toil

It has been almost six weeks since I began to seriously participate in my own life again. This sounds rather pathetic, but after three years of unrelenting illness, this is a major accomplishment. The problem is, what is my life? There is nothing, outside of staying in Denver, Katie, and my Dad, that is the same. Let me backtrack to when I would define my life as being on an even keel, way back in early 2011. That was the year my mom died, and the year my ex quit his job. I started graduate school in January of 2013, five weeks after we decided to divorce. Since 2011, I have hit every major life stressor (death of a loved one, loss of income/job, divorce, move, school, and major illness) except for pregnancy and marriage. Wow. It looks pretty grim when I list it all. I’m tough. I know that, I’ve always known that. I’m resilient, something I didn’t know until recently. I mean, I knew I didn’t react to calamity like other people, but I didn’t define that as resilience. I defined that as life.

We all have our limits, though, and when I started trying to do what I once considered normal activities, I got depressed and anxious. I felt hopeless for more than a few hours at a time, a rarity so foreign to me that I didn’t recognize what it was. Who was I trying to kid? I couldn’t do life anymore. I was so out of practice that keeping things together felt impossible. In some ways, being sick was easier. I was stuck. There was no way I would go back to being sick if I could help it. I didn’t know what I was moving towards, but I had to move forward anyway. This is the classic definition of cognitive dissonance. I was being flung outside my comfort zone (whatever that was) to an unknown future. I had four choices: Ignore and deny (of course I’d like this one!), dwell in being nearly well and redefine well (yuck!), accept where I was and make small, real changes (hmmm…), or act like I was well and jump in (okay, but…). I didn’t like any of the choices, really. I wanted everything to fall into place magically, without the awful, churning middle phase. I figured I would make small goals and keep at it, and something would happen.

Nothing much has happened. I’ve had false starts and setbacks. I’ve redefined the goals. One thing I didn’t do was stop. Gradually, (well, maybe not gradually, I didn’t have this epiphany until today) a daily satisfaction set in. The beginnings of schedules and structure appeared, by simply doing it over and over. I found I was working eight or nine hours a day, doing all sorts of different things. Applying for jobs, writing cover letters, researching companies, working part-time as a lifeguard, working part-time from home, cleaning, cooking, reading submissions for a literary review, writing my blog, fixing my website, learning technical writing, and refreshing copy editing skills. Whew! I have become busy! Some days I have to accept that I can’t return fully yet, and I can’t beat myself up for that. Other days I can charge ahead and do everything on my list, and then some.

I haven’t gotten my dream job. I haven’t finished my book. My website still has bugs that I haven’t figured out. I’m only a quarter-way through the copy editing book. I’m half-way through the technical writing book. What I have gained is the intangible. The satisfaction of a day well-spent. My brain is slowly returning to normal, much more slowly than I’d like. The challenges are immense: am I able to retain what I’m learning? Am I making mistakes that I can’t see? There are still cognitive gaps that aren’t apparent until I’m confronted with them. For instance, a friend asked if I’d read Willa Cather’s My Antonia. Of course I had, I’d read the prairie trilogy years ago, then reread My Antonia again. I’d written about the book in grad school, for Pete’s sake!

I couldn’t remember a thing about the book, except that I’d read it. Another time, I went to a play with a new friend. They were playing 80s music before the play. I couldn’t remember lyrics I used to know by heart. The whole cognitive deficit part sucks, but the stimulation of learning new things has been restorative. We’ll see how successful I am at retaining what I’ve learned. I hate my sorry-ass brain at the moment.

I don’t like this phase. I don’t like being in limbo in virtually every aspect of my life. Oh, I know. It will make me a better person. It’s another fucking opportunity for growth. I’ll get there. Blah, blah, blah. I don’t think about those things. I can’t. The unknowns are too big. Maybe the way out of an existential crisis is simply doing things and moving forward every day. My mind, to paraphrase Camus, must stop watching itself and start acting.

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clean

I’ve had a bad week. Normally I’m loathe to admit this, but it is pertinent to this post. Today is, so far, a good day. I walked the dogs, ate breakfast, and began to clean. I like to clean. It is a zen-like activity for me, one of those empty tasks that allows the brain to unravel knotty problems or work through troubling emotions. I wanted to clean so that I could move back into my own bedroom. This month has been filled with family and friends who have stayed at the house. Because my dad is eighty-seven and my dad, I insisted that he take my bedroom this time. That is because I had a friend staying in his old room. I moved downstairs to the basement spare bedroom (which has its own bathroom and is quite cool and comfy) and stuck my brother  Mike on a cot in my office. I would have put him downstairs in the cool and comfy room, but he has a bum hip, smokes a pack a day, and drinks endless cups of coffee. My office is next to the back door and the kitchen and it’s on the main floor, so no stairs. Anyway, it was chaotic. Now we’re back to me, my dad, Katie and Cris, her lovely boyfriend who is here four or five nights a week.

While growing up, my home was calm, clean and ordered. My mom wanted it that way. We often battled—I felt her standards were ridiculous. Saturday mornings were the worst. I couldn’t leave until my room was mom-clean. She checked under the bed, in the closet and inside my dresser. I had many diversionary tactics: the paper (I read it from cover to cover by age 11), American Bandstand followed by Soul Train (I’m a Soul Train girl 100%!), and watching golf or tennis with my dad ( a lifelong tradition, as it turns out). Nothing lasts forever. At some point I dragged myself to my room and turned on some music. Once I started, it wasn’t bad. I have a deep appreciation for the crisp, fresh smell and suppleness of clean towels and sheets. I love knowing where things are. When my cousin Ginger moved in with us, I was twelve. I remember how vehemently annoyed she was that everything had to be done just so. Over time, she became a much better and more cheerful cleaner than I, and I resented her for this. Now, of course, I love to kvetch with her over the things we suffered together (ask her about cross-country skiing!).

I’m not quite sure when I realized I liked an ordered household, but I do. When Lyme drove me into my home for days on end, an almost maniacal need for cleanliness took hold. Katie would tell you I was OCD about this, and she may be right. Lyme settled in my brain and stirred up all kinds of synapses that should have been left alone. Those times could best be described as an acid trip on downers while sick with the worst hangover ever. Looking back, I’m not sure how I endured those days. Maybe the fact that my brain was inflamed and not working right made time warp, so that days flew by without complaint.

Whenever I felt well enough, I cleaned and shopped for groceries before I did anything else. If you’ve ever been sick for a long time, it’s better to be sick in a clean house. Waking up to dirt and mess is disheartening when you’re well, devastating when you’re ill. If you felt bad already, seeing all that chaos simply drags you down further. But maybe that’s just me. I don’t think so, I think my need to clean, like my need for exercise and sleep, takes precedence in my life. I value it, so I make time to do it. Things I don’t value, like sitting in front of the TV or going out drinking, I don’t do.

This isn’t saintly, nor does it make me a better person (wait…I think it might! Doesn’t the Bible say cleanliness is next to Godliness, or was that Ben Franklin? Anyway, this atheist feels pretty fucking holy about cleaning) but it does make for a nice place to wake up to, no matter how shitty I feel. This past year, much to my chagrin, I also discovered I’m a bit of a Nazi bitch about control over my house and kitchen. I wanted a roommate. I asked an old, dear friend to come and try it out. It was apparent to me that I don’t like anyone else cleaning and straightening my home. I would not do well with a maid. Well, I might. Perhaps I’ll win the lottery and find out. I wasn’t pleased to uncover such an unflattering side to myself, and I can’t truly blame Lyme for it.

Don’t expect me to apologize for my cleaning problem. Keep asking me to come over and clean your house. So far, only a few friends have enjoyed this bonus (Alex and Vilja, I’m looking at you!). To my friends and guests: it’s nothing personal, I just do it all better than you. And I like it.

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