Remember that song of Edith Piaf’s “Regrette Rien..” I Regret Nothing?
Nice work if you can get it, right?
This morning I woke up regretting much and feeling less than everyone else– a state that has plagued me for years.
I sat up and said the following to myself: I am a fellow of the National Endowment of the Arts. I have had three collections of poetry– two chapbooks and one small press book– published. I was appointed full time Poet in Residence to the St. Paul Schools and my work with children praised by the likes of Garrison Keillor. My work has been anthologized and read on NPR. My mentors have included the great Robert Bly, Canadian poet Tom Wayman, the wondrous memoirist Patricia Hampl, who wrote a foreward to one of my books, and others.
Not secondarily, in resuming my literary career, I have had encouraging comments on my work from a diverse group of people since starting my blog in January who include poets actively publishing in the generation coming after me and a host of extremely intelligent, supportive professional women.
So why did I wake up feeling like nothing and no one.
It might take a village to answer the question but I am going to try, she said, opening the medicine cabinet of her chest, embarking upon more self-exposure.
But wait: it is easiest for me to begin by taking a look at a close friend who will never see this post. He is a brilliant man who rolls around like a pebble on the sidewalk, into his thirtieth year of trying to find himself, now in his mid-sixties. He sits in coffee shops reading the NYT and self-help books. He drives a cab and often goes through spells wherein he lives in his car to save money.
He could have easily earned a Ph.D. or taught himself to type, given himself permission to set words down on a page, and become a writer. Word by word. His situation breaks my heart. He is in a state of self-loathing. When he speaks he recounts his personal flaws. A number of people have shaken him by the shoulders and said, “Wake up and love yourself. You matter.”
It’s as if he isn’t listening.
Within the syndrome of massive self doubt our personalities are similar. Our histories run parallel in this: we each had mothers who were in and out of mental hospitals and demanded that we attend to them and nurture them and fill them up, when we should have been free as the wind to be children.
Having such a mother is terrifying; we take our sense of what it is to be human from our parents. We internalize our mothers and fathers until we grow our own identities.
If you internalize a disempowered, helpless, dependent person, you experience yourself as disempowered, helpless, dependent. Feeling that way leads to being that way in the world and to a setting in of a relentless tape in the pysche: “I am nothing, I am no one, I am broken, I am different.”
What an enormous tragedy for this to happen to any single human being. And how tragic that the pack mentality deep within our lizard brains picks up on weakness and vulnerability and tries to put that person under water or stone her to death. I have watched the foxes I love so much sniff the air and go right to a sick cat in the grass and finish it off. We can be like that to each other.
All of this adds up to having to go mano a mano with yourself. I hate that every day I have to do something– often, many somethings– to disprove the lie that I am a defective person who should be ashamed for the rest of her days–to myself. That I have to do something to reassure myself that I am not helpless and do not need to be locked away and taken care of by other people.
I know, and how I wish I didn’t know, what it is like to be viewed in terms of your family’s history, and labeled when you go through a hard time. Labels follow you through your whole life and if you’ve ever been diagnosed out of the DSM IV, you know what I mean: it is extremely hard not only to live against being so diminished and boxed in, but to perpetually encounter not being viewed as who you really are, to be viewed as the mirror opposite of someone strong, and to live with people fearing you because they think you’re crazy.
I spent from September 07 through February of 08 in a nursing home to recover from a severe fracture of my right leg. I had worked hard to overcome my negative sense of myself and stay connected to the strong woman writer in me, but particularly during this period, I lost touch with nearly all of it. The easiest way to describe what happened to me is that I bought back into the myth of helplessness. I had to take pain medication and it gave me a short fuse; I was re-labeled and when I objected to something that might have disturbed anyone, it was written in my chart that I was “symptomatic”.
I was viewed through a scrim of fear by others, solely because they had read my chart, and because, I believe, I stood up for myself and for some of the people who were being bullied around who could not advocate for themselves. That I morphed into a civil rights advocate is a story for another day.
For a variety of reasons the only place I could go after the NH was back to a place and a person with whom I had lived out a codependency in addition to many wonderful and positive things. I had a spell of agoraphobia wherein I was afraid to leave the house; I further lost touch with a sense of myself as a strong person.
This is an infinitely frightening experience. Despite my best efforts, I was turning into my mother.
Thankfully, I got housing assistance and after a grueling search, in a college town where kids roll in these days with cash in the pocket to snap up the cheap housing. My leg didn’t heal properly and it’s hard to get around, but I make it work for me so that I can live alone, strengthen, nurture myself, reclaim me, and climb back out of that dark place of the experience of myself as less than, helpless, incapable.
It has occurred to me recently that perhaps, as I am now 61, that I will not ever “recover” fully in the idealized sense that one day I will get out of bed without the agonizing back and forth about who and what I am. Am I a mess, am I strong. Am I brave, am I coward.
This kind of self-equivocation is a nightmare for those of us who experience it. It is so utterly misunderstood by those who mean well, and so taken advantage of by those with the agenda of shoring up a sense of superiority.
My friend has spells of being darkly angry and lashing out and I know that it is because he is in pain and that it takes all he has to get up in the morning. I identify. Apologizing and amending and working on handling things with more panache is a big part of my life.
However, the raison d’etre for this post is that despite the fact that four months ago I was filled with despair about myself, and felt that my life was over, and beginning with writing a few segments of fantasy for fun, I have now written about twenty new poems, fifty blog posts/essays/flash memoir, and an eighteen chapter memoir. In writing the memoir I re-encountered the indisputable fact that I was strong enough to have taken a train down the Italian coast to be with someone I had merely kissed– to have taken a risk, given myself to life and love, and lived to tell about it. Bit by bit I am reacquiring the courage to send work out to magazines again.
What healing water did I drink this past January? In the midst of it all places I would have gone to for strength, support, comfort, proved not to be emotionally safe for me: the Church. AA. (also a post for another day). An ongoing salon of old friends right up the street– people involved in a whirlwind arts scene in our community– that all fell apart for me in a very unfortunate way. I’m more than ambivalent about social networking and I’ve made it obvious.
I think what happened is that I had to plumb my own depths and tap into a well of inner strength and swim to the surface and find out that I’m not my mother and I am not the unworthy, helpless, victim me, the one everybody wounds, the poor broken little bird. I am a writer, with a voice of her own. How amazing is that?