—as in, AbsurdBeats is here and the book is there and never the twain shall meet.

Silly, I know, and embarrassingly neurotic. (Okay, so the control thing may have something to do with neurosis, as well, but it sounds so much. . . flintier to state I want to control than to say I want people to think well of me. Control, yeah, I’ll go with that.)

Anyway.

I want to get better at this, the novel-writing, and while I think The Unexpected Neighbor is a decent first book, I don’t know that I’d have published it if I thought it were my only book. I wouldn’t want this to be too big a piece of me.

It’s not me. It’s not biography, and no one in the story is me. But it came out of me and there are bits of me (and friends of mine) scattered throughout these characters. It’s not all or nothing; the twain has met.

It’s mine, but not me.

I know that. I have to trust that if anyone I know reads this, they’ll know that, too.

How they know that, well—deep breath—that’s not up to me. That’s up to them.

Or I could just hope that only strangers read it.

_____

(This is the real hat-tip to Susan Wise Bauer, but her site’s not loading; I’ll add a link when I can here’s the link.)





When I break down just a little and lose my head

11 01 2011

Deep breath.

I don’t know if this is the first but I do plan for it to be the last time I talk about this.

This is about Jared Loughner. And me. And the one thing that might connect us: neither of us were committed for mental illness.

As mentioned previously, I do not know if Loughner is mentally ill, and I really wish so-called experts would quit diagnosing him over the airwaves. But mentally ill or not, his actions prior to the shooting have led to a fair amount of discussion as to whether he should have or could have been committed.

Here’s where I come in: A half a lifetime ago, I had a commitment hearing. It was not a pleasant experience.

The judge was fine, the court-appointed attorney was fine, even the room in the locked ward of the psychiatric wing of the hospital was fine. And I wasn’t even committed, tho’ I do think I had to agree to stay on the ward and do x, y, and z.

I was deeply angered at having been incarcerated in the psych ward in the first place, and for years afterward felt that the incarceration was both unjustified and unjust.

Hey, I just wanted to kill myself, that’s all, no one else. No big deal.

The details are, pfft, details. There were cops and handcuffs and then at the hospital, restraints (which I managed to pull off*)—all of which sounds ghastly and it was, but it was ordinary, too.

Ordinary in that the cops were decent, as were the hospital staff, and the ward was clean and everyone had their own semi-private rooms and it was probably as good as these truly shitty things get.

It sucked, yes, and it sucked because I needed to be there.

It took me awhile—years—to realize that corralling me into a psych unit was both just and justified.

So, zoom back out: Does this mean I believe that everyone with an untreated or refractory mental illness should be consigned to a psych ward?

No.

But while it might have once been too easy to commit people for too long (for-ever. . .), the problem now is that too many people—both those who want help and those who don’t—have difficulty getting that help.

That’s where the focus should be: on access to good treatment for mental illness. Any discussion about making involuntary commitment end must begin with that concern.

William Galston goes about this the exact wrong way:

The story repeats itself, over and over. A single narrative connects the Unabomber, George Wallace shooter Arthur Bremmer, Reagan shooter John Hinckley, the Virginia Tech shooter—all mentally disturbed loners who needed to be committed and treated against their will. But the law would not permit it.

Starting in the 1970s, civil libertarians worked to eliminate involuntary commitment or, that failing, to raise the standards and burden of proof so high that few individuals would meet it. Important decisions by the Supreme Court and subordinate courts gave individuals new protections, including a constitutional right to refuse psychotropic medication. A few states have tried to push back in constitutionally acceptable ways, but efforts such as California’s Laura’s Law, designed to make it easier to force patients to take medication, have been stymied by civil rights concerns and lack of funding.

We need legal reform to shift the balance in favor of protecting the community, especially against those who are armed and deranged.

Yes, the point of treatment is not the unwell, it’s the rest of us.

Think I’m misreading Galston? Well after arguing for an expanded list of people who should be held legally responsible if they have “credible evidence” of someone’s “mental disturbance” and don’t report it to “both law enforcement and the courts”—not emergency rooms, not health officials—he argues that “A delusional loss of contact with reality” (whatever that is) should be enough to begin the process of commitment.

To be fair, he does say this process should include “multiple starts with multiple offers of voluntary assistance”, which, if one doesn’t volunteer, could end with “involuntary treatment, including commitment if necessary.”

That actually would sound reasonable as a way to try to get help for people, except, of course, that’s not Galston’s real concern:

How many more mass murders and assassinations do we need before we understand that the rights-based hyper-individualism of our laws governing mental illness is endangering the security of our community and the functioning of our democracy?

That’s right: people sleeping on heating grates or hiding out in rooms or basements and unable to care for themselves or anyone else is not the threat to democracy, it’s that “mentally disturbed loners” might take a shot at a president or pop star or member of Congress.

I have absolutely no truck with murder and assassination, and believe that if better care for the mentally ill would lead to fewer violent crimes, that would be wonderful.

We’re not going to get that better care, however, if all that matters is the fear of the well and the punishment of the unwell.

Right now, punishment is the driving approach to mental illness. According to a 2006 Human Rights Watch report,

More than half of all prison and state inmates now report mental health problems, including symptoms of major depression, mania and psychotic disorders, according to a just-released federal Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) report, Mental Health Problems of Prison and Jail Inmates.

In 1998, the BJS reported there were an estimated 283,000 prison and jail inmates who suffered from mental health problems. That number is now estimated to be 1.25 million. The rate of reported mental health disorders in the state prison population is five times greater (56.2 percent) than in the general adult population (11 percent).

Women prisoners have an even higher rate of mental health problems than men: almost three quarters (73 percent) of all women in state prison have mental health problems, compared to 55 percent of men.

Galston should be pleased: we’re already locking up a lotta crazy folk! Too bad that they’re not getting treated once they’re in jail.

Prison staff often punish mentally ill offenders for symptoms of their illness, such as being noisy, refusing orders, self mutilating or even attempting suicide. Mentally ill prisoners are thus more likely than others to end up housed in especially harsh conditions, including isolation, that can push them over the edge into acute psychosis.

Would involuntary commitment have helped these prisoners? Again, if one follows Galston, the deranged should be reported to “law enforcement officials and the courts”, not to anyone actually in a position to help them.

And where would all of these people go, if not to jail?

According to Human Rights Watch, the staggering rate or incarceration of the mentally ill is a consequence of under-funded, disorganized and fragmented community mental health services. Many people with mental illness, particularly those who are poor, homeless, or struggling with substance abuse – cannot get mental health treatment. If they commit a crime, even low-level nonviolent offenses, punitive sentencing laws mandate imprisonment.

The new BJS report reveals that state prisoners with mental health problems were twice as likely to have been homeless and twice as likely to have lived in a foster home, agency or institution while growing up as those without mental health problems. Prisoners with mental health problems were also significantly more likely to have reported being physically or sexually abused in the past, to have had family members who had substance abuse problems, and to have a family member who had been incarcerated in the past. An estimated 42 percent of state inmates had both a mental health problem and substance dependence or abuse.

(See also: here, here, and here, or just run a search on “mentally ill prisoners”.)

I don’t think this is working. It’s just possible, in fact, that if there were better patient-centered options—options which could include involuntary treatment—that fewer mentally ill people would end up in jail. Good for them, good for us.

We can’t just jump ahead to involuntary treatment and commitment, however, before building up the infrastructure for all treatment, voluntary and not. It wasn’t until 2008 that the Paul Wellstone and Pete Domenici Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was signed into law, and even with that law, treatment for mental illness may legally go uncovered.

So let’s make treatment possible. Let’s make sure the vulnerable have a place to go where they can actually get help before we call on cops and judges. Only after we make sure treatment is actually available does it make sense to talk about laws to draft the resistant into that treatment.

There’s nothing easy about any of this, not least because some mental illness are just damned hard to treat, but if commitment is to be both justified and just, then it makes sense that in our rights-based hyper-individualist society that we actually pay attention to the individual at the center of the debate.

*This is why you should always wear a watch: if anyone tries to tie your wrists together or to something (like, say, the rail of a hospital bed), you can use the extra space provided by the watch to wrench and wriggle your wrist free.

~~~

Coda: I got lucky—although it sure as hell didn’t feel like it at the time—because I got care.

A person shouldn’t need luck to get care.

h/t The Daily Dish





Am I sitting in a tin can

27 10 2010

My sister is not a crier.

Okay, yes, she has a sentimental streak and will tear up at matters involving her daughters or family generally, and she is far more expressive with her [non-angry] emotions than I ever will be. She’s normal, in other words.

But when I say she’s not a crier, I mean: she’s not someone to fall apart if things don’t go well or if there’s any sort of crisis. Instead, she switches into hyper-practical let’s-fix-this-mode, and then gets on with it.

She was crying when she called me.

V. was planning to visit me this weekend, flying in tonight and out on Monday. She’s flown before, but she hates it—really, really, really hates it as only someone who is terrified can hate a thing—so it was a big deal when she decided to fly here alone.

She might have made it, too, had it not been for the 60-80 mph windstorms which streaked across the upper midwest last night, windstorms which, not coincidentally, led to widespread flight delays across the region.

The flight tonight probably would have been delayed, too, but the weather on the ground in NYC has simply been a fizzle of gray and rain. She would have been fine.

But if you’re terrified of flying under even the best of conditions, to hear 24 hours before your flight about how awful the wind is and how much turbulence it’s kicking up, to think all day long at work about that wind and turbulence and having not only to fly into to NYC but back out, well, then, whatever equilibrium you’ve managed to convince yourself you could maintain is likely to dissolve into tears at an exit off the highway.

I’m not thrilled with flying—don’t (surprise!) like the feeling of being trapped—but it doesn’t panic me. Had it been me flying today, I’d have gotten on the plane.

But it wasn’t me, it was my steady, normal, practical, terrorized sister.

I felt so bad for her. She said it was a good thing my number was preprogrammed into her cell phone, because she was shaking so bad she probably couldn’t have dialed it. She said she felt stupid—and my sister never ever shames herself—not least because one daughter flew to Australia for a semester abroad and another to Austria for a series of musical performances, and I can’t even do a two-hour flight.

It’s okay, I told her. I’m not going anywhere, so it’s not like you missed out on your only chance to visit me in NYC. And I wouldn’t want you to spend your entire weekend worried about the flight home.

Let’s chalk it up to the weather, we agreed. Had it not been for the freak tree-bending winds, she could have done it.

So I hope my steady, practical, cheerful sister doesn’t let the anxiety which detoured her from the airport derail a nice, long weekend at home with her husband.

Go out to dinner with D., I suggested. Get the New York Strip.

She laughed. It was a good sign.





666?

8 09 2010

Two-thirds, that is—I’m about 2/3 of the way through the chop-edit of my first novel.

I’ll go back over it, again, once I’ve finished with the axe, but by then sandpaper should do.

As I’m thwacking my way through this, it’s so, so clear how much a first novel this is. I knew that, before, even when it was still my darling, but my cold eyes now see all of the cracks covered by my previous affection.

Still, I plan to go through with my plans to Smashwords this. Flaws and all, it is still an engaging enough read. And I’ll never write another novel like this one.

Perhaps that’s why I’m willing to put this cracked-pot out there: because I won’t ever write something like this again.

My second novel, as I’ve mentioned, is better, more complex, and my third novel—well, two of my three third novels (not counting the first third-novel, now languishing in a persistent vegetative state)—take(s) me even further away from my experiences and more into ‘what-if’ territory.  I don’t want any of these novels to become mechanical (cf. Ian McEwan, Richard Powers), but I do want to see if I conjure a novel out of the air rather than memory.

I rush to remind that the first novel is not autobiographical—and in the reminder hope you don’t notice the rush. To say that the characters are not me or her or her or him is true enough, but, in fact, I’m not wholly comfortable with how much is recognizable. This is one novel that, for those who know me, one could say Oh, yeah, I see that. And not just see what I see, but see parts of me that I don’t see.

Terrifying.

But if I am to write for others, I have to allow that those others will see what I don’t see. I can control everything up to the point I let it go, at which point I must simply let it go.

So that’s why I want to put (the still provisionally-named—please, if you have any suggestions, let me know) Unexpected People out there. Few people are likely ever to read it, certainly, but the risk—the risk!—that it might actually be read, well, let me start dealing with that now, with the novel that got me started.

That all sounds backasswards, I know: I’m afraid not that I won’t have readers, but that I will. But there it is.

And so if I am ever to make a move with my other novels or any other writing, I have to stop hiding, stop protecting whatever the hell it is I think I’m protecting, and let it go.

And so, after the chopping and sanding, and the running of my hand over it one last time, I’ll let it go.





Friday poem (Sunday): The Nude Swim

14 03 2010

Odd how people become friends.

The first cause is proximity: We’re seated next to each other in a first grade class, have lockers across the hall in high school, settle in the same dorms, go out drinking after the first grad seminar.

And work. We meet at work.

But I didn’t become friends with everyone from school or in college or grad school, didn’t want to hang out with everyone I ever met at the paper or food service or the restaurant or co-op or bookstore. Only some people were interested in me; I was only interested in some of them.

I have good friends in New York, which is one of reasons I like New York.  That I lacked such friends was among the reasons I couldn’t take Boston, that I left good friends was among the reasons I so fiercely miss(ed) Montreal.

And among my friends, here, is Cte. She is a singular personality, who draws clear lines around people: in or out. I’m glad I’m in, because she’s smart and witty and always willing to argue (and as little likely to concede as I am), and who holds on to those inside as strongly as she pushes off those on the outs.

Need I say that she rejects sentimentality and that her heart, while large, does not easily warm? Or that she fends off any kind of direct affection—she will let you buy her a drink—especially the physical kind?

In that, she reminds me of me, or at least, how I used to be. I’m less likely to sprout spikes at the intrusion of a hand on my shoulder, but there was a time when I would literally spin away from any human contact.

No, I was never physically or sexually abused: this was not PTSD. Nope, it was something much simpler, a way to control what I couldn’t understand, and thus couldn’t let any one else access.

I was afraid all the time. Afraid of myself, my volatility, my desire and contempt for comfort, afraid of what others could do to and for me. I was drowning and refusing to be saved, hating myself for wanting to be saved.

I took it out on my body. I didn’t hate my body, but it was just one more thing I didn’t understand. I wanted to live in my head—my mind, I thought, was strong—because everything else about me was beyond me, and because beyond me, weak. I thought if I could just deny enough of myself, I could eventually bring it under control.

The key was control. I couldn’t control my emotions, so I sought to deny them. And because those emotions could be sparked—I still don’t understand why this happens—by the touch of another, I sought to deny myself all touch.

No one who knows me today would call me touchy-feely, but I am much more free with a hug, a kiss, an arm around the shoulder. To be honest, at some point I had to force myself not to flinch, because such obvious unease only drew attention to that unease, and question-mark looks I’d rather not answer; the point, still, was (and occasionally is) to manage myself, to manage how others see me.

Yet I have also become more comfortable with touch. I am conscious of it, always, and far more at ease giving than receiving, but it is a relief, truly, when with people I know and trust, when with my friends, to not have to police every goddamned move.

So I wonder about Cte. I don’t know enough about her—surprise! she’s not one to go on about her life before, well, now—to know why she behaves this way, or that it is in any way a problem for her. She could simply believe that, for her, such physical interactions are unnecessary. She might get enough from the people around her just by having us be around her.

I admire her strength. And I hope that’s what it is.

This is all a very long intro to a not terribly long poem.

Anne Sexton was, famously, the best friend of Maxine Kumin, but it is not for the theme of friendship that I chose her tonight. No, it is for her extravagance, her unwillingness to shut herself off from herself.

(Given her emotional instability and suicide, perhaps it could be argued that a bit more willingness to turn away would have kept her alive. Or perhaps it would have led her to kill herself much sooner than she did. I don’t know, and it doesn’t much matter now anyway.)

Sexton wrote songs to her breasts and her uterus and about masturbation, so if I really wanted to push myself beyond my own boundaries—if I am less stiff than I used to be, I am still easily mortified by myself—I’d print one of those.

But this is the one that moved me, a poem about nakedness and ease, about the unexpected ways others may see us, and about the unexpected ways such sight can still us.

The Nude Swim

On the southwest side of Capri
we found a little unknown grotto
where no people were and we
entered it completely
and let our bodies lose all
their loneliness.

All the fish in us
had escaped for a minute.
The real fish did not mind.
We did not disturb their personal life.
We calmly trailed over them
and under them, shedding
air bubbles, little white
balloons that drifted up
into the sun by the boat
where the Italian boatman slept
with his hat over his face.

Water so clear you could
read a book through it.
Water so buoyant you could
float on your elbow.
I lay on it as on a divan.
I lay on it just like
Matisse’s Red Odalisque.
Water was my strange flower.
One must picture a woman
without a toga or a scarf
on a couch as deep as a tomb.

The walls of that grotto
were everycolor blue and
you said, “Look! Your eyes
are skycolor. Look! Your eyes
are skycolor.” And my eyes
shut down as if they were
suddenly ashamed.





Bury me deep

27 09 2009

This is terrifying.

It’s from the head cam of a skier who set off—and was buried in—an avalanche. Over half of the video (total time: ~8 1/2 mins)  is simply a shot of fractured blue, with the skier’s stressed breathing providing the soundtrack.

Sweet Jesus! (said the unbeliever).

I was once buried under snow, albeit for likely less than a minute.

Although we lacked mountains in SmallTown, Wisconsin, we did have snow. One wintry day, when I was very small (4? 5?), I stood with the older kids on our dead-end block and waited for Mr. K. (a neighbor who worked for the city) to pass by where we were standing with the snowplow. The idea was to let the snow knock us over.

Good times.

It’s just possible that the older kids warned me off, or told me to back up, but it doesn’t matter: I stood along side of them as the plow passed.

And was promptly knocked back and buried by the thrown snow.

I do remember screaming. The kids pulled me out lickety-split, and I remember laughter. I think it was meant to reassure me.

Still, I screamed.

I doubt I told my parents. Bad enough to get stuck under a reverse-snowplow-avalanche; who needed yelling or a spanking on top of it?

I haven’t been buried alive since, although I retain my fear of such a possibility to this day. I think it at least partially explains my aversion to spelunking, the unlikeliness I would ever do anything other than open-sea diving, and my mild claustrophobia. Coupled with a near-drowning at 9, it is no surprise that I remain highly protective of my ability to breath at all times.

Guess I can cross back-country downhill skiing off the list, too.