One must imagine Sisyphus happy

“Your little kitten features looked tired, satisfied. You stared at me from the floor, face pressed against the carpet, and you ruminated on the millions of dust mites and organisms existing below us—being inhaled with every shaking breath, sticking to our sweat-slicked skin. We are infinitesimally small parts of something so enormous, we cannot truly conceive of its size. It is beyond the scope of our reason—yet some self-preserving mechanism enables us to rationalize that we must be some integral meaningful part of it all. The enormity of it all, and our sheer inability to accommodate its greatness, stands to prove that we truly are insignificant—just as the mites and bacteria below our noses have no greater purpose than to be. Perhaps they know more than we do.”

* * *

The weekends were always cold and lonely. You’d stay in your room, blinds down, door locked, hugging your knees under your blankets—and wait, wonder if you could transform into something, anything, to escape from yourself, from the realm of human suffering just for a brief moment.

By suffering, you do not mean pain. Pain is too narrow a consideration; pain too familiar, too easy. Ideas of suicide did not appeal to you, as suicide implied an eternal escape from pain. No. In fact, you sought ways to increase your pain; you once drove head-long into the winter wind vortex outside the John Hancock building, running, then sprinting into the headwind and screaming with frustration as your eyes leaked water in resistance. The wind won, and you shuffled into the gym, feeling your ears, lips, nose, fingers, hands go hot to combat frostbite. There, you embraced the pain of training, punished yourself in the privacy of the studio, though still under the watchful eyes of the staff and members who would walk away, muttering, “Crazy.”

But the pain, the booze, the steady stream of pills and coke just wasn’t enough to distract you.

The twenty-three-year-old boy who wanted to be turned into a woman. He showed up to your house looking as though he’d been playing Dungeons and Dragons in his mom’s basement his whole life. He had a whimpering, high-pitched voice and soft hands. You tossed down a glass of bourbon and spent almost two hours waxing and shaving his entire body. Mani, pedi. Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrisette, Ally McBeal playing in the background. You put him in a bra, panties. Later, a skirt, top, and heels. He wouldn’t let you take pictures. Twenty-second wonder. Nude photo shoots. The little drips the guys left on your stomach after the click-click-click of the shutter. He asked for your number. The meeting with Sue. She spoke using delicate language and euphemisms to talk about the not-supposed-to-be-talked-about. She said you’ll pick up the language quickly. The guy—you call Joe Navy. Another guy—Liquor Store Guy. To the liquor store, where he handed you bills and a free bottle of Knob Creek. Ripped lines of Mollie. Blood in your underpants. Woke up to a giant Golden Retriever panting as Joe Navy jerked himself to a finish, with fantasies of being pegged. His end-stage demented grandmother moaned and drooled in her living room bed wearing only a diaper, back like a stegosaurus. Where was your truck? What town was this? How many liquor stores could be in a 40 mile radius? The millionaire’s penthouse. Fine champagne, nice high thread-count sheets, amazing view of the city. Another photographer for a quick fifty quick bucks. There was something just a little off. Maybe it was when he said, “You have a really nice pussy,” as he snapped photos through his short telescope. The bi-polar woman in whom you had confided a few times, since nothing you could say seemed to shock her out of the Lithium. She’d leaned in deep, “Just investigating,” but you backed away all bourbony. Jumped into the truck with its broken flung-right-off-the-vehicle windshield wipers and its missing tail lights, intent on your descent–and Greg got in touch with you. You drove fast and in circles for about thirty minutes, then eventually wound up at a warehouse in Charlestown. You swallowed the pills without blinking, and decided very suddenly to steal away from the action for a flaccid moment in the cab. You hung out in a chair all night in a little dark room bathed in black light and neon paint. Some ultra-petite black lesbian wanted to hook up with you—she kept touching you, petting you, telling you she loves you. Her friend looked like Shaq. Massive. Doted on you, along with Greg. You moved to a couch, lay down and watched some crazy, topless, emaciated white dude fly around like a maniacal canary on a giant swing suspended from the rafters of the warehouse. You wondered—you wished you could know—what it was like to be that fucking high.

At some point, a boy—The Philosopher—slipped onto the couch; he slipped right in behind you like a playing card. He started rambling, and you were nodding, eyes rolling, chest sighing. He asked you who you are, what you are doing there. You told him you were avoiding reality, burying your sorrows, wishing you could stop the pattern: the up-down rhythm of catastrophe. You said this as you folded up in your pill.

He whispered to you, lips brushing your ear, hands running smoothly over your waist, “Have you heard of the Myth of Sisyphus?” You said no. “Sisyphus,” he continued, “is a man condemned by The Gods to an eternity of pushing a boulder up a hill, only to have it roll down each time he reaches the top. And Camus—Albert Camus—wrote an essay on Sisyphus. He concluded that it could not be a terrible existence. It could not be the worst punishment imaginable. At the end, he writes, ‘The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.’”

You fell asleep as he told you that you are lovely.

When you woke up, it was to the sound of an E-tard blowing into a didgeridoo–it emitted a long, deep, resonating noise. You blinked against the early morning light leaking into the warehouse through the windows.The first person you saw was the little lesbian on your right, who was petting your face. Greg was seated directly behind you, smiling down, saying, “Good morning, beautiful.” Shaq was below you, massaging your legs, gradually working between your thighs. On your left, The Philosopher snored softly in your ear. The didgeridoo bellowed.

Who were these people?  Why did they touch you?  What did they want from you?  You’d only shown up to a party in sagging jeans and Smith College’s stupid worn t-shirt that read, “If Wishes Were Horses.”

You and Greg split. You took him back to his apartment in Cambridge. He wanted another night of Aderrall-fueled fucking over that massage table of his so he could cry, “Oh, my anterior tibialis!” the next morning. You couldn’t stay—you didn’t want to stay. You drove the forty minutes in traffic to Jamaica Plain, sleep-deprived. Terror filled your stomach. You needed to drive carefully. Of course, a woman jumped out in front of your truck, and you slammed down on the clutch and brake pedals.The clutch pedal popped and the truck coasted the last two blocks home.

The little cast-iron tub was mottled by age. Terror and disgust as you scrubbed at your skin. Ick, ick, ickHated yourself. Scared yourself. Needed someone. Comfort. Anyone. Smith College? She wouldn’t see you. You curled up in a small ball and slept. There were four missed text messages from Joe Navy. He wanted to know why you didn’t show up to peg him last night. Like a bitch, you told him to stop texting you, dammit!

The three Harvard alumni at the bar downtown appraised you. You thought things had been going well. But after dinner, one of them met you outside at the door, and he gave it to you plainly: you were full of shit. You were drowning in bullshit, and you were drowning people around you in it. You were an unattractive person. There was sweetness to you, but it was hard to see that sweetness in a person who was so plainly lost, aimless, and scared. Your personality was a turn-off. You didn’t want to be complimented, and that somehow made you arrogant. Ugly. Bogged down in bullshit. Please turn off your personality so everyone could have some fun. Leave all your bullshit here at the table—because no one wants anything to do with it, it’s a turn-off—and everyone could go back to his place and have a good time. Or you could decide to part ways.

You absorbed the feedback. Hadn’t you already heard this before from the millionaire that last time? “You are a beautiful girl with a not-so-beautiful personality.” And yet, the fat old I-banker with the cock-eaten caterpillar, who tipped in hotel chocolate, hadn’t yet noticed.

You took off, wandered along the road, sobbing. Head spinning, vision blurring, breath choking.  Suffocating in all your shit.Veering on your feet, the hard soles of your boots struck the curb. A bus was coming. You imagined “accidentally staggering” in front of it. Not a thought a suicide, but a desire to be maimed.

In a complete act of desperation, you called Ex-Wife. Whatever she heard on her end of the line was incomprehensible. She agreed to meet you outside the Prudential Center. The meeting was brief, dry. She’d stared at you as you muttered and breathed incoherent phrases and explanations. She said, “I don’t understand what you want from me.”

Want?  Nothing. Just someone to see your sadness—to know your whereabouts—in case you slipped off the grid.

* * *

In the weeks that ensued, your best friend Alexis began to press you to establish some minimal level of communication with Ex-Wife, who had been pressured to open her mind to the possibility of friendship with you.

So the two of you started talking again, then hanging out—initially chaperoned by Alexis—then finally spending time alone together, finding a familiar and comfortable stride in each other’s company.

“Maria,” Alexis said one evening, nearly a month into your period of re-connection with your Ex-Wife. “She knows.

“What do you mean, she knows?” you said, furrowing your brow.

“She read your journal. She read everything.”

And just like that, your heart shattered into a million little pieces on Ex-Wife’s behalf.

How hurt she must have been, how disgusted, how… who even knows? She knew that you had been up to, then going back to her place immediately afterward since you were too restless to handle being alone at night. Showing up at her door, crawling into her bed—the bed the two of you once shared—tracking that filth into the sheets. Why?

Life had been absolved of all meaning. It didn’t matter to you what you did. The memory of The Philosopher’s words about Sisyphus haunted you—had really, at that time, hammered you like a stake deep into the soil of despondency. 

You remember one evening in April, when you’d gone to Winchester to see Alexis, to drink deeply from the well of her comforting presence. You walked through the door and her mother railed against you. Sat you down, lectured you, yelled at you for hurting yourself (though she hadn’t a clue what you’d been doing, your expressions, body language, and vibrations intimated the truth). And wow, after a dose of that, you went to Alexis’ room feeling fragile, sat on her bed, and thought. You noticed even Alexis—though usually tough and fearless with you—suddenly regarded you with a look of… horror? Like this was some kind of version of you she’d never encountered before, though she’d studied you, knew you, through all your highs and lows over the years.

She asked you to please talk to her—tell her how you were feeling.

So you did, whispered it to her with quiet, surreptitious tears gliding down your cheeks as you ran the palm of your hand over her familiar purple comforter.

“I’m sorry,” you whispered. “I’ve never felt more afraid in my whole life. There’s always been something to worry about—something at stake. And now there is nothing. I have nothing.” The tears came faster. “Do you know what it’s like to wake up and realize you believe in nothing? Absolutely nothing? That you trust nothing? Not only that, but you wake up and realize that you can’t even trust yourself?  I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I want. How can I choose to act if I haven’t the faintest idea? I have no ability or willingness to commit to anything. I have nothing.” Your voice sounded like tires creeping over a gravel road.

Maybe that’s the reason why you allowed yourself to continue to use your body for money. It was meaningless. You could ascribe any meaning you wanted to it, just as you could tell yourself that it was equally meaningless to disrespect Ex-Wife by sliding into bed next to her, probably reeking of cum and cologne.

* * *

She put up with it, you presumed, because she did care about you, and was willing to be there for you as a stealthy form of intervention.

Well, it worked. You and Ex-Wife fell into old habits, and with minimal bickering. You cut off your arrangement with Sue, stopped your online shenanigans, stopped talking to Greg, stopped buying off Manny, stopped mooning for Smith College. You even went into work one afternoon and announced you were going to quit your job, after which moment everything just felt lighter. So light, so much easier.  Having done all this, and having Ex-Wife not as a lover, but as a simple friend, your anxiety stopped immediately—as though somebody had flipped a switch. You wrapped yourself in Ex-Wife’s company, used her as a shield, the way you’d used Smith College. One woman to the next. It’s always the same.  Everything looks good when you’ve reached the top of the mountain. When you find yourself teetering on the edge of a cliff at the top of that mountain, you leap off—you plummet. You willingly launch yourself off the edge, laughing as you look back over your shoulder to see if she (whoever she is at the time) is watching.

You can’t expect people to stick with you if you continue to treat them like garbage.

And that’s exactly what you did to Ex-Wife again. You simply were not healthy, despite the facade.

* * *

In the public opinion, coke, heroin, painkillers, and the like are much greater threats than alcohol. This is why they always say “drugs and alcohol,” as though alcohol were some lesser “other” offender. They overlook the fact that alcohol is responsible for more violence, accidents, abuse, poor decision making, and death than all the other drugs combined.

And why is that?

Because it is accessible.

Alcohol is everywhere: liquor stores on every corner, beer and wine in supermarkets and gas stations. It’s served at all hours of the day—a Bloody Mary at breakfast, beer with lunch, wine with dinner, Irish coffee for dessert, cocktails after hours, then shots when you tired of wasting time with mixers. It’s impossible to avoid, like a Starbucks in downtown Seattle. It is everywhere. And difficult to turn down.

You discovered alcohol at fifteen and didn’t look back. You drowned yourself in it as the earth shook beneath your feet—your home, your family, your foundation. It sucks having your feet on the ground, fearing another tremor at any moment from Raptor Nails. So why not float? Or better yet, swim? You tread in alcohol for years. How did you do it? How did you pull your grades, perform in your sports, not crash your car?

It was three years of repeated alcohol poisoning; of waking up in ditches, strange neighborhoods, and once even in the middle of a street (“Roll to the curb, you dumb bitch! At least… roll to the curb. I can’t leave you here.”); of being kicked off your rowing team for showing up to practice wasted, tripping and going down flat like a pancake one, two, three times before the coaches pulled you into the office; of your Sunday afternoon ritual of running to the bathroom at work every five minutes to vomit; of blackout tumbles; of two concussions and a “broken toe;” of ruining your relationships with people; of hiding away from your family, in your room over the holidays, bathed in the glow of red Christmas lights, rocking steadily on the floor with a malt dangling from your fingertips as your shivered and bit on your knuckles; of acrobatic acts of desperation. You gained 50 pounds from alcohol in high school, and no one seemed to notice what you were doing to yourself. Except one person. It was the girl in high school who looked after you, cleaned up your vomit, hid the evidence, forced you into drug and alcohol counseling. And what did you do for her in return? Hurt her. A lot.

Finally you stopped. Well, sort of. It’s really impossible to not drink in college. You had your ups and downs with the stuff, but ultimately it was rowing that offered you enough incentive to keep your distance from it. The influence of rowing saved your life.

Your pattern with alcohol looks as follows: a drink here, a drink there, and then a binge. Your tolerance of seven or eight beers shoots up to seventeen or eighteen by the end of the week if you continue drinking.  You become a different person and fuck up big time. You make awful decisions, or simply refrain from thinking at all. Alcohol, truly, was your first Sisyphean rhythm.

So when Ex-Wife allowed you to drink—encouraged it over other things—she hadn’t known what she was in for. In all the time she’d known you, she’d never known you as a drunk, had never seen glimmers of your high school and early college years. The time in your life during which Ex-Wife had known you, it had always been something else, some other drug, some other… not “addiction,” but “distraction.” Finally, when you realized you wouldn’t afford your coke habit, when you’d depleted your “pharmacy” of oxy, dilaudid, soma, valium, ambien, risperdal, and xanax, you settled for good old-fashioned alcohol alone.

Too much booze, and you stopped thinking clearly. This is why Ex-Wife inevitably found you curled up in a ball outside her apartment door, sobbing incoherently and sweating the stuff—why she yelled, “This is not my responsibility!” as you vomited all over her bathroom. She was right. It wasn’t her responsibility. High school girl had yelled the same words.

The intensification of your relationship with booze culminated with you sleeping with a mutual friend in her bed, ruining her new sheets with black ink rubbed off from bar stamps. “You like that, you dirty bitch?”

Ex-Wife rightfully threw you out again.

Categories: Illness, Parties, Shifties, Struggles, United States | Tags: , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

So cold, you think not to touch things.

[23 November 2007

23:00h

Boston, Massachusetts, in your studio apartment]

Somewhere your dad sits at a stark kitchen table, cradling his white feather head in his hands. He feels useless. And somewhere a coast away, you are crying in secret—in a dark yard, and the wet grass seeps into the leather of your shoes. You feel hopeless. Your dad wants to die. You can’t stand it for his sake.

[27 December 2007

21:15h

In Seattle, Washington, in your old bedroom]

You visit your dad for the first time in his bedroom.

It is much worse than you imagined. Much worse.

Your eyes fill with tears. He barely realizes you are there at first. Then he asks if you came that day.  From where? From Boston. Oh. Holding his head in his hands.

You shop for food. You find everything you know he likes. Anything to bring him comfort, to return memories.

You and Big Dan are at the table with him. You don’t know what to say to this man. You have so little to talk about. Damn. You wish you had just one thing to say.

[27 December 2007

21:20h

In Seattle, Washington, in your old bedroom]

At home at the kitchen table—ugly purple paint against the piss-colored walls. Big Dan shifts at the table and it squeaks. You are slumped against the high-backed chair, blinking slowly, feeling the weight of your eyelids against a coast-to-coast flight, a night of drinking, and more than a gram of coke up your nose.  Thirty-eight hours without sleep.

Your dad is shaking his head, and his jaw sets in such a way that you think he might be crying. Secretly.  Inwardly. This man has never cried in front of you. But maybe now.

Your heart breaks. You try to speak, and the tears well in your eyes. Swollen puddles of water.

You explain to him that you hate to see him so sad—so depressed. That when you quit rowing, when you couldn’t move to Boston, he had been there for you, insisting that you be happy above all else—and you can only hope the same for him. Big Dan tears up, hearing this.

21:30h

In Seattle, Washington, in your old bedroom]

“Ee-ah?  Ee-ah?  Ee-ah?” you hear. You leap from your bed and meet him in the kitchen, eager to assist.

“Yeah, Dad, what’s up?”

His old 49ers beanie is pulled far down over his brow, practically covering his eyes. He glares against the kitchen lights. Shoulders drawn forward… feet shuffling, unsure of their stride.

“Do you know where my keys are?”

Something inside of you heaves a sob. You offer your dad a tight-lipped, forgiving smile.

“Yeah, Dad, I have them. Remember?”

“You do?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, okay, that’s fine,” he says, then pauses. “Do you have my keys?”

“Yes.”

“Where did you put them?”

“Dad, I still have them.”

“You do?”

“Yes. I’ll give them to you directly tomorrow.”

He turns to go back to his room.

You feel so awful that you catch him as he is shutting the door and offer him a hug.

“I must be really haywire,” he says.

You rub his back. You’ve never hugged him like this—never really hugged him, ever. “It’s okay, Dad.”

“Do you have my keys?”

“Yeah, Dad, I do.”

21:40h

In Seattle, Washington, in your old bedroom]

Dad lays in his room in the dark, in the middle of the day. Blinds closed. No TV. No radio. No newspaper.  Doesn’t drink. Doesn’t eat. Doesn’t know what to do. All he thinks about is what day it is.

__________

21:45h

In Seattle, Washington, in your old bedroom]

“I don’t want anybody to see me,” he says.

“Caregiver is taking care of everything,” you reply.

“I don’t know how all this happened. I’m sorry about this.”

“You don’t have to be sorry, Dad. It’s not your fault.”

[13 September 2008

23:00h

In your bedroom in the house in Orleans, Central France]

Every time you re-read those entries, your heart splits open—just a little wider. Time and distraction sew it back together. It has been over six weeks since you last spoke to your father. As for everyone else in your life, it has been months. You’re completely alone. Everything is preserved between you and these messy pages.

Messy, messy pages. After those December ’07 entries, there is nothing until the end of March ’08. You imagine your life at the time to have been like a giant iceberg. Gelid, blue, brittle—and then the Titanic hits it. There is a deafening splitting noise, and a large chunk of that frozen mass breaks away and plummets to the inky black waters below—splashes and radiates a wake that overturns every life boat within miles.

How can you piece the story together again?  Through the abrupt change of penmanship, the bouncing around months… the lost and then re-discovered memories.

Part of you is desperate to set the record straight on paper.  Another part is too afraid—too nervous to trek back into that cold darkness that enshrouded you—that led you here. Sometimes, even now, you think it’s still that cold—and you think not to touch things. You keep your hands stuffed into your pockets instead.

* * *

Nothing between December ’07 and March of ’08. Because you went mad.

You met Greg at your gym’s Corporate location. He stood at the top of the stairs, just above the locker rooms, offering free ten-minute chair massages.

“Would you like a free massage?” he asked, eyeing your spandex-clad legs.

Would I!” you said, and hopped into the chair before he’d invited you to sit. You began to gab about your knee and back injuries, giving him instructions on how to work.

Greg turned out to be only a mediocre masseuse—oh sorry, massage therapist—but the two of you seemed to hit it off. The ten-minute chair massage turned into an hour-long full-body table massage in his private studio.

He was a thirty-eight-year-old, bald, good-looking black guy. He favored pink shirts, good parties, and sleeping with men on occasion. He’d moved to Boston from New York City to attend the Berkeley School of Music, but dropped out to become a massage therapist for your company, where he was eeking out his living.

“You’re so tight,” he said. “You should really come to my studio across town where I can really work on you.”

The walls at Corporate, after all, were paper-thin.

You told him sorry, you were married.

Greg was not an offensive person, but he explained that you were young and that the marriage wouldn’t last.

“I can tell by looking at you,” he said. “You’re not ready to settle down. You’re too wild.”

Maybe it was true, but you didn’t want to pursue the matter further. The two of you swapped stories about ridiculous parties, sex encounters of the third kind, and substance abuse.

So, in the end, it was Greg who introduced you to Manny, and from Manny you would procure your endless supply.

* * *

Fights with Wife were common.

People often ask you why the marriage didn’t last. Aside from the obvious (you), you explain that it was two young women that took too many hits from life all at once. It would have broken any relationship. Wife had been on the U.S. National Team trajectory, but lost her sport due to a nasty case of thoracic outlet syndrome. She was a staunch Catholic, and the stigma of being gay-married hung over her head. She took off her wedding rings around her teammates.

And you… well, where to begin?

  1. Double lumbar discectomy at 21, and the chronic pain that came with it.
  2. Performance anxiety, and constant fear of losing out on the Olympics.
  3. Unstable relationships, with you always as the dumpee. Pathetic begging. Unmet needs for intimacy support.
  4. Terrible depression that comes from quitting your sport and having no sense of direction or a back-up plan.
  5. Substance abuse issues to cope with the depression, and a physiology trained over seven years to be active all the time. More than three hours per day with your heart rate elevated to 150bpm.
  6. Septic arthritis.
  7. Crushed dreams of freedom.
  8. $50,000 of medical debt hanging over your head.
  9. A stolen identity.
  10. And a father dying from Alzheimer’s.

–all in the space of two years.

Two girls, way too much stress.

Project Sabotage, underway!

* * *

“I think we should get a divorce,” you whispered, feeling your anxiety mounting.

Wife implored you to reconsider, begged you not to leave, told you she thought it was a terrible idea—please, despite a divorce, please don’t walk out the door.

“If you leave now,” she said, voice riddled with nervousness, “I just know it will be a mistake. It’s a bad idea. Please, please. Maria. Answer me. Say something.”

Your head rolled, chest constricted. You got up, went to the shelf, grabbed your anti-psychotics, popped a couple—started to slide.

Wife moved to the bed, curled into a ball, held her knees tightly to her chest. She talked to you, but you remember little. All you really remember is fighting the urge to flee—run out of the apartment, leave the door hanging open.

In the end, you stayed. Wife was on the verge of tears—though she never did cry—and your sedatives hit like a battering ram. You wanted to sleep on the couch, but Wife convinced you to remain in bed. Not touching, not facing each other, but together. You spent that evening blanketed in self-loathing. You hadn’t had the intention of asking for a divorce as you were walking home. It just happened. 

* * *

You tell yourself you’d tried to do the right thing. That you’d at least asked for the divorce before you did the damage. The girl from the gym, the one who had been taking your group fitness class every night–the one who lingered, who asked all the questions, who dug into the guts of your marriage, made you reflect… she was the distraction you wanted. A whip-smart, authentic Smith College lesbian in an open relationship. You made excuses to meet, chat, grab coffee, walk to the bus stop together en route to your respective homes. The two of you were drawn together by the excitement of your budding friendship, the satisfaction of intellectual gratification, the smoldering heat of eye contact.

 “I don’t think what we’re doing is innocent,” she said.

The tension was too high. “It’s not innocent,” you confirmed.

* * *

Smith College suggested dinner plans one night after your group fitness class. You left the gym together, and you noticed your club manager shaking his head disapprovingly.

It was cold and snowing heavily. Smith College led you to the T-station, informed you that she was going to take you to a Thai restaurant in Jamaica Plain, just down the street from her house.

At dinner, instead of finding yourselves thrown into enthusiastic discourse, using that precious time to which you had looked forward for so long, conversation dwindled and the tension between you increased. You watched her pull out a bottle of pills, pop one into her mouth.

“Xanex,” she said. “I have to take them when I feel an anxiety attack coming on.”

“You’re feeling anxious?” you asked.

“Very.”

You knew why. The trouble wasn’t merely brewing on your end of the deal. Smith College, too, had a girlfriend, and though she was in an open relationship, it didn’t change the fact that she was being emotionally unfaithful.

“My girlfriend’s been angry with me because I haven’t been taking enough time to call her.”

You were both stuck. You understood the seriousness of the attraction you had for each other. It wasn’t merely a matter of lust. In her you’d found some comfort, and a woman who dazzled. In you, she had found someone she thought was emotionally accessible and mature.

The wine from dinner went to your head. You stumbled out of the restaurant, blinked against the fat flakes of snow falling heavily. It was freezing.

“I don’t want to go home,” you whispered.

She led you down the street, led you into JP Licks. The two of you took a booth and said very little. She studied you intently as you remained in a deep, heavy silence.

You were still cold, felt like the darkness beyond the windows might reach in, cloak you, draw you away kicking and screaming—suck you into oblivion. Blink you out of consciousness.

Maybe at that point it did. She must have felt your heaviness, must have seen it pouring out of your heart.  She reached across the table and took your hand, held it. Slowly, cautiously, you turned your own hand and held back, studied her fingertips with yours, tracing out a message: release.

In the end, she took you home. Fired up her old black Mercedes and plowed through the freshly fallen snow as you wrapped yourself tightly in the folds of your coat, shivering against your loneliness. And when she pulled up in front of your building, she stopped you from exiting the car by finding your hand.  Silence hung between you for a long moment before she leaned across the cab and kissed your cheek.

* * *

At least you weren’t bullshitting yourself. You’d asked (and failed) for a divorce, knew what you were doing wasn’t innocent. But you were on auto-pilot. So far, no lines had been crossed. But you and Smith College were paving the the escape route.

Your breaking point came after a company party, when you announced you had to leave early to meet Wife at home for some quality time. You remember post-holing through a foot of Boston snow towards your apartment.

Smith College texted. Wanted to know how your night was going.

You weren’t even that drunk. Can’t blame it on that. The switch flipped, and you continued to walk roboticly–past your apartment–straight to where your truck was parked.

You remember backing out of the parking spot, and the moment of realization that the tire tracks in the snow would have given you away the following morning, when you and Wife were going to drive out of the city for a snow-shoeing excursion. She would see immediately that you’d gone somewhere.

Behind the wheel of your uninsured truck with its loose steering, shitty suspension, useless windshield wipers, broken defroster, rusted off muffler, and burned-out tail lights—you fishtailed across town.

Smith College opened the door to her apartment, led you inside, up to the top floor. You found the wavelength you’d abandoned in the cab of her Mercedes the night before. She crawled across the futon, curled up next to you. The smell of her shampoo. Clothes fell to the floor like petals from a dying flower.

* * *

There’s a classic lesbian joke: “What does a lesbian bring on a second date?” Answer: “A U-Haul.”

Wife kicked you out of the apartment the very next day, in the middle of winter. In fact, she was so productive about exterminating your presence that she and a friend busted a move on the apartment, packed all of your shit in boxes, eliminated photos, gifts—flushed your coke down the toilet. You were called to pick up your stuff. All things considered, she had every right to destroy your things, throw them from the window and into the street, burn them. But that’s not her style. You pulled up to your apartment, which had a sudden look of foreignness, blasted up and down the stairs until all your clothes, kitchen supplies, electronics, books—god, so many fucking books—all of your things were in the bed of your truck. You returned to Jamaica Plain, to Smith College’s flat. It was an embarrassment, but you had nowhere else to go.

And as you made trips from the bed of your truck to the top floor of the building, again and again, like a miserable yo-yo, God laughed. The sky, dark and dense with clouds, opened up and began dumping ice, pelting your mercilessly.

* * *

Smith College had taken you in. She had to; you had nowhere else to go, and she felt hugely responsible for the rift that split between you and Wife. Furthermore, her girlfriend had dumped her the very next day as well.

It was a recipe for a perfectly epic rebound. Three, four, five times a day. You couldn’t get enough, even when by the end you’d each lay there swearing it off, desperately needing a recovery period. But you couldn’t stop; you powered through, ripping sheets off the bed, rolling across the mattress, taking it to the floor, the laundry basket, the wall, bathtub—and then the showers, sauna, and towel closet at the gym. The creative energy did not wane. Ice cubes, Haagen-Dazs, chocolate, caramel, whipped cream and candy. So egregious was the energy, that you ran out of lube–so settled for olive oil.

It was the best trip of your life.

And cocaine made it better.

You’d gone to Manny’s, picked up a supply, but it was never enough. In two days, sometimes three, you’d be back for more. Greedily, you’d take your stash back to her place, rip off the lines, pour fire from the extra-large bottle of bourbon down your throat, and get Biblical. For hours, for days. Smith College had been cautious in the presence of the drugs, as she didn’t want anything to set off her anxiety, but eventually curiosity won. She joined you, she loved it. The two of you would stay awake for the weekend, even dart naked onto the black tar roof of her building, spread your arms and laugh into the clear, star-speckled winter sky until the wind drove you indoors, back to the apartment, to the bed, to the heat and sweat of your bodies straining against each other’s.

You’re a good runner, but reality always manages to catch up. The honeymoon with Smith College had to end. Her roommates had begun to express their irritation. So you secured a new place to live.

Your new roommates were three uproarious black girls. Their conversation could be heard for blocks, their shrieking laughter for miles. You loved them. Loved the comedy of it all, the giant hookah in the living room, the fried plantains, the foreign hair products on the bathroom shelves. You liked them, but you were never there. You couldn’t break away from Smith College—didn’t want to.

She’d welcome you “home” (as you called her flat, and reserved the term “my place” for your new residence) in the evenings with a tender hug and her catch phrase, “How’s it goin’?”  She’d roust you up some dinner, pull you into a bubble bath, read out loud to you. In the morning, she’d wake you for coffee and pancakes with powdered sugar, then pull you out the door to commute to work.  At lunch, she’d rush down to your office, drop food on your desk, force you to eat as your body began to wither away from the cocaine.

And wither away it did. Your cheeks and eyes began to hollow, to re-structure your expression into something cold and forbidding. Your ribs, now shadowy, pained you to cough or sneeze. Smith College damned you for regarding yourself in the mirror with novel fascination. You’d never seen your body like this—ever—yielding so little to pinch, but still supporting all the muscle only one can attain from working full time at a gym and subsisting off little besides black coffee, bourbon, and blow.

The gym members and staff had begun to notice your change. You moved through the gym slowly, tiredly, dizzy most of the time. The truth was, you were sad. Despite all the distraction you’d found in Smith College and in the drugs, you were empty.

Smith College had begun to change, had been increasingly moody, agitated. “I think it’s about time you started sleeping at your own place,” she said. When giving her space didn’t seem to improve her moods around you, you were at a loss for what to do. You craved her company, her touch, her security. What you got was ever-increasing unpredictability that started making you increasingly anxious. So anxious that your smooth, icy facade began to crack.

You finally cried after over a month of separation from Wife.  Crying was not an incessant feature, but it triggered enough pent up emotion to send you barreling. Between your anti-psychotics and Smith College’s Xanex, you still couldn’t keep your composure.

Your co-workers began to complain about you—that you weren’t friendly enough, weren’t a team player, didn’t help out with basic “shared” responsibilities. Forget the fact that you had a booming clientele; that you had a coveted business model that brought in thousands of dollars of sales overnight; that you were responsible for all of the group fitness instructors and attendees; that after they’d fired the front desk girl, they’d left you the sole female at the facility and thus solely responsible for all of her duties in the locker room. Forget it all. It wasn’t enough. So, like the sensitive men they were, they pulled you in for a meeting in a glass-walled office—a little ice cube—and told you how much more they needed you to do.

You had, you think, at that moment, a mild psychotic break. Your hands shook, head rolled lazily around on your shoulders as though you were seeking help from above, and you lost your composure. Your general manager told you to take a walk—don’t let the members see.

With blurred vision, you ran up the tower to Human Resources to see Smith College. You just needed to talk to someone—anyone—just for a moment, and explain to them just how lost you were, how hurt you were, how lonely, how afraid… You found Smith College at her desk. She saw your face, “Oh god, hold on a minute,” she said, then cupped her hand over the mouthpiece of her phone. “I’m talking to my ex. Can I find you later?”

You backed away from her like a cautious animal. Suddenly you knew…

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to interrupt—I’ll leave,” you said, and did. Curled up in a wretched little ball on the stairwell and wept.

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Project Sabotage

You look back on that time of your life and wonder at your idiocy. Was it some kind of mental illness? Perhaps. But more like the manifestation of your little child-soul down in a well, neck craned back, tearing off her fingernails as she tried to climb–no, not out of the dim, damp well–but deeper into the abyss.

Health insurance is a giant problem in the United States. Even now, as you write this, the Affordable Care Act did little to alleviate the strain, mostly imposing higher premiums on everyone else who had the good sense to carry their own. You had been too young at the time to appreciate the weight of its necessity. Now, fifteen years later as a medical student, you carry a weak sense of despair, ever-aware of this anthropomorphic force you’ve named “Scumbag Biology.” See, biology is imperfect. Humans are just little sacks of blood and bone, gasses, solutes, dodgy plumbing and electrical systems–however you want to think of it. Each cell in your body is a like a ticking time bomb, ready to fail, or ready to thrive to the point of your demise. God, in his benevolence, is fit to watch little children waste away from leukemia, adults endure prolonged suffocation from emphysema, and 23-year-old women die from scratching a mosquito bite after trying to get sober.

Things that should have killed you–the things that made sense to your schema:

  1. Drunk driving
  2. Drug overdose
  3. Head injury
  4. Motorcycle Accident
  5. Psychotic Break

All of those seemed more preventable, in your control. You hadn’t carried health insurance at that time in your life because you were, frankly, healthy. And broke, like so many other Americans. Ok, great, just look both ways before crossing the street, no harm, no foul! Avoid catastrophe, be mindful. Should have been simple.

But that is not how the world works. “Everyone has a plan, until they get punched in the face” –Mike Tyson

The only good news about your septic arthritis debacle was that you had been at work during the first onset of symptoms, and so you made a claim on worker’s compensation. The bad news: no one can prove the bacteria came from the work site, and so, naturally, worker’s compensation rejected your claim.

“There are programs for poor people,” Caregiver said.  “And loans you can take out.  You could file for bankruptcy.”

Bankruptcy! At twenty-three! With a shining college degree.

For all the money paid to your education, you think you would have walked across that graduation stage a model citizen, with a good head on your shoulders. The reality was that you just couldn’t stop trying to sabotage yourself.

So after just a few days off your antibiotic pump, pic line still in your arm, alone in Seattle, still with no health insurance, but a weakened constitution and a taxed immune system, you enacted Project Sabotage.

…with your old buddies, and a meth-head you called Uncle J.

That rainbow rice-grinder whip. The 19-year-old boyfriend. Their alternative lifestyle. He pinched at your nipple piercing, and commented so frequently about how he hadn’t seen you since you were an infant. Weeks. Belligerently drunk. Untouchably high. Porn on the TV. The empty bottle of Milagra, a graveyard of toppled Black Butte Porters. Black Butt Porters. Fecal and foul from the man who had, just earlier, cried to you on a curb outside your house—told you that at fifteen he’d been raped by a drug dealer in the back of a car, by seventeen he’d been addicted to meth, who pulled out his false teeth to show you the black, gaping holes as testament to his addiction. Wandering. Indifferent masturbation, fellatio, fluids. Dawn shining through the lace of the windows. Fingers stained gray from Camel no. 9s. Jenga blocks toppled like one giant domino. You called her.

It all could have been kept a secret. That would have been easier. But Project Sabotage would not be stopped.

The Ear, Nose, and Throat doctor met you in his examination room–a tight little rectangle of bluish-green hues that whispered “illness.” Tissue paper crackled under your thighs. You held your body tense as you answered his questions about the sepsis: where were you, when did the symptoms start, how long did they last, what surgeries have you had, how many partners have you had? He examined the knee, which was a cartoonish bloated caricature of your other knee. You could bend it some. He took out his otoscope and looked in your ears, your throat, and… your nose.

“Oh, I nearly forgot to ask,” he said. “Have you been using any recreational drugs? Marijuana, ecstasy…?”

You shook your head defiantly.

“Any coke up your nose?”

It might have been meth…?

Your head shook faster, tighter.

He peered at you. “Okay.”

Worker’s Compensation declared days later that your appeal from their selected medical professional had been denied, based on medical evaluation. The weight of consequence was crumbling.

You had one chance left: a meeting with a second physician, an independent medical professional, whose evaluation would make or break your case.

You dressed nicely, wore some makeup, and met him in his office rather than an examination room. He sat behind a $4,000 desk with a gentle expression. He was an orthopedic surgeon from the Yale School of Medicine. You wept. In relief, yes, because you thought perhaps your alma mater might finally yield some benefit, so you made sure to establish the connection. But you also wept from the trauma. He asked you to recount the story, and there was no holding back while you relived the pain and agony of those 10 weeks.

He must have been convinced that your sepsis was catastrophic bad luck, and not the product of your own recklessness, because worker’s comp now had their two medical examinations for your case: one for, and one most certainly against.

* * *

When you finally arrived to Boston, Wife was distant and not remotely interested in intimacy. You didn’t blame her. You’d brought it on yourself. But okay, this was your new life. Time to make it a good one. No more drugs, no more alcohol. You loved her more fiercely than ever before. The two of you split a tiny Ikea-clad studio apartment in Back Bay, just 20 minutes walking from your first personal training job at a gym located on the ground floor of the John Hancock Insurance tower. You didn’t know what you were doing, received no training, but somehow managed to convince complete strangers that you were worth the $1,000 investment for personal training.

Life was pretty okay for a couple months, you’ll admit. You were finally earning a little money, getting your health back online, learning new skills, and being domestic. With enough time, Wife finally came back around. She probably didn’t forgive you for your assholery, but she had at least started to paw at you again for some business time.

Which would have been dandy, except you had a problem. Eight weeks of continuous antibiotics had devastated your nethers. You sat there, on the toilet, knees splayed apart, blinking at the familiar and persistent gooey white stuff with another sigh.

There are three things you firmly believe every woman has a god-given right to enjoy: hair confidence, body confidence, and vagina confidence.

In your youth, while you stared at your stupid, unruly, poofy hair, combing it this way, parting it that way, dumping X, Y, and Z products into it before finally resigning (with burning arms) to pull it back into a dykish ponytail; while you counted your calories, pinched your areas of excess, sucked in your gut, contorted and squeezed into impossibly tight high-water jeans—while years of this behavior occupied the spotlight, you’d taken one thing for granted: a kickass vagina. And you’d lost the source of your power.

Alright, alright, you know this sounds like a bad rendition of the Vagina Monologues, but goddamn it, this was serious!  A great many women move through their lives without ever sneaking a peak at that mystery below, thinking it a foul, dirty, formidable cave better left to be explored by others.  Then there are the type of women who have a healthy relationship with it, occasionally sneaking a peak to ensure that the weather down there is fair.

You, on the other hand, are fascinated.  There’s nothing you love better than throwing on your head lamp, packing your bags, and embarking on another Great Spelunking Adventure. You adore going to the gyno, ripping off that stupid sheet of tissue they drape over your lap to keep the procedure modest. You snatch (pun intended) the nearest hand mirror, practically elbow your doctor out of the way and perform the procedure yourself, gabbing excitedly about your meat curtains. At the end of the exam, you emerge from the clinic beaming like a sunrise, ready to take on the world with your crime-fighting vag.

Unfortunately, Rosie hadn’t been feeling so hot these days. “These days” is really is an understatement. You couldn’t remember the last time she was normal. Something had gone a bit haywire, you couldn’t be sure exactly when, perhaps even before the antibiotics. But things were god awful now.

There are few places more uncomfortable than the waiting room of Planned Parenthood. There’s a tense silence. Girls sit stiffly in the chairs, arms folded defensively, biting their nails, uncrossing and re-crossing their legs—sometimes with a boyfriend who sits with his head hanging, elbows leaning heavily on his knees, hat pulled down low over his eyes.  You’d wind up spending hours in that stupid waiting room, sometimes stretching out over the couch to catch up on sleep.

“So what brings you in today?” your nurse—who couldn’t have been a day older than you—asked.

“My vag is on the fritz.”

“Can you be more specific? Do you want to be checked for chlamydia and gonorrhea today?” she asked.

You shrugged. “I was tested last May. All’s clear. They didn’t find anything wrong with me.”

—but then you’d wound up on nearly ten weeks of aggressive antibiotics.

“…and ever since then, it’s been out of control,” you explained.  “I think I may have some kind of super strain of yeast.”

“We’ll figure out what’s going on,” your nurse said.

And they did.

“You have B.V.”

What the hell is that?

“It’s just a minor and extremely common floral imbalance in sexually active women.”

“Is it a…?”

“No, it’s not an STD.”

Phew.

They sent you away with a prescription and told you to refrain from sex for two weeks. Two weeks passed. Nothing changed. You returned to the clinic.

“Did you finish the prescription?” a new nurse asked suspiciously.

Of course you did! 

They dove in for another investigation.

“It turns out you have trich.”

You have what? “What do you mean?” you asked. “I thought I had B.V.”

“Trich is missed under the microscope sixty percent of the time. It looks very similar to B.V.”

“Is it a…?”

Afraid so.

What?! Trichomonaisis? You’d never even heard of it before! How come no one had taught you about it in all those sexual health courses you’d been made to take?

You were pissed. They sent you away with the same prescription to be taken at a different dose. You called Wife immediately.

“You gave me trich!”

She was offended. “I did not give you trich,” she said evenly.

Oh yeah? Then who?

When you got home, there were flowers on the table with a card.  [I’m sorry you think I gave you an STD,] the card read.

You laughed, hugged her, and apologized. You took a moment to run a list of events and faces through your head. After your ex-girlfriend—who cheated on you—had dumped you, there was Wife’s friend, but that could hardly count. Then there was the annual Ugly Holiday Sweater House Party…

Oh shit.

That sleazy guy on the US Men’s team: the biter-head-banger-asphyxiator in the upstairs bathroom. Posters ripped from the walls, a towel rack dislodged, toiletries were strewn all over the floor. He grabbed your hair and occasionally slammed your head into the bathroom mirror over the pedestal sink. And yes, there was a moment when you thought you might suffocate. Three condoms broke. Thank god for the party guests–

Someone banged on the door. “C’mon!  We know what you’re doing in there. Hurry up! People have to pee!”

You exited that situation bitterly (not without first giving him a piece of your mind about etiquette), returned to the party, and downed another half-dozen beers. Maybe it was 3 o’clock in the morning when you flopped onto the couch next to some guy who seemed as bored as you were. You lamented your terrible experience to him.

He shrugged. “That sucks.” Paused. “Do you think we should make out soon?”

Why not?

It was drunken, loud, and sloppy.

* * *

The prescription for trich did not seem to heal anything. You returned to the clinic.

“It’s just a yeast infection, from the antibiotics you took for the trich.”

You took the yeast medication. No significant change. Back to the clinic.

“Now you have B.V.”

Fucking seriously?  “Are you sure it isn’t still trich?”

“One hundred percent sure. It’s common to have this problem. Treat the bacteria, get a yeast infection.  Treat the yeast and then bacteria gets out of balance. Many women bounce back and forth like this, but eventually things stabilize. It will take time for everything to balance out again.”

Time. Sure. Everything is always a matter of time.

In time, Wife finally asked for a divorce.

“I’m not breaking up with you!” she insisted. “I just think that we won’t fight so much if we didn’t feel this contract was forcing us to stay together. If we get divorced, we’ll be together because we know we want to be.”

What a crock of shit. “No, Wife. The only reason you’re even asking me is because of your mother. She wants you to get a divorce. You’re doing this because you are afraid of her.”

“Why does it matter so much if we’re married? The whole thing was just a joke!”

True. But that didn’t change the fact that after you’d done it, you’d been “happy” and more sure of your marriage and your love for that girl than anything in your life.

“It’s important to me!” you said.

“Why? Why is it so important?”

You cared about how the world treated you and the community. You’d been in the Gay-Straight Alliance; gone into high schools and given presentations on awareness of queer issues; helped plan queer events; worked as a queer peer counselor; spoken on a queer varsity athlete forum; campaigned to get LGBT-Q Safe Space stickers distributed to offices on campus; been interviewed by campus newspapers and newsletters; been personally invited to join the Gay and Lesbian Rowing Federation by a hand-written letter from its president… You were Captain Gay, and by the Powers of the Rainbow, by the Force of the Lambda, and in the Name of All Thing Fabulous, you would not track mud over the nascence of the first institution of gay marriage in the United States.

That’s why!

“I will not divorce you,” you said evenly. “So don’t ever ask me again.”

She didn’t, but boy oh boy, were you stressed out after that. Stressed about your lack of intimacy, your ailing vag, the demands of a new job, the stubbornness of your knee to recuperate, and finally by the news about your dad…

Your dad–he’d been feeling tired, then dizzy, then sick. He was having trouble thinking, was starting to forget things. He’d been acting funny since the summer, but only recently had it escalated in severity.

Caregiver had started to panic. “I don’t know what’s wrong with him! He’s afraid to answer the phone at work. He wants me to do it because he’s afraid he might say something stupid. He has to lie down all the time. He’s confused all the time.”

You clutched the phone against your ear with a sweaty hand. Your other hand was wiping furiously at your brow—rubbing your face when you were stressed out was a habit picked up from Wife.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” Caregiver said. “But ever since you told us you got married, he’s been acting like this.”

“So this is my fault?”

“No, no. I’m not saying it’s your fault. Just that old people sometimes get confused. What you did, marrying a girl, is confusing. I think ever since then, Dad doesn’t know what makes sense anymore.”

“This is not my fault,” you insisted.

“I’m not saying it is!”

No, she wasn’t saying it.

The stories of your father’s worsening condition trickled, then poured in. He couldn’t remember what day it was, who the President was, what city you lived in, your birthday…

“How many kids do you have, Dad?” Caregiver asked him on a conference call with you.

“Five? No, six!”

“That’s right. And what are their names?” she pressed.

Dad listed the names, in order, until number six. He forgot you. You were talking on the phone with him, and he forgot you.

“…and Maria,” Caregiver finished politely.

“Oh yeah! Jesus. Maria! I knew that.”

“And where does she live?”

“She’s at Yale, right?”

Two years ago…

This sucks.

The stress mounted. Your fits of anxiety started recurring, clamping down your throat, squeezing your head. Your father was dying. Your fucking vag was a wreck. Your knee ached all the time. Your insurance claim was still pending and–and–and some douchebag in New Haven had stolen your identity; bankruptcy was looking like a more attractive option. Interactions with Wife made you feel guilty on a daily basis.

The stress… “Ahhh, fuck!” you screamed, clawing at your nethers feverishly and futilely.

Planned Parenthood had some more bad news. You were basically housing a secret military bio-warfare weapon with chameleon-like capabilities. On your umpteenth visit to the clinic, with the thickest file next to your bed, you breathed deeply, gathered your chi, and plotted your revenge against quantum physics and chaos theory through their frictitious anointments with Q-tips and acid.

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Recovery

You wish you could say things got better from there, but they didn’t.

Big Dan was off the boat, having been around the world as a merchant marine. When he found out you were in the hospital he immediately made the long drive to visit. You heard his booming voice coming down the country hospital corridor.  “Is she in this one?”

Thump-thump-thump of techno.

Big Dan kicked open the door and burst into the room like sunlight through curtains. Tris was right behind him. They danced, they stripped. The nurses clustered in the doorway to watch, applauding. You and Wife laughed hysterically. The boys were hammered at 1 o’clock in the afternoon.

“Damn girl, what the hell happened to you? You like like shit,” Dan said.

True. You did look like shit. Skin was pale and sticky, hair greasy. You stank. Could barely stomach food. A raging antibiotic-induced yeast infection raged in your loins.

Oh those antibiotics. The doctors kept switching them on you.

“Once we find the bacteria’s sensitivity, you’ll be on them for three weeks. A nurse will come to your house twice a day to administer the drug through your pic line.” Yeah, your pic line—the tube they’d threaded through your arm and up to your heart because, they said, the drugs would otherwise burn the walls of your vessels or something.

To make mattes worse, the nurses had taken away your morphine button. So you’d lay there tossing, moaning, begging the arms of the clock to spin faster.

“Do you think maybe you could send someone in here early with some medication?” Wife would ask.  “She’s really in a lot of pain.”

Pain, another problem. They’d removed your drain days ago, but your pain was increasing. A lot.

“Please,” you begged. “Please, can I have something for the pain?”

“I’m sorry,” they’d said. “Your doctor doesn’t want you on the morphine button anymore. You have to get accustomed to oral medication because that’s all you’re going to have when you get discharged in the next day or so.”

Yesss… discharged—released tom the hospital.

Wait, no!  They couldn’t. Not then. Not when you were feeling the way you did. Days earlier, maybe that would have been possible, when a physical therapist had come to your suite to get you started on a rehab program. You had been able to move your leg at that point, even touch it to the floor.

Not anymore. As soon as the drain came out, the fluid came back. Now, all there was was pressure. Pressure and pain.

Around day number eight in the hospital, you started sobbing. Wife lifted her body out of her chair and draped herself over you, as though trying to protect you from unseen elements.

If there’s one thing you’re good at, it’s pain. That is what made you a particularly exceptional rower. While your competitors rolled over and succumbed to their lactic acid baths, you could kick into another gear, turn the screw tighter and tighter until the wood splintered. This is why you could row through infected hands, tendinitis, a bruised tail bone, stress fractures, costochondritis, and two herniated discs. You were also no stranger to trauma, as you’d taken a baseball to the face, rolled a car, been thrown from, stepped on, and bit by a horse, sprained your neck, torn open your knee, had one ankle blown out and another twisted almost completely around. You’ve fallen out of trees, even thrown yourself off a roof. You weren’t even shy about taking a pair of scissors and cutting away the keloids from your ear piercings, or jamming and gouging your fingers into the holes where your wisdom teeth had once been, to drain the infection that came about since you had decided to do four E-bombs the day after your surgery and dance your body and immune system into oblivion. Too much? Nahhh… You were a downright extremist and masochist in everything that you’d do. This is why you’d drink yourself to the point of vomiting three nights a week in high school, why you’d binge on anything—powders, huffers, uppers, downers.

Even spicy mustard.  “Your a masochistic eater!” your teammate once exclaimed, regarding you with horror as you twisted uncomfortably in your chair, imagining that yellow goo burning and oozing out of every orifice.

…anyway, back to the point.  You were crying in the hospital because for the first time in your life, you couldn’t lick the pain. It hurt that much. You don’t have enough words to describe it.

One evening shift nurse took pity on you and slipped you extra meds—god bless her!—but that was it.

You spent your last days in the hospital in a fog—some altered reality. People came and went. Phone calls were made, papers were signed, drugs administered. You don’t remember any of it, really. Vague memories of Wife and two nurses trying to help you get out of bed so you could pee—the mesh hospital-issued underpants that became caked with your anti-fungal medication—a shampoo hairnet to clean the stink out of those snarls.

…and Wife, sitting by your side, holding your hand, kissing your face, taking care of everything.

After ten days in the hospital, the news finally came. They’d found the right antibiotic. You were going to be discharged that day.

I’m not ready to go!” you said hoarsely, eyes bugging out of your head, disbelieving.

Wife wheeled you out of the building, wincing for you every time the chair hit a bump, a crack, a dime—anything in its path.  It took you ten minutes to lift yourself into the back of The Rig. Then another thirty to try and get “comfortable.” No amount of blankets, pillows, coats, towels, or bags could be positioned adequately to stabilize your leg.

Your first doctor hadn’t been joking. When a joint is septic, it cannot be moved.

Wife drove tensely for two hours back to Seattle, eyes flicking to the rear-view mirror more than to the road. “We’re almost home!”

This must be what Hell feels like.

Away from the eyes of your nurses, you threw back double the painkiller prescription. Twenty minutes later, you did it again. Then one more pill, for good measure.

Caregiver was not at the house when you pulled into the cul de sac, but your poor old dad was. He rushed around opening doors as wide as they would go, pushed threatening objects and furniture far away from your path.

Your hired nurse arrived just five minutes later—walked through the door with Big Dan, who had shown up at the same moment. There in the basement bedroom, all eyes were on you.

“How are you feeling?” the nurse asked.

You told him you’d just emerged from the seventh circle of hell.

“I hate to tell you this, but you’re going to have to go back to the hospital.”

No, please. Just amputate it. Don’t make you move again.

“You have a fever of 102.6 degrees. It could be a sign that the infection is spreading.”

An ambulance arrived to pick you up.

Your new hospital was much more state of the art, and a three minute drive from Big Dan’s house—which wound up being a mixed blessing. Wife sat with you in the E.R., then in your examination room, where a nurse asked for your symptoms. You explained that you’d only been out of the hospital for three hours, that you had septic arthritis, and that your vag was afire.

“It could be a urinary tract infection. Can you pee in a cup?”

You couldn’t.

They offered you a catheter.

Okay, maybe you could.

***

Everything that had been done in the Anacortes country hospital was repeated. Blood and site samples, X-rays, MRI, documents, intakes, and your morphine button.

What a wonderful button.

But as the days passed, things didn’t improve and your nurses had turned up the morphine interval to the highest rate it would go. You were given new medications which made you piss and sweat orange, not to mention smell like moldy cheese.

Wife stuck by your side—even crawled into your bed with you to hold you after you’d begged her. A couple times, Big Dan crashed drunkenly into the room to raise hell at three in the morning, then pass out in a chair. The nurses did not take kindly to this habit.

On the third day, you met with your nurse practitioner, who was tall, black, flamboyantly gay, and an expert in septic infections. He gave you the news. Anacortes had discharged you at the peak of your infection.  Your numbers were finally starting to drop, but not very quickly. You would have to be on antibiotics twenty-four hours per day, seven days per week—for eight weeks.

Eight weeks!  Kiss August ’07 goodbye.

“We’re going to hook your pic line up to a pump that you get to wear… kind of like a fanny pack,” your nurse practitioner said.

You frowned. “No… not a fanny pack. I make fun of kids in fanny packs!”

Your nurse laughed, then continued. “You’re not going to be able to take a shower. Keep it out of the bath. You can have a nurse—or your wife—come by to change the bag and the batteries each day, but a nurse has to change your dressing each week.”

“I can do it,” Wife said.

Just like that, she came to the rescue.

Wife deserves a lot of credit. After having her own dreams that summer shattered by a mysterious injury that no one could diagnose—suffering the boredom, the monotony of each day, alone, waiting for you to return home from work—enduring the incessant stream of negative comments from her immediate family about her life choices—feeling anxious about her sputtering relationship and her ambiguous sexuality—she put everything on hold and devoted all her energy to looking after you.

Because you couldn’t leave the bedroom, everything had to be brought to you. New clothes, meals, papers, friends, movies. She went shopping for you every day, prepared your food, helped you to the toilet, helped you dress yourself, brought you ice packs for the swelling, new towels to replace the orange-soaked ones. She washed you—half-carried you to the bathtub, stripped you, eased you into the water, where you sat crumbled over yourself, dizzy, feeble, scarcely able to run a washrag over your skin or clear away the muck oozing from your vag. She sponge-bathed you. Back in the bedroom, she brought you your toothbrush, a spit bowl, and water to rinse.

And fresh flowers every day.

For two weeks you saw no real improvement. You were not well enough to even sit up for more than ten minutes without feeling sick, so even changing location to a couch in the living room was not an option.  So sick that food simply didn’t agree with you, your body wasted away. Your leg shriveled up pathetically next to your other one—your leg, possessing the dominant rowing muscles—what had been your livelihood.

You were bored, depressed, uncomfortable. You watched movies all day with a complete lack of enthusiasm, unable to roll even onto your side, as the force of gravity on the joint would not permit it.  The fluid in your elevated knee accumulated, spread through your leg, up into your hip, into your back. It was an unhappy aggravation to your old back injury.

Then there were the twitches. They’d happened two or three times before, in your second hospital.  Always, when you were on the brink of escape into blissful sleep… twitch! Muscles in your leg would spasm, and the jolt of the movement felt like a sledgehammer.

They started off infrequently over the first two days at home. But then, at nights, they would occur every ten minutes. You’d awaken with a scream or a gasp, then immediately burst into tears. Wife woke with you every time. You were afraid to sleep, afraid of the next twitch—which always came.

All the morphine, Oxy, Valium, and Cyclobenzaprine couldn’t keep them at bay. You spent your days in a constant fog of painkillers, unable to read or focus on anything.

When you woke up in the middle of the night from the sound of your own weeping, you’d lay there in the pitch darkness of that basement bedroom and moan deliriously until Wife would stir. She’d click on a lamp, grab a book—John Krakauer’s Into Thin Air—and read pages until you fell back asleep.

Eventually you got over the orange sweats, and even seemed to get used to the twitches (almost), but the nausea was always present and the pain killers were an absolute necessity. You took stool softeners and choked down all the fruit you could manage, but the meds turned your shit to stone and your cried in the bathroom as you tried to crap out razor blades.

You said you would have traded your back injury and a year’s worth—no, make it two—of rowing tests for the sepsis any day.

But finally, the time came. It’s always just a matter of time. You started to improve. You were sitting up, crutching around, taking short trips in the back of The Rig to the movie store (which took everything out of you). You started to eat again (after Big Dan came over with a little bud). You even managed to start studying for a personal trainer certification.

But it was too soon for physical therapy. Your leg still could not make contact with the ground, which made most exercises impossible. Come back when you could straighten your leg again.

***

Pictures of you from that time–when you were finally able to walk again–show a pretty (sad) looking girl with a black bag (a satchel, not a fanny pack) attached to her arm, crutches that later became a cane, and a pale complexion.

Just around the time that Wife started losing her mind (week six), you were well enough to take a trip with Big Dan and Neal out to Banks Lake, where you documented beer, hot dogs, sour kraut, and everyone swimming in the water, skiing, inner-tubing (well, not you, since you had your antibiotic pump)…  It was a three-day trip—the only taste of August ’07 offered to you. But you took what you could get.

Afterwards, you and Wife dreamed about the life you would build together in Boston.

She had one last year of school to finish, so you would gladly join her, find work as a personal trainer (you had studied for your exam fully hopped-up on morphine), and share an adorable studio apartment in the middle of Back Bay. You were scheduled to fly to Boston the day after they removed your pic line. You’d already cleared it with your nurses: day 1 of week 9.

In the meantime, your strength improved and your love for Wife swelled. How much she had done for you! How amazing she had been. You’d kiss her passionately, and if the pain wasn’t too bad, you’d even attempt a little light fooling around.

But she wasn’t interested. Not really. Furthermore, she couldn’t reciprocate (even if she had wanted to) because your nether-regions had been absolutely devastated by the antibiotics.

So the bickering resumed, after being put on hold for so long.

Then your nurses told you that you couldn’t leave for Boston. Not for another month.

“What!  Why?”

“Your pic line has to remain in your arm for another month, in case the infection comes back.”

“I told you that I was leaving. You said everything was okay!”

“I don’t know who told you that,” your nurse replied soullessly.

Your heart broke (it tends to do that). Jesus, what next? Wife had to go back to school. You would have to spend another month in Seattle, completely alone, without even a job to distract you.

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Septic Arthritis

Septic arthritis:

This severely painful infection is typically bacterial.”

Septic arthritis is extremely painful and can develop quickly. It’s a very serious condition…It needs to be treated in hospital as soon as possible as an emergency.

See your doctor if you have sudden onset of severe pain in a joint. Prompt treatment can help minimize joint damage.

“Symptoms of septic arthritis usually come on rapidly with…Severe pain in the affected joint, especially with movement.”

“The rapidity of joint destruction and consequent irreversible impairment of joint function…makes its diagnosis and early treatment an orthopaedic emergency. Cartilage destruction starts to occur as early as 8 hours after infection. Early administration of antibiotics helps to slow down the process, but even if intravenous antibiotic therapy is started within the first 24 hours of infection, significant glycosaminoglycan destruction and collagen disruption occurs.

***

It was Friday, July 19th, 2007

You’d just nailed your last cedar shake to the front side of the garage of the home you’d been framing all summer when you told your co-worker, Charles, that you were going to head up the hill to the toilet. You climbed down the scaffolding and began your march up the rocky dirt driveway.

Hmm, ouch. Weird.

You must have remained in a crouched position too long. Your knee hurt to bend.  Nothing serious. A little heat. Walk it off.

Walk it off.

Owee!

It hurt.

Walk it off, dammit!

You hobbled around the construction site for a half hour before you notified Charles, “Dude, I must have done something to my knee.”

“Did you fall?”

“No, not at all. It just started hurting all of a sudden.”

He told you that if you didn’t feel like you could work, just let him know.

“Nah, I can work.” It’s fine. “But maybe I should do something light—sit down for a while.”

He put you to work on a few short pieces of siding along the back deck. It was an easy-enough task, but you couldn’t concentrate. You botched the job three times, measuring and cutting the template backwards, or too short, or crooked. All you could think about was the rapidly augmenting pain in your knee. You started sweating.

Weird that you could blow out two discs in your low back and not realize it. So you must have tripped or tweaked your knee somehow and simply didn’t remember.

Each time you botched a measurement, or a cut, your awareness of how much you were sweating increased.

“I hate to do this,” you finally said to Charles. “But I can’t focus. I think it’s getting worse.”

If there’s one thing you never do, it’s call out sick. But you had to. You called Wife. Told her you needed her to come pick you up—that you were taking the rest of the day off—that the two of you could even leave early for her grandparent’s house two hours up north in Anacortes, WA.

Your boss arrived on the site before Wife could arrive to pick you up and saw your limp. “Uh-oh! Someone get hurt?”

You didn’t know what had happened. Couldn’t explain.

“Get some rest, kid.”

“I’m fine.”

But you weren’t, and both men began to realize it when you tried to climb into Charles’ truck, using both your hands to carefully—oh so carefully—lift your ailing leg into the cab. Charles drove you to the large grocery store at the side of the highway, where Wife knew to pick you up.

“Do you think you should go to the hospital?” Charles asked.

 “I didn’t do anything to my leg,”  you growled. “It’s probably just a stress injury.”

“Really?” Charles watched you bite your lip as you eeked your way out of his truck, scarcely able to bend your leg enough to clear it past the door.

Wife found you whimpering on a handicap cart in the grocery store.

“Are you sure you’re going to be alright?” she asked, after getting you into The Rig.

You snatched the bottle of ibuprofen from her hand and threw six pills down your throat.

Yes.

The medication seemed to alleviate the pain, but you could barely hop on one leg, so you stayed put while Wife packed your bags for the weekend with her grandparents, mother and mother’s boyfriend, siblings, aunts, uncles—everyone in the family.

***

The following day in Anacortes, you woke up and were happy to sense that your knee was on the mend.  Everyone in the house the night before had asked you what was wrong, why you wouldn’t get out of your chair, why you were hobbling so heavily when you did…

Just some kind of stress injury. You were trying to keep off it.

So when the group, that morning, wanted to dive into town to check out the flea market, you thought it would be fun—provided you moved carefully, which you did. But after about an hour at the market, a fire lit in your knee. You began to sweat again, to tense every fiber of your being against the threat of the occasional, sudden, acute pain.

“I think I should go back to the car,” you told Wife, whose face was wrought with worry. She held you by the arm as you worked your way through the crowd at a glacial pace.

Oh, Jesus…

You continued to try and walk.

Ow! Ow, fuck!

Impossible.

Wife could see that your mouth and eyes were rimmed with red, your jaw set firmly. Frustrated.

“I’m so sorry,” you said.  “I can’t walk. You’re going to have to bring the car.”

“I’m not going to leave you alone like this.”

You laugh to yourself when you remember. Wife carried you on her back for almost a half-mile—all 190lbs of you.

You were returned to the house and left in a chair. Wife’s Uncle slipped you a couple Vicodin. “You look like you need these more than I do.”

It was Wife’s grandfather’s birthday that day—her grandfather was the former C.E.O. of a very large and prosperous Washington bank. The birthday was a very serious affair. You did not want to spoil it by calling more attention to your injury. So you waited—doped up on Wife’s Uncle’s Vicodin—and did not budge from your seat for hours.

When the late hour arrived and it was time to retire to the guest house, you slowly pushed yourself out of your chair, into a standing position. One attempted step later, darkness came stampeding in. You gasped, hit the ground, and started shaking. You soaked through your clothes, felt nausea punch at your stomach with its giant fists. The room became so, so dark.

The family—your [secret] in-laws—rushed you to the hospital.

***

“Will you please indicate to me your level of pain?” the nurse said, holding a little scale of cartoon faces numbered 1 through 10—1 showing a smiley face, 10 showing that poor little cartoon screaming with tears jetting from eyes clamped shut.

You weakly lifted your arm and dropped a finger on 8.

“Do you have health insurance?” she asked.

Just your worker’s compensation insurance.

“Did you trip or fall on the job?”

No.

“Do you remember doing anything to your knee?”

No.

“Are there even any marks on your knee?”

No, no, no!

The doctor showed up an hour later. Same questions, same answers.

“Well,” he said, “The worst case scenario is that it’s septic, but that is highly unlikely. Generally, we know it’s septic if the patient cannot move the joint. Can you move the joint?”

Test those limits.

Wrapping your hands under your knee as though preparing to tear it down the middle, you held your breath, and squeezed out an inch of knee extension, refusing to produce a yelp. Piece of cake.

“Good. So it’s not septic, but I’m going to draw some samples from the site anyway, to see if you have an elevated white blood cell count. If that’s the case, then we know your body is trying to fight against something.”

You waited another hour, holding Wife’s hand, frowning childishly as she consoled you.

Your doctor returned bearing crutches, and explained that there was no change in your white count.

“I’m diagnosing this as bursitis—an inflammation of the bursa around the joint,” he said, and began handing papers to Wife. “Here’s a prescription for an anti-inflammatory medication, and another prescription for an antibiotic—just in case it is septic. If you’re not feeling better in two days, or it gets worse, come back to the hospital.”

A stress injury after all! You felt guilty about disrupting [secret] Grandfather-in-law’s birthday party over something so trivial. So what if you blacked out from shock back at the house, leaving you feeling so sick that vomiting might incidentally turn you inside out!

Wife drove you back to the house, and you crutched your way to the couch—laid down in exhaustion.

“Will you be okay here while I go pick up your prescriptions?” she asked.

You’re a soldier. Of course!

Actually, no. You’re not a soldier. You missed her during the short time she was gone. When Wife did return, she immediately fed you your meds and kept you company in front of the television until it was quite late—legitimately time for bed.

“Do you think you can make it upstairs?” she asked.

You thought about what a Herculean task that would be and said defiantly, “No problem.”

The staircase was steep and long, and you were so weak, you could only crutch at it one step at a time, with Wife spotting you from behind, step-by-step, with your heart rate mounting steadily. Cold, clammy, sweaty. Sick. Oh, god. Really sick.

“Wife…” you moaned.  “Wife, I’m going to boot.” You sagged in your crutches, started to lose your balance. Wife’s arms swept around you immediately.

“I’m going to puke!” you cried.

“Get a bowl!” Wife called to her sister. She couldn’t let go, or you’d tumble down the stairs.

Oh fuck, dizzy, sick, dark.

“Maria, please don’t puke all over my grandparent’s carpet,” she implored.

Stop the ride! You wanted off.

The bowl came in the nick of time. Wife thrust it under your face, arms still wrapped around you from behind, holding you steady.

You vomited violently. The frothy contents of the bowl sloshed every time you heaved and knocked backward into your wife.

“Oh my god,” you heard her say. “I can’t believe this is happening. I’m hugging you in the middle of a staircase at 1 o’clock in the morning, while you puke into a bowl. It smells terrible!’

It was kind of funny. You managed to laugh weakly, “I’m pretty sure I puked up the meds.”

***

You spent the next day in bed. Every time you took the antibiotics, you puked them back up, so eventually stopped trying. Members of the family warily ventured upstairs to check on your condition. You feigned stone-cold self-composure, gave them all a thumbs-up, and even set to work reading your grandfather-in-law’s business book—just for brownie points. No one in Wife’s family, barring her mother and her siblings, knew about your marriage. To the rest of the family, you were Wife’s outgoing friend—a former trainee of the U.S. rowing team and a Yale alumna like her aunt. To a family brimming with bankers, power lawyers, and Boeing C.E.O.’s, you were welcome.

So don’t blow it!

On the second morning, Wife’s mother came into the room to check in, finding you on your back, chest heaving violently, crutches sticking out from under your arms; it had taken ten full minutes for you to rally the energy and endurance to make the short trip down the hall to the bathroom.

They took you back to the hospital.

They detected a tiny—practically negligible—elevation in your white blood cell count.

“Have you been keeping off the leg?” the doc asked suspiciously.

You hadn’t touched it to the floor in days. Hadn’t gotten out of bed but to pee.

“I’m referring you to an orthopedic specialist. You have an appointment set up for tomorrow afternoon.”

They fixed you up with a dandy leg immobilizer so you’d have an easier time sleeping through the night.

Shuffling in and out of the car, the hospital, and along the stairwell worsened your condition. You slept fitfully that night—deliriously—as did Wife, who stirred with worry at every moment, afraid to touch you, but staying close nonetheless.

At the orthopedic clinic, the nurses found you slumped in a wheelchair, head thrown back over your shoulders, eyes lost somewhere in your skull. They brought you to the examination room, laid you to rest flat on one of those hard tables with the crinkling tissue paper on it.

You heard the door open, a man’s greeting voice acknowledged by Wife’s.

“Bursitis, huh?” said the voice, followed by the sound of a file flapping onto a counter. “Let’s have a look, shall we?”

Two hands placed themselves on your knee and tried to bend your leg.

You saw red. Gasped, jolted with the force of lightning striking through your body and exploding through your knee… your eyes had snapped open. You were sitting upright, fists ready to smash that motherfucker’s face in; you suddenly knew how animals behaved in bear traps.

“Jesus!” the man screamed, flying away from you—the rabid animal.

You said nothing, back, chest, shoulders heaving, fingernails cutting into your palms.

“You don’t need to overreact like that,” he said angrily.

You tried mightily to strike him dead with a look. It didn’t work. You fell back on the table.

The man left, and when he returned with your orthopedic specialist, you heard him say something like, “…really don’t think this is bursitis.”

Another series of the same questions. More of the same answers.

“I’m admitting you to the hospital,” your orthopedic doctor said. “I want you under observation. I’m ordering you an M.R.I., and if the results show some kind of activity in there, we’ll schedule an operation.”

Thank god.

Kady brought you back to the hospital for the third time, where you were led immediately into a spacious suite—by some brusque nurses. Somehow, after the X-rays and the M.R.I., you managed to smile, to laugh, to joke around with Wife as you awaited your results.

The news came at 2am—you needed surgery.

***

[14 July 2006

Princeton, New Jersey

Subject: i can’t stand how i’m thinking!

I’m tired, and stiff… back was feeling—eeehhhh—you know. And we have 4 x 20′ on the water in a four that rides slightly down to starboard.  I felt like I was in a bubble… I couldn’t raise my heart rate very high… couldn’t push very hard without it hurting my back and hamstrings. After the second piece, I thought, “You want to cry, you want to bail out of this boat and swim to shore. But you won’t. There are three other girls in this boat who want to be here, who need you… you’ve committed to this. You will endure this practice—this monotony—this discomfort for as long as you have to. Because you have no where else to go.”  At times, I wanted to break down crying, just because I felt so pathetic.

“I’m tired, and stiff… back was feeling—eeehhhh—you know.  And we have 4 x 20′ on the water in a four that rides slightly down to starboard.  I felt like I was in a bubble… I couldn’t raise my heart rate very high… couldn’t push very hard without it hurting my back and hamstrings.  After the second piece, I thought, “You want to cry, you want to bail out of this boat and swim to shore.  But you won’t.  There are three other girls in this boat who want to be here, who need you… you’ve committed to this.  You will endure this practice—this monotony—this discomfort for as long as you have to.  Because you have no where else to go.”  At times, I wanted to break down crying, just because I felt so pathetic.

I rolled out of bed… needed to stretch… put on some clothes…  and then the bed called me back.  I flopped down on it and didn’t move for 20 minutes, slipping in and out of this trance-like state.

If I quit sometime in the near future… how sweet would the relief be?  How much enjoyment would I feel before I began to feel immensely guilty?

I’ve been rowing for six years with this goal in mind. Suddenly I don’t want it? Like, there are so many other amazing things in life—like I can’t wait to grow up or something—that I’m willing to throw in the towel on an opportunity that so few get to dream about.”]

***

“Breathe.”

You can’t.

“Breathe.”

You’re underwater. You’ll drown!

“Breathe, Maria!”

You gasped.  Fire licked down your throat, but the cool air was soothing.  Your lungs drank it up greedily.

***

You have a way of hiding traumatic injuries from your family and loved ones, be it a catastrophic ankle sprain, or a hole blown open in your leg, or rolling a car at 60mph on a freeway.

Wife finally got you to agree to call home and explain your absence to your father, you felt immensely guilty.

“Where are you?” he and Caregiver asked.

Anacortes.

“How did you get there?”

Drove.

“Is Wife with you?”

Oh, Wife.. Your beautiful, sweet, adoring wife. She never left your side. She slept in the chair next to your bed, went out in the morning to buy fresh fruit and flowers, smiled and joked with you.

You loved her so much.

“We want to come see you,” Caregiver declared. “It’s just that Dad has been feeling awfully tired these days.”

“It’s okay. You don’t have drive all the way out here.”

“When are they going to let you out of the hospital?”

Not sure. A few days? They were trying to find out which antibiotics were going to kill the strep infection. Until then, you got to spend your time idly poking at the yellow-red goo in the drain pouch attached to your leg, and impatiently clicking your morphine button.

Categories: Illness, Injuries, Struggles, United States | Tags: , , , , , | 1 Comment

Everything was not going to be fine.

12 August 2020

Maria –

Good morning. My name is KW and I serve as the … at the USOPC. I read your personal statement this morning and wanted to say thank you. Thank you for sharing your experience and for shining a light on really important issues athletes face in their journey. I know that you have moved on in your life with the lessons learned and the experiences gained to serve others in the fitness world, but I wanted to say that your words will go a long way in also serving athletes who are currently in similar situations to where you were in college.

I’m not sure who you have shared your statement with… I was wondering if you minded if I shared it with the leadership at the USOPC to help them understand both the struggle and determination of athletes such as yourself? If you are okay with me doing this, I am happy to do so with or without your name.

Also, if you have suggestions for the USOPC, or for Rowing, in how to best drive excellence and well-being simultaneously, I hope you’ll feel free to share those. Feel free to share them with our office and we can make sure they are heard.

I appreciate your words and the time you took to share your experience. If you’d like to talk by phone, please feel free to call any time.

K.

***

13 August 2020

Hi K.,

…I know it’s a buzz term lately, but “mental health” is a big deal. Elite athletes are extreme, and often they use their sport to cover for other issues. I used fitness to help people recover from substance use disorder, and the pattern is similar… I do think a mental health department, a team-therapist/psychiatrist/social worker/etc. should be an element in elite athletics, just as Dr. ZZZZZZ  was the “team doctor.” Athletes cope with chronic pain, anxiety, stress of trying to secure housing, work part-time jobs, and more. It would be nice to see mental health check-ups written into training cycles.

Understanding the science of recovery is another suggestion. More training is not better training. Conscientious training, deliberate training, and giving the body time to calibrate optimally to a stimulus is ideal, and the bodies will last longer.

Finally, when I quit rowing, I had a body accustomed to 3+ hours a day of aerobic activity for years on end. It was my homeostasis. I ran up every mountain I could find in WA when I returned home to…nothing. I ended up taking a job in construction and demolished and framed houses, just to move. I fell into stimulant abuse. It was not an easy time. I think that a good idea would be to create an “Exit Strategy” for athletes who fall off the cliff from activity to no activity…

Cheers,

Maria

***

Your impromptu wedding in a Boston Starbucks immediately preceded your departure from rowing. Suddenly you were sportless, jobless, directionless. But at least you were married. She was still in college, and bound to the US Under-23 Team that summer, and then had her senior year ahead of her. And you? Nothing. Nada. Not a thing.

You couldn’t U-Haul it. Not with her roommates there. So you traded heartfelt goodbyes and packed yourself onto a plane back home to Seattle in order to find a job, with no idea what you were going to do.

Canvaser for Greenpeace? Work in an Italian tile store? Banking? You scoured Craigslist ads and your alumni network. Somehow, you had a difficult time imagining yourself getting a serious job doing anything. But after hitting up a few banking contacts through your alumni network, you were surprised by how quickly you were able to arrange an interview for a summer internship.

You had no idea what people did over those summers, but many of your collegemates had been through the summer banking gauntlet and came out describing it in only the vaguest of terms, stress lines etched into their young faces. It just didn’t feel right. No. You couldn’t see yourself working in a bank, at a desk. You just couldn’t.

The night before your alumni network-sourced interview with J.P. Morgan, you called in. “I’m sorry.  I appreciate your willingness to meet with me, but I’m afraid that it’s a little premature. I’ve decided to take another job.”

“Not a problem,” your fellow alumnus said. “What is it you’ve decided to do?”

“I’ve taken a job with a construction company.

“Oh really? Administration?”

“As a laborer, actually. Decided to use the brawn this summer, instead of the brain.”

He laughed. “That’s great. Do it while you’re young. I hope you have a good experience. Remember, any time you want to look into J.P. Morgan, give me a call.”

Your dad thought your new job was great. He thought everything you did was great.

Caregiver was not pleased. “Maria, you have a Yale education. Why do you want to work with a bunch of… of lowlifes?”

You were already well-accustomed to her judgments, and so didn’t waste your breath telling her why. But you’ll set the record straight here. You knew you liked the work!

During the summer of 2002, before you left for your first year of college, you and Big Dan decided to work for a demolition company, Demolition Man. (Note the derivation of your handle demogirl06, which includes your college graduation year). You were the only woman on the payroll. It was filthy-dirty, sweaty work with occasional hazard pay and overtime—work that sent you home with bloody scratches and black boogers. You were such an enthusiastic laborer that your fellow co-workers and temps didn’t want to work with you. “You need to slow down, kid,” they said. “You’re making us look bad.”

A month into the job, your superintendent approached you. “I read your file. It says you got accepted to Yale.”

“Yeah, I did.”

He blinked. “What the hell are you doing here?”

You shrugged and said, “Getting paid to break shit. Same as everyone else.”

He seemed almost embarrassed for tasks he’d given you earlier that summer–shoveling gravel and hauling blocks of concrete laced by chicken wire out of holes pounded by a Bobcat–and decided to make you the principal driver of the Genie Boom. Your job for the next weeks was take apart everything bolted into the ceiling of a warehouse the size of three football fields, 60 feet in the air. Occasionally you worked with one crazy sonofabitch who aggressively fought and yanked with his crowbar so that the Genie Boom rocked precipitously. The crowbar wrenched free and hit him in the face, splitting it open. More than once.

What a fun job. Every morning you’d wake up with a hangover, slide behind the wheel of your 1957 three-on-the-tree Chevy pickup, and pick up your new fifty-year-old buddy, Steve. The two of you carpooled to work. Steve didn’t have transportation, so he was grateful.

“You know,” he said in his gravelly voice. “You remind me of a prostitute I knew in Vegas. She had some looong legs.”

Most days at work you’d break into a sweat crushing and shoveling rocks. At lunch, the guys all piled into the bed of the Chevy and you’d drive them across the highway to the truck stop to eat. Afterward, you’d lay outside in the sun, head cradled in your hard hat, and nap to some good ol’ staticky country music.

***

The men in your post-rowing construction company, Built-Right Homes, were not the “lowlifes” caregiver had described. Your boss, Bob, was very successful and had made a more-than-comfortable living doing what he loved; your co-worker, Charles, was actually an incredibly well-educated, socially-aware individual with whom you spent hours every day, hammering nails and discussing the nature of the world. Together, over the weeks, the three of you framed a house from the ground up. At the end of every workday, you’d gaze down at the site with a sense of satisfaction—the ever-growing edifice helped to fill your hollowness.

***

The job wasn’t perfect the distraction you’d hoped for. Everywhere you went, you seemed to walk around with a rain cloud over your head. On some evenings and over the weekends, you disappeared into dark warehouses and basements to dive face first into piles of drugs—disappear for so long that your phone would die. You went missing from everyone for days—especially Wife. Worse, you’d gone missing from yourself. You were hollow. You stared at your reflection in the mirror and couldn’t recognize yourself. Pale, with dark circles around your eyes—eyes like a skeleton’s—hair limp, stringy, hands stained gray from packs of cigarettes. How did that happen? How did you turn yourself from a strong, robust, elite athlete into some kind of caved-in, translucent ghoul? Not a big deal, right? It was summer. You were “decompressing.” You’d straighten yourself out later.

***

In June of 2007, Wife had been rowing in her training camp for barely a week when she called you to tell you that her little finger had gone numb. “It’s so weird. I can’t feel anything in it.” Over the course of the week, the numbness traveled through her whole hand, and then it was accompanied by pain. Pain in her elbow, up her arm, into her neck. “The doctors don’t know what’s wrong with me. Nothing is helping.”

It was a matter of days before she was sent home. She couldn’t row—she couldn’t even hang onto the oar. She was heartbroken.

You knew exactly how she felt—to have your sport ripped away so unfairly. You picked her up from the airport and brought her back to your house. She crawled into bed. You kissed her, held her, and she started to cry. To sob.

It was the first time you’d ever seen Wife cry. You were terrified.

Wife was upset. So were you. Upset over the same thing, but for different reasons. You’d voluntarily quit; she didn’t get a choice. In the end, she handled her depression far better than you did.

***

All that’s left for you are blended memories of sifting, chopping, and scraping little shapes in white stuff. Sniffing, snorting, and sneezing. Tissues stained by yellows, greens, and reds. Little silver razors—gold and platinum cards. Straws, pen shafts, notes, spoons, thumbs, fingernails. Later, ribs, breasts, buttocks, even a penis. At the end, always, black circles, ashen faces, grayish-blue hands. The comedown. Anxiety. Hibernating. Then waking, blinking like a kitten opening its eyes for the first time. Rest and repeat.

Wife really began to worry about you. Months of self-loathing culminated after a Beerfest, geeked-out laser tag, and then an impromptu road trip to a vacant mountain condo. You were supposed to go hiking. Instead, you stayed up for two days and put the bulk of 9 grams in your face and engaged in the opposite of intimacy. Your later migraine was so intense that you thought your head had split open between your eyes. You rolled in bed, kicked, thrashed, ground your teeth, all the while screaming and holding the sides of your skull in an attempt—so it felt—to salvage what precious little remained of its structure.

“I want you to stop!” Wife yelled.

Stop the drugs. Stop the bullshit.

You weren’t yourself.

“Please, I’m begging you, take a break. I’m worried about you.”

You were worried too. What were you doing? Why were you doing it? What for? What mission?

You were destroying yourself. Maybe you didn’t realize how much at the time. You always felt like you were in control–barring one time when you took a bullet of MDA, which—after seven hours of other stuff—felt like a harpoon through your brain and left you in a waking coma for four hours, heart racing at 170 beats per minute, with Wife holding your hand, reminding you to “Breathe!” But moments like that were rare, and you could stop using “whenever you wanted to,” even though you’d been behaving like an addict carrying gear wherever you went, bumping in bathrooms, at family dinners, social gatherings, alone with Wife.

She was right. It was time to stop. Because you were ruining your relationship. Sweet Wife. She had been your only source of soothing. She helped you out of one misery, and she was trying to help you out of another.

But you didn’t go down without a fight. The details of your rows are mostly gone, but one stands out: the rumble of the monorail flooding your ears, the sick-yellow square of light on the white-plaster wall, the skin tearing off your elbows and knees. You were scaring her.

Scaring her, the girl you loved. The girl that changed your life—who’d lifted you up. Who’d been there for you, always, and looked after you. What were you doing? You wept your apologies. She held you, stroked your hair, wiped away your tears. Even though she was afraid of you.

***

You had to do something for her. She deserved it. She wasn’t supposed to be in Seattle with you, injured, mourning the loss of her sport and cleaning up your messes.

“I’m going to quit my job,” you said. “I’ll put in my two weeks’ notice and we’ll Establish Dominance early.” The dream of August ’07. You kept thinking about it—the sun-bleached highways, the two of you suspended in a moment of time stopped, together, happy, the way you’d been together when you met. “Let’s run away together! We’ll work on an organic farm in Kentucky! We’ll just keep driving.” 

Keep driving. Run.

***

“Maria, stop scratching.”

Huh, what?

It was early in the morning. You had to go to work, and by god, your leg was itchy.

You looked down at it, and—”Oh, Jesus!”

You were bleeding. A lot.

“Why did you let me do that?” you demanded incredulously.

“Don’t blame me. I was asleep.”

Me too!

There, in the center of your right shin, over the itchiest mosquito bite that ever occurred—ever, anywhere, to anyone—was an enormous self-inflicted abrasion. The night before, in an effort to do right by Wife, you’d arranged a picnic at the park. Some buddies had come by to toss around a football for good, old-fashioned, drug-free, clean fun—until the mosquitoes drove you home.

You glanced at the blood under your soil-caked fingernails. Casualty of the night.

Categories: LGBT, Struggles, United States | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

Getting Married in a Starbucks

[01 February 2007

12:30h

Newark, New Jersey, at the airport]

You have this amazing and beautiful girl who suddenly gives you a purpose. It is one thing to be good to others—for others. It is another thing to be good to yourself. She lifts you away from your typical self—the one that exists and strives to meet the expectations of others. It’s like she reminds you that you are so much more—that you have been boxed in for years.

The truest aspects of a person’s life are the ones he spends the most time censoring and obscuring. It’s as if he knows—rather than denies—that his behaviors are his clearest reflection—but he is too ashamed because he cannot see these muted aspects in others. They, too, are covering. He can’t see, but he should know that everyone behaves that way.

Now with Would-Be Wife—your incredible Would-Be Wife—do everything you can to release the rest of the world—just for moments, time-to-time—safely, responsibly, with unrelenting lightness. Go work on an organic farm with your meaningless Yale education. It doesn’t matter. Do what makes you happy. What else really matters?

***

You’d found impossible ways to see each other up until you relocated to the ARCO Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, at which point you and Would-Be Wife maintained your two-month “relationship” over the phone.

During that time apart, you dreamed feverishly of escaping with her on that road trip: Establish Dominance, ‘07. There were good days on the water, and many bad ones. Coach AAAAAA ignored you. Your body hurt. You went to bed hungry at night in fruitless efforts to lose weight. Avoided going out and drinking with the team. You did everything you thought you could do to gain a possible edge, but were told you weren’t fit. Self-doubt had crept in. You looked heavy on film. Your disordered eating practices escalated, and you increased your training volume–extra running, in an attempt to be thin. At night, you passed the time in longing, paused on pictures and video clips of you and Would-Be Wife together. 

In your last week and a half at the Olympic Training Center, after the longest sustained effort to be healthy—eat well, sleep, avoid alcohol, and focus on nothing by the training and maintenance, you started to do well. But your back was not well—perhaps a sign that you had dropped a significant amount of weight. But it wasn’t enough weight. You found yourself rock-bottom on the power-to-weight ratio. Poor old back couldn’t bend the oar like it used to.

On the last day of practice, AAAAAA switched your pair partner and threw you together with a new girl—a former Olympian—your boat bombed. Crashed and burned. The girl started sobbing when you got off the water. “I’m so sorry, Maria! I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.”

Fine. Great. You understood. But while she had a silver medal from the 2004 Olympics and would always be in AAAAAA’s good graces, you had just been rocketed back to the bottom.

Two fruitless months.

But, at least you would get to see Would-Be Wife. You’d clung to the idea of her like a buoy.

***

The wheels of your airplane touched down in New Jersey at the end of March 2007. As soon as you were home, you dumped your stuff in your room, grabbed your keys, and jumped into your truck for the five-hour drive to Boston to see her. Your fingers drummed at the steering wheel in anticipation as your vehicle galloped up north.

You wish you could remember the feeling of the reunion. Doubtlessly epic. Would-Be Wife’s friends called up the night you arrived and invited you both out, so the two of you threw back shots of tequila and hit the campus bars. That’s where you ran into Would-Be Wife’s best friend, “Butterfly” Kisses.

For a moment, you relived the guilt of your awkward previous sexual encounter. She seemed jaded, but diplomatic, perhaps because she had failed where Would-Be Wife had succeeded. The manner in which she’d tried to steal you the previous November had been impulsive and rude, if not deliberately cruel to Would-Be Wife, and you certainly played your part. Enough of a part that Best Friend threatened to throw you out.

But that was in the past. Water under the bridge. “Butterfly” Kisses watched you and Would-Be Wife fawn over each other in a happy reunion, and decided to send Would-Be Wife a text message at the end of the night after the two of you had decided to stagger blissfully back to the apartment.

[nice girl u got there u should marry her]

Would-Be Wife’s face lit like a Christmas tree. “Yeah, Maria! Let’s get married!”

You could only laugh, “Married, huh?”

“We’re in Massachusetts. It’s the only place in the United States where it’s legal. Will you marry me?”

She’d asked you.

“You can’t be serious,” you said.

How could she have been? You were both completely wasted.

“C’mon! Marry me!”

“Don’t tempt me. I will. I’ll marry you, and you’ll sober up and wonder what happened.”

“Please! I dare you.”

 —and then, just like that, you said yes. After all, she dared you.

“When we wake up tomorrow,” you said, “I’m going to roll over, smile real big, and remind you that we have to get married.”

That is exactly what you did.

Neither of you backed out.

***

What began as a joke—a dare—turned into something much more serious.  Getting married was a complicated process, and you were supposed to drive back to Princeton on March 28th—that very day—in order to make it back for your first practice after California. As it turned out, City Hall wasn’t usually open for weddings on Wednesdays, and the judges all had some secret judgy pow-wow to attend. You hit a telephone book and looked at the names of people qualified to marry you, and after you finally reached one, said you didn’t mind if you could do it outside of City Hall. You chose a Starbucks Coffee shop, since you and Fiancee were native Seattlelites and had passed countless desperately romantic hours in those stores.

You were married “without delay,” with but one witness—Would-Wife’s dear Photographer Friend.

There you were, holding your fiancées hand in the corner of a Starbucks outside City Hall, before an absolutely ancient Justice of the Peace, who continued to stay Fiancee’s name incorrectly. Photographer Friend snapped a roll of black and whites until the manager of the venue, a tiny and assertive Asian lady, squawked, “You cannot take picture in here!” She seemed completely oblivious to the fact that there was a ceremony taking place.

The younger members of the staff began to catch on after you asked for a Starbucks cup sleeve and a pair of scissors for the baby cake, complete with pink-frosting roses, that Photographer Friend had procured as a surprise. You used the cup sleeve as a centerpiece and used the scissors to cut the cake. The three of you celebrated the event.

“Wait…” a staff member finally said. “Did you guys just like… get married?”

You dropped the cake-smeared scissors on the counter. “Sure did!”

The other members of the staff poured over.

“Do you want a free drink?”

You ordered the most lesbian drink you could think of: a Venti white chocolate raspberry mocha.

***

The celebration was short-lived, and then reality set back in. Time to leave for New Jersey to return to rowing. Suddenly you felt sick. Really sick. You returned to Wife’s apartment, crawled into bed, and wrapped up in blankets to combat the chills, breathed deeply to keep your nausea at bay.

You called one of your coaches to tell her you would be missing practice the next morning, but you would probably be there for the afternoon.

Of course, the next day, set on leaving, you found yourself in your Big Gay Truck, standing almost in the middle of a busy intersection, unable to get the vehicle into gear.  Your clutch had gone out, completely, just two blocks from Wife’s apartment. Your blood ran cold; there was no getting back to Princeton.

Fuck. Fuck!

Missing one practice was bad enough, but two was unacceptable. Lineups had to be shuffled, new combinations of rowers tested. You were going to lose your seat.

And you did—a reward for having your truck towed to a service station and for paying $1,100 to have the clutch fixed overnight.

You showed up to the boathouse and were isolated to a single, after which you returned home with eighteen new blisters on your hands.  That afternoon, you were made to row with the girl who sabotaged your last practice in California. AAAAAA followed your boat in his launch the entire practice, yelling into his megaphone that the two of you simply weren’t rowing well enough.

***

You and your father have never been close.  You were born last among his six children, when he was fifty-five years old. That being the case, he’d been fully capable of bouncing you on his knee when you were too young to walk. After that, he couldn’t keep up.  When you were five, your mother split, so there wasn’t much of a parental influence in your life. Larry tried earnestly to replace you mother—woman after woman came and went. Some were crazy, some had dependency issues. None became permanent fixtures in your life.

Couple your lack of parental influence with the fact that you were raised in a family full of Scientologists who disowned each other right and left, and made holiday gatherings tense. You learned never to rely on anyone for anything. You drew into yourself—screened out the world.

Hence, you shocked yourself when you called your father.

You cried harder than you’ve ever cried about anything in your life. You told him it was over—that you quit. That all the time, the pain, the meds, the surgery… the training, the eating, the commitment… the need for financial assistance, the lack of health insurance, the insistence to continue the sport despite your health—all of it was for nothing. You would never make the National Team. You were not going to go to the Olympics. You raised your white flag.

You’d wasted so much time, jobless, unable to support yourself. You had contributed nothing; you had only taken.

After you hung up the phone, you shook a few antipsychotics and Valium into the palm of your hand, clapped them into your mouth, and started to slide down, deep down, into the thickness of the sedatives.

***

You were back in Boston the very next day, sitting in the middle of Wife’s bed, arms wrapped tightly around your knees, rocking yourself gently. Your voice, your hands, your whole person trembled—even your sentences.

Across the bed, Wife regarded you cautiously, somewhat terrified. “Please tell me you didn’t quit rowing because of me,” she said.

You’d told her at dinner the day after you’d been married, while waiting for your truck to get fixed, that you were so happy with her in Boston and so unhappy all the time in Princeton, that it made you want to quit.

“No,” you responded. “It’s not because of you. There are a dozen reasons. You were more like a catalyst.”

She seemed relieved. “So what are you going to do now?”

Oh god. No idea.

One thing at a time.

“I think I need to go home to Seattle for the summer. Get a job there, and decompress.”

“What kind of job?”

Anything. You’d live with your dad, save up some good cash, and wait for your new wife to return to you.

Wife, like you, was a good rower. While she lacked your raw, superhuman strength, she made up for it in actual talent, which is why she’d earned herself a gold medal from the Under-23 World Championships that last summer—in the very boat in which you’d been denied a seat in favor of the puking friend.

You considered her athletic timeline. Wife had to finish her spring semester, then would travel to Virginia to train with the Under-23 team again. Provided she made the boat (which was practically a guarantee), she would surely receive an invitation to the elite team in Princeton for the following year. The elite team—the very group from which you’d just escaped.

The World Championships would be over by the end of July. Then the two of could meet again—in Seattle—and finally Establish Dominance in August ’07.  It would actually happen!

You started to feel better immediately, holding onto that dream.  It was only a few months away.  In fact, you felt happy, and relieved; so did Wife.

Everything was going to be fine.

Categories: LGBT, Planning, United States | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Prelude To A Wedding

CHEMICAL INTERVENTION

While still in college, struggling with performance anxiety and pain management, a campus psychiatrist prescribed you 2.5mg of Risperdal (used to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and irritability associated with autism) whenever your emotions started to get the better of you. See, you’d taken to spontaneous crying—crying about anything, everything. Your cup was full. Brimming. No space remained for additional stress.

Dutifully, you’d snap one of those tiny pills in half and swallow it. Within minutes, fog and fatigue embraced you. Your spirit slurred like a drunkard, body drooping until you collapsed on the bed. You would skip class that day. The anti-psychotic had the power to take you down, even when bodily pain did not.

The anti-depressants made you want to run people over in your truck, and were swiftly taken away.

ON LONELINESS

In Princeton, living with two other U.S. Team trainees, you isolated yourself after practice while many of the women crowded in your living room for brunch. One of your roommates rode her stationary road bike in the living room for hours on end, watching replays of World Championship races, and the others would comment on the races animatedly—talk about the precision of the team, the oar placement, or gossip about the coaches. You sat in the back of the living room at a cluttered table, reading The New York Times Science section, wondering about the future, about technology, about medicine. After breakfast, you retreated to your room, lay down so your lumbar could decompress, and read books—all the books—and took yourself away from the anxiety of your sport, then hatched fantasies of running away. You thought about all the things you’d dreamed of doing—just as soon as your commitment to rowing was over. Travel, culinary arts, write a book, learn photography, volunteer for the environment, take up mountain climbing, work with queer youth, become a coach…

[PAUSES: the amazing thing about your life is that you ended up DOING virtually all of these things, in one capacity or another.]

You felt unbearably lonely in a meaningless, traumatic, and painful pursuit. For what? Because you had only one identity? Because you hate to fail? Because you had no direction otherwise?

Then your girlfriend from college dumped you for the fourth time, on the one-year anniversary of her dumping you for the first time.

Your National Team roommate found you in a pathetic little ball on the kitchen floor—crying, as blood gushed from your hand. You’d been trying to slice a stupid tomato, but you were so upset about that evening’s phone call from your girlfriend that… well… oopsie.  And since you were such a sputtering mess, rather than dashing immediately to the sink to wash the blood away, you just slid. Down. All the way down to the floor, and rocked in sobs.

“She dumped me four times,” you whined to your roommate.

Roommate stiffened. “That’s it. That bitch isn’t allowed to step foot in this apartment ever again! If she even comes near you, I’ll… I’ll… I’ll kick her ass!”

“Kick whose ass?” Roommate’s girlfriend asked as she emerged from the bedroom.

Roommate received her girlfriend’s arms around her waist. “Maria’s ex!  That’s who!”

They helped you to your feet, dressed your wound. Then you ate your dinner numbly as they cuddled on the couch, rubbing it in with their togetherness—that you were alone, dumped, abandoned. In pain.

ON BEING SHITTY: TO YOURSELF, AND OTHERS

You met your Would-Be Wife at a rower’s party in Princeton. She had randomly approached you for help. See, she had a friend puking in a bathroom, and she needed someone to help carry the poor girl to bed. You recognized the puking chick as an athlete against whom you’d won your summer seat race, but was still denied a spot in the Under 23 World Championship boat. You didn’t blame the puking girl. She wanted it as much as you did.

***

To everyone’s annoyance, you slept with Would-Be Wife and Best Friend’s best friend: a strange and competitive girl with allopecia.

You’d found yourself within the four small walls of her dorm room, listening to her ask you why you didn’t initiate the kisses with her; later, feeling the bizarre sensation of a “butterfly kiss” from an eye with only half its lashes; even later reading the signs—the scars—of suffering all over her body; and finally feeling the sting of loneliness—of those wounds after all—as she fumbled you, since you’d plainly alienated her to such an extent that there remained no possibility of recovering your initial drunken attraction for each other. What a waste. The whole time you dwelled on how much you hated yourself, hated that you couldn’t hang on to someone as stupid as recent four-times-dumping ex-girlfriend, that you couldn’t even pretend to be a good friend. Hated that you were allowing that girl to fumble you when you were really thinking about her best friend.

***

You hurt Best Friend by dissmissing her wants and needs from you as a legitimate friend. You were drowning so deeply in your own misery. Best Friend stormed into the bedroom two days later, flicked on the lights, and let you have it.

“We need to talk.  Right now.”

The bedroom lights were harsh, but not as harsh as your raging alcohol-and-depression-induced headache. Your eyes hung like bags of water, your shoulders shuddering. Anything. You would have given anything to disappear—fold yourself neatly in half, over and over, and slip between the cracks.

Best Friend went right into it. “You’re a shitty friend! I don’t know why I let you come here. What was I thinking? Of course. I’m your Number Two. You didn’t call me because you missed me. You called me because you didn’t have anywhere better to go.”

True. But false.

You had missed her. Would-Be Wife, that night on the stairwell in Princeton, had reminded you of something precious you were about to lose—someone you had nearly forsaken for a stupid, busty, blonde girl who loved to dump you before holidaysyour best friend.

“I thought you were here to see me. My mom, my other friends… they all warned me. But I said no, she isn’t going to behave like shit this time. And then what? You just disappear. Ask me to give you a ride downtown for a booty-call. And I did it! What was I thinking?  You aren’t here for me. You’re never here for me. You only care about yourself.”

Ouch.

“It’s the day before Thanksgiving, Maria. Either we figure this out now, or you leave and this friendship is over. And I mean really over.”

You didn’t say much of anything. Your head felt like it was trapped in a vice squeezing so hard that the pressure in your forehead and behind your eyes forced you to keep your head lowered, your gaze to the floor. But your jaw set in a firm expression of determined abjection. Fuck it all. Indignant as you were, she was right. She always was. 

***

You encountered some other people, too, including a current politician who bit you, shoved you into a wall, strangled you, slammed your head into a bathroom mirror, and then with two large hands wrapped into you hair so that you couldn’t pull away, held you gagged on himself for a minute at a party in Princeton. When enough people banged on the bathroom door, the two of you collected yourselves to leave (obliging you to look all over the floor to fetch torn-out jewelry), at which point you told him, “’Passionate…? Someday, someone might walk away from an experience like that with a feeling as though they’ve been raped.”

He replied, “You’d be surprised how women like to be treated.”

You wonder now… is that how you wanted to be treated, based on how you’ve treated yourself in the past?

THE ULTIMATE ESCAPE

You re-met your Would-Be Wife in Seattle over winter break 2007.

Would-Be Wife was the ultimate escape. She was the one and only source of soothing in your life. She was quiet, reserved, observant. To many, she seemed stand-offish. But to you, she was mysterious. Under the surface—that placid heaviness she exuded—there was quality.

Not a quality. Just quality. Some undefined and intriguing quality that acted as an adhesive, gluing your interest. She was Full Of Grace. You wanted to get under her skin, discover her. Ultimately lose yourself in her. Let her take your pain away.

The night you first kissed her is branded in your memory, along with many others. Would-Be Wife procured a friend’s leather jacket, wore it over her shoulders, and smoked outside that warehouse. Dark hair, dark eyes, stained fingers, smeared mascara—all wrapped up in black leather—a veritable smudge against the morning sky. You were smitten.

“Beautiful, wide, yet calming eyes that smolder. Her gaze, with its long dark lashes. The mouth that pouts and purses, hides, then ignites into the brightest smile. A smile that could win an Oscar. Symmetry. Balance. Her face is pure character. It’s a face that draws you in—quiet, still at first. It’s a timid face, a calm face—cool, relaxed, unassuming. You wonder what she is thinking.”

As that long night turned into morning, she, you, and a friend would pile into her Suburban—“The Rig”—and drive several hours to a Bavarian Village, Leavenworth, for geeked out sausages and beer with your unsuspecting family. On your way home from this completely random and reckless escapade, you slipped in and out of a thin sleep, arms wrapped around her—around her seat as she drove—and did not let go for two hours.

***

You cried after New Year’s Eve in Would-Be Wife’s arms. Cried yourself to sleep knowing you would eventually return to Princeton and her to Boston. You weren’t dating; you weren’t even sleeping together! It was a matter of having found someone who made you feel unbearably happy in her presence—a source of soothing—who made you capable of temporarily forgetting.

Your last days together were somber ones. Impulsively, you got matching tattoos on the backs of your necks: a silhouette of closed eyes.

“What are we going to tell people when they ask what it means?” Would-Be Wife wanted to know.

You shrugged. “They say the eyes are the windows to the soul. Mine are shut.”  That’s right. No one could see in. No one could know how miserable you felt.  

THE DREAM & THE DESPERATION

You returned to rowing with the U.S. Team, and Would-Be Wife called you several nights a week. You gushed. Any phone call from her was worth the agony of your daily life.

She began to talk about something that made you happy.  

[25 January 2007

13:00h

In Princeton, New Jersey, in your bedroom]

“The very idea makes you overwhelmingly happy.  Maybe that means something.  Everyone dreams…  But finally you felt as though you have a dream which is truly attainable and just around the corner. A dream that you can really break away from the monotony of responsibility and live out loud.

You talked about August ’07, when rowing lets out for a couple weeks. A road trip in The Rig. Starting off in Washington, traveling all over the state, seeing all the landmarks—the parks, the lakes-—sleeping in The Rig, or outdoors—swimming in waters, fooling around in fields. Eventually getting down to Oregon—then maybe to California. Drive like beggars. See how far you can get. See everything. You want to see everything.

Is it too early for you to be making these kinds of plans? Should you not make long-term plans with her? She feels different. She feels safe. You get the sense that she really will stick around. As she always says, “It’s so simple. It’s perfect.” Keep it the way it is. No expectations.

Just love her as long as she’ll let you.

So for the moment you’ll live in your head and your plans for the August ’07 will carry you through the long and stressful months ahead. You will focus on rowing and dream. Dream… you can see the two of you sitting for hours in diners across the West Coast, drinking cups of black coffee. Rubbing the sleep from your eyes—lazy smiles on your faces. No cares. No worries. No agenda. No itinerary. You leave when you want to. The Rig is covered in dust and you write silly things on the windows. You drive and drive over sun-lit highways, feet hanging out the windows, singing out loud. You see all kinds of rest stops, take pictures, kiss in bathrooms. And cuddle at night. Hold each other so close because for those precious days—or weeks—you are all you have for each other in the world. That will be the feeling of freedom.

***

So fell so wholly and completely in love with Would-Be Wife—your source of soothing, your dreams, your hope, your escape. After you went separate ways—she to Boston, you back to Princeton—you resigned yourself to the misery of rowing again.

Two athletes under similar demands of their sport, separated by a five-hour drive….

You found impossible ways to see each other. On a weekend, you met in New Haven, Connecticut, the half-way point between your respective locations.

You and Would-Be Wife rejoiced in each other’s company. Went to a fancy dinner and racked up an eighty-dollar bar tab in Maker’s Mark, then impulsively paid for another night in a hotel. You stayed up until four in the morning, at which point you both climbed in your vehicles and drove in opposite directions so that you could each be on time for rowing practice.

On another weekend, you met in Milford, Connecticut, at the Red Roof Inn, for $63 a night.

[31 January 2007

22:30h

Milford, Connecticut, at the Red Roof inn]

The floor is littered with potato chip bags, a sour kraut can, an empty package of Tofu Pups—fake bratwurst slathered in kraut, “chased w/ a stout!”

You drove around until you found a diner. Sat for hours, laughing, singing into cups, playing footsie, attacking each other with ice cubes, talking about pie. You ran amok at Stop & Shop. Hot chocolate and a marshmallow treat! Defined the word “ping” as a “sudden and sexually electric moment of revelation.” Drank to “astounding” things. You could stare at her forever…  Bluegrass music is playing in the background. She says you are “heavenly.” A song is playing now, “In love with a blue-eyed girl…” Her eyelashes are so dark and long—so beautiful—they can sweep away all your worries. She just smiled. And then laughed. Your chemistry goes “ping.”

She said, “Wow, if this isn’t Heaven, then I don’t want to go.”

Would-Be Wife—from Seattle—so close to home—was the first person who had permitted you to unlock everything. You wanted to tell her everything, and she’d listen.  You wanted to do everything—she’d smile and say, “Hell yeah, let’s go.” 

It was so nice to hear the way she always answered the phone in that husky, casual tone. Drove you wild. It fit her. It fit like your head in her lap and her beautiful hands gently stroking the hair off your forehead. You kept dreaming. August ’07 is yours and Would-Be Wife’s Everest.

THE REALITY

[11 February 2007

10:00h

Chula Vista, California, in the dining hall at the Olympic Training Center]

Yesterday, at the end of the day, your back—the bad side—went into spasm.  Yeah, the scary kind. You got scared. Oh, and the row this morning sucked.

A member of the men’s team found you crumpled and self-loathing in the grass. He said to you. “Shrug it off.  Rub some dirt in it.” 

You don’t feel like talking to anyone today. So here you are, writing in your journal at lunch, avoiding everyone. Maybe you’ll grab your book, head over the hill, and read out of sight.

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A Letter to XXXxxxxx

“To All Who Are Concerned,

I received an email requesting that XXXxxxxx Women’s National Team trainees add their voice / share their experience with XXXxxxxx and others, in light of allegations of physical and emotional abuse.


Attached is a personal statement about my experience rowing, highlighting my perspective and concerns.”

____________________________________

11 August 2020

When I read that allegations of physical and emotional abuse had been made against coaches AAAAAA and BBBBBB, I was stunned. My initial response was, “I may have had a miserable experience during my time with XXXxxxxx, but not once, and I mean it, not once did it ever occur to me that either AAAAAA or BBBBBB was abusive, physically or emotionally.”

I began to consider all the possible ways in which this statement could be construed, and I grappled for more context. It seemed perhaps there could be a generational difference in perception of how athletes are and ought to be treated. The more I thought about my experience, the more uneasy I felt. I did not want to add fuel to a fire that could very well have been started by a group of women whose expectations about life and outcomes are, frankly, scarcely recognizable by my own generation. On the other hand, it would be wrong of me to not comment on a system that I think can be profoundly unhealthy. So I have decided to write this statement without any information pertaining to the case, in order to identify ways in which XXXxxxxx and athlete experiences can improve.

Rowing has a pipeline. It begins by identifying talent in high school. This talent is recruited to top rowing universities, and then that talent is communicated to AAAAAA. Because of rowing, I gained admission to a prestigious university that would never have admitted me otherwise, and my coach there, CCCCCC, was always a phone call away from AAAAAA. 

The summer after my freshman year, I participated in a short two-week development camp, but never met AAAAAA. When I returned for my sophomore year, CCCCCC explained to me that I had the potential to go to the Olympics, and that the US National Team would recruit me, but I would have to lose 40 pounds and do “90 additional minutes of steady state cardio every day, on top of daily 2-3 hour team practices.” When I first heard this, I seemed like an outrageous amount of work, but he was dead serious, so I actually did it. Later, CCCCCC told me to go to CRASH-Bs, and said that if I did well, AAAAAA would recruit me. So I did what CCCCCC told me, went to CRASH-Bs, and won by 13 seconds. And just as CCCCCC indicated, AAAAAA asked about me. That was a moment of pure elation. The pipeline worked exactly as described!

The summer after my sophomore year, 2004, I lived in Princeton and had one of the greatest times of my life. I was still very young and not in particularly good control of my body, but I made some incredible friends and rowed and trained hard. I also ate very little, caught up in the fact that no matter what, I was always 10 pounds heavier than my teammates. An obsession with weight would lead me and several of my peers into disordered eating practices. By the end of that summer, through overtraining and under-nourishing, I had whittled my body down. That was the summer I began to feel chronic soreness in my tailbone and irritation around my ribcage.

I returned to college my junior year untouchably fast, light, and compressible. Every athlete’s journey is a little different, but rowing was a sport that saved me from a darker possibility of my life, transported me to an amazing school, and offered me potential for the future. It was everything to me. I was all-in, with no back-up plan, and no guidance other than, “Train more, be faster, be lighter.” And never take strokes off.

The morning I felt the first hot muscle spasms is a morning I’ll never forget—I’d bent over to pick up my shoes, and a searing sensation spread across my lower back. When I told CCCCCC, he described what they were, and suggested I see the campus sports doctor, who explained lumbar disc issues to me. The interesting thing about my condition was that I could still sit in a boat since the wave of pain occurred only when I straightened from a bent position. The pain occurred over a short threshold that I could avoid. But that threshold grew bigger and bigger over the months, and the pain that accompanied it required me to dramatically change every aspect of my life from the way I slept; to skipping class to avoid additional sitting; to typing all my papers standing up. I spent 60-80 minutes a day stretching and rolling to relieve pain and tension, and lost additional hours to athletic trainers friction-rubbing my hamstrings, icing me, stimming me, ultrasounding me. I had an M.R.I., X-rays, epidural injections, painkillers, ibuprofen, cyclobenzaprine, voltaren, and benzos. I was high all the time. My doctors switched my medications every three weeks so that I wouldn’t build a tolerance to the Valium and the Soma. The result was a regular sensation of dizziness, fatigue, and even sensitivity to sunlight.

I rowed until the act of getting out of bed and using both hands to lift my useless leg shot lightning down to my foot and fire through my core. I remember sobbing—gasping and sobbing—as I took ten minutes upon getting out of a boat in Florida just to straighten into an erect standing position. I remember the pain during those last days up until I actually lost the ability to walk. The official diagnosis? Three desiccated lumbar discs, two of which had herniated, and a fourth “extra” desiccated disc in my sacrum also tapping on a nerve—probably caused from rapid weight loss and overtraining. 

The astonishing thing about this experience is that CCCCCC encouraged me to keep rowing, and told me not to get back surgery until at least NCAAs were over–and then, wait just a little bit longer so I could row in Royal Henley! But this was the same person who seemed to sneer at women who dropped out of the sport for back injuries, treated them like they were weak, or like they wanted to quit in the first place (and some did). This was the same person who told me to “tape it up, get in the boat,” when I approached him with my right middle finger infected and swollen like a sausage; but hey, at least it wasn’t streaking with real sepsis. This was the same person who, after I got back surgery, yelled behind my erg, “You have to pull harder than that, or AAAAAA will never want you on the National Team!” This is the same person who told me to get in the boat for the NCAA finals of my senior year, dehydrated after I’d suffered food poisoning from a team dinner at the Olive Garden, and spent eight hours vomiting up bile and shitting in my pants.

It’s not easy to write about this without spinning off into petty details that ultimately don’t add to the greater narrative of how miserable I made myself rowing. I was surely to blame, because I didn’t know how to quit. But I finally came to terms with my injury when my legs quit in the middle of a race and I flopped uselessly up and down the slide like a liability.

I remember the emotional afternoon I told CCCCCC that I had decided to not train with the US Team that summer after my junior year so that I could get back surgery. He said, “You’re only crying because you can’t train with the US Team.” It was the most offensive thing anyone had ever said to me, and I replied, “No, CCCCCC, I’m crying because I’ve done irreparable damage to myself, and I won’t be able to pick up my kids when I’m 30.” CCCCCC called AAAAAA, and AAAAAA immediately insisted that I drive two hours to Princeton to consult with Dr. ZZZZZZ to “make sure it was necessary.” I did. And Dr. ZZZZZZ did not hesitate to recommend the surgery, “While they are in there, make sure they get that disc, too.”

To my knowledge, at that time, I was the only trainee with XXXxxxxx who had undergone a double lumbar discectomy and returned to the sport and managed to continue to PR on distance pieces. But my power was never the same again, and pain followed me the whole time. The tightness that accumulated in my hips, hamstrings, and QLs was so intense that when I took strokes, I often imagined a baseball shattering through a plate glass window. When my teammates racked their boats and went to brunch, I waited and made sure no one could see me struggle to get out of my single, or limping my first steps on the dock.

My memories of XXXxxxxx are almost exclusively pain management, and lying on my back in bed trying to convince myself I wasn’t depressed. AAAAAA made very few comments to me. He had a clear group of favorites, and it did seem to me that he was waiting for me and a handful of other women to weed themselves out of the mix. He just had to continue to neglect us.

Sometimes he would flatly tell me, “Your core is weak.” A 22-year-old has no idea what this actually means. More sit-ups? More trunk flexion? “You need to work on your fitness,” he later said, and relegated me to a single in Chula Vista. It had nothing to do with fitness. It had everything to do with excruciating pain and tightness, coupled with malnourishment because he was also examining the weight of athletes and despite everything I tried, I could not be eight to ten pounds lighter.

I do not recall a single time AAAAAA ever approached me and asked me, “How are you? How is your back feeling?” or “Here are some resources,” or “Let me explain how to strengthen your core.” What I recall is a constant feeling of dread and anxiety, and an inability to tell the days apart. When I arrived on my bike some mornings in the dark, I wondered if it was actually night time. How long had I been there? Oh my god, is this morning or nighttime training? I felt very alone, and to be fair, I think I kept my suffering pretty private. I’m sure to others I could be emotional and frenetic, or withdrawn. Pain and the threat of loss does that to a person.

I did everything I could to stay on the water and not lose what tiny amount of standing I’d achieved. One morning I thought I had a urinary tract infection, and I was so fearful of “losing my seat,” that I paid $1,100 to go to the emergency room to pee in a cup. When the clutch pedal in my truck broke, I told BBBBBB and then I paid another $1,100 for an emergency repair so I could get back to Princeton in time—but I ended up missing practice. When I finally showed up to the boathouse, I was isolated to a single again, after which I returned home with eighteen new blisters on my hands from the humid New Jersey climate after two months of dry California. That afternoon, I was made to row in what could only be construed as a punishment pair, and AAAAAA followed our boat in his launch the entire practice, yelling into his megaphone that the two of us simply weren’t rowing well enough. That was my last day of practice.

My decision to quit rowing was the hardest and most painful decision of my life. I had dedicated seven years to my sport, and the last three of them were a blur of chronic pain. I arrived to practice the next morning and walked up to AAAAAA with my face tear streaked, swollen, and bloated. I told him that I’d spent the night thinking it over (clearly) and that, “I’ve decided to stop rowing.”

“Ok,” AAAAAA responded.

“Yeah, I…” I continued, but trailed off. AAAAAA literally only said one word to me when I quit. All those years culminated in a single word—“Ok”—and can be described as the most invalidating experience of my life.

What I learned from that experience is that XXXxxxxx is the end point of a system that can destroy a person and their body. It starts in college, with coaches like AAAAAA and CCCCCC who rowed under similarly punishing circumstances. When CCCCCC slipped his own disc jogging by the boathouse and spent months coaching us while lying down in his launch, only then did he seem to soften his approach with me. Coaches do to athletes what their coaches did to them. The cycle repeats itself.

Since my experience in the pipeline of XXXxxxxx, I have struggled with back pain for 16 years. I have radiculopathy in my right foot and recurring sciatica down both legs, and there were occasions when I couldn’t lift more than 25 pounds. I have also now worked in the fitness industry for 13 years, have interned with a physical therapist for over 2 years, and now specialize in corrective exercise, orthopedic event recovery, and mobility. I wish I had known someone who could have helped me understand how to protect my body back then. I wish that the athletic trainers at the ARCO Olympic Training Center weren’t utterly perplexed by my hips, the problems of which are glaringly obvious today. I have often imagined offering to volunteer my expertise to wounded athletes who don’t know any better, and whose hyper-competitive personalities won’t allow them to take time to recover.

When I look back at my experience, I am the one at fault. I am 100% to blame for my own misery. Rowing was always a choice. But it’s a choice that can feel like coercion because we can’t allow ourselves to quit, and this area of vulnerability is where sensitivity among coaches matters the most. This is the area where coaches should seriously consider whether more training is better, whether they should schedule one-on-one meetings with their athletes to genuinely ask how things are going. Instead of isolating an athlete, talk to her. Invest in the longevity of athletes, schedule guided work-in “recovery/mobility” days rather than more work-outs, maybe check to see that the correct muscles are being activated during lifts. I can remember only one time when a form of recovery was scheduled, and it was a yoga class taught by a teammate. 

Do I think AAAAAA or BBBBBB should still be coaching the women’s team? I cannot say. I never ever thought they were abusive (CCCCCC included). But as I have reflected long on my experience, I must say there is certainly room for improvement in the system—in the pipeline of XXXxxxxx—that has a culture of unapologetically exploiting and discarding young bodies; a culture that selects for and develops a mentality that “I should just be tougher,” and discourages whining. Even today, as I write this, I feel shame. Am I whining? Was my pain valid? Did I really have to quit? The fact that I even have these thoughts illustrates the problem. 

I think it’s important to remember that elite athletes have a hard time coping with failure and willingly engage in systems longer than they should, often to their own physical, mental, and emotional detriment. As a fitness professional now, I have counseled dozens of individuals whose need for achievement continues to harm them. I know from experience that telling them to “take time off” from training is useless, especially when their sport’s culture demands more, treats pain and suffering like a virtue, and it reinforces personalities geared towards extremes. It’s been 13 years since my last strokes. Maybe things have changed. The drive of the athletes certainly has not, but the way in which coaches handle that drive can certainly use some improvement.

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On Being Vulnerable

[I’m having a moment right now.]

[I’m really emotional and going back and forth.]

[And I think I am terrified of sharing pain with other people. Because I’m supposed to be bulletproof.]

[So I share salacious facts.]

[But salacious facts aren’t the pain.]

[They are a response to pain that I don’t share.]

[Because I’m afraid people won’t think I have anything to complain about.]

[You can share pain with people who care. You’re not invincible and tomorrow is not granted. The people who love you, we love you because you’re a human who tries so hard… But I see there are some things missing… You’re not perfect and you don’t have to be. You’re loved. Love on you if you won’t let anybody else. But I bet you’re still figuring out how to do that even.]

***

It was Alexis who first said, “Salacious facts are your defense mechanism.” And, “Telling is not the same as showing.”

***

Levi said recently, “You are always going to change! And you will always go through waves of deciding to share or not to share. Filter, or don’t filter. But have a standard filter system in place. If you are going to drive yourself to destruction, do it with consistency and style! But remember, when you write for the public, you barely write the truth.”

***

You write the truth, but never the whole truth. You’ve also discovered that the truth is endless. It comes streaming out of you like chaos.

Through the woods on a frosty night–and you found yourself crouched in a little ball on a logging road, pulling frantically at your soul like a clown pulling a never-ending line of handkerchiefs from his sleeve… you find yourself with a sore jaw from violently gnashing your teeth over stale chewing gum. Maybe if you keep pulverizing it, some juicy secret will squeeze out.”

As you become more lucid, you continue to remember the moments of your initial wailing—when you turned into the little girl—the clawing at the walls, the collapse into misery. That memory of complete loss of control haunts you. You bottle your nausea. Push it back down. You’ve never looked at your inner child before. Ever. She is screaming; but nobody can hear her. She screams and cries as you have never screamed and cried in your life. She screams and cries and thrashes in all the bottled up poison you have never let out. You’re just too fucking good at swallowing things.”

***

So you are screaming. Screaming. In your head you are screaming. And no one can hear you. It’s about admitting you’ve been poisoned and being dropped and abandoned in a bathtub. It’s about losing the people you love too soon. It’s about rapidly changing names, faces, circumstances, “siblings.” It’s having water poured on your face in the morning, and the lights flickered on and off. It’s about grinding your teeth to a pulp. It’s about telling when someone hurt you, and not being heard, then later having it ignored–and being called a liar. It’s about being branded, and stigmatized. Hypersexualized. It’s about being physically traumatized, and then being threatened with a steak knife for breathing. It’s about a constant state of wariness and fear of your caregivers, and then being told the situation is in your hands. It’s about being blamed by your caregiver for things that aren’t your fault. It’s about broken dishes and doors shutting in your face, or being locked out of the house. It’s about being publicly embarrassed by caregivers, mishandled. It’s about being shoved into the wall, or physically intimidated for trying to be heard. It’s about being accused of hiding something when all you wanted was a normal life–some stable relationships. It’s about having violent food poisoning and being screamed at and threatened. It’s about suffering and being told to “Shut the fuck up!” It’s about being terrorized in the car and staying late at school so your caregiver won’t pick you up. It’s about the psycho woman with raptor nails that burst into your bedroom with a broomstick. It’s about being in the middle of a merry-go-round, watching the anger everywhere around you. It’s about listening to the doors slam, the “Fuck you’s!”, the “Goddamn biches!” and the “Do somethings!” It’s about listening to dishes shatter and objects getting knocked off their shelves, and the phone ringing off the hook, the dog barking, the engine roaring–and you trying to drown it out with running bathwater and crying. It’s about seeing your caregiver suffer and withdraw, and feeling the neglect. It’s about an overwhelming book that should never have been found the way it was found. It’s about modeling emotional immaturity. It’s about being sick in the hospital and having money thrown at you. It’s about divisive holiday dinners. It’s about communication breakdown and emotional neglect. It’s about needless disconnection. It’s about living in solitary confinement. It’s about being isolated. Beating your dog because you don’t know how to cope. Biting your knuckles. Drinking yourself sick several nights a week. Going to school drunk. About wrestling the car keys away when he swallowed a bottle of aspirin, and trying to talk reason into your caregiver–“He needs to go to the hospital.” It’s about being told you need a man, even though you’re gay. It’s about hearing your friends and home and family members constantly being trash-talked, devalued. It’s about crying out for attention and nobody noticing your pain. It’s about being told you have to be more careful, nicer, so bad things other people do don’t happen again. It’s about being taught that pain isn’t a big deal, because everyone else had it so much worse. It’s about being trained to shut up and watch chaos around you, since stating how you feel makes no goddamn difference. It’s about feeling helpless. And then, when you help yourself, when you get away from all that immaturity and madness–it’s about being told you are ungrateful. It’s about not being allowed in your house. It’s about nonsense, and con-artistry. About death and forgetting. About violations of privacy. 

You’ve already forgiven everyone. But it doesn’t lift the scars.

Those scars would haunt you. They are what drove you. Stay at school and take on more extra-curricular activities so you don’t have to interact with Raptor Nails. Excel. What happens to you as a child has no bearing on your success. You choose. Don’t complain–it doesn’t get you anywhere anyway. Work. You don’t need anyone’s help. Be Randian.

Work was distress tolerance. It was a distraction. You worked feverishly, and you pushed your body so you didn’t have to feel. You drank. Huffed. Blew. Drank some more. Woke up in strange places. Threw up in the bathroom at work every Sunday. Passed out in the rain. In the middle of the street. Woke up with your head in another toilet. Woke up next to… people… again. You had problems with intimacy. Too much cross-wiring, being a lesbian with mommy issues. A friend would encourage you to see a drug-alcohol counselor. Your family never knew–oh wait, your caregiver did know, but there were no boundaries. “You don’t ask me my business, and I won’t ask you yours.” He knew you’d fish that bottle right out of the trash.

You will always remember the first time you tried to share your feelings. You froze. You physically could not push the words out. Ultimate vulnerability. What did you need? Love. The normal kind. But you never learned how to receive it. Instead, you learned how to be quiet, alert, and watchful–hopeful. Always let them move first, and follow their lead. Don’t rock the boat. Stay distant, always. Don’t inconvenience them with your feelings. Don’t say what you need to say. Expect them to just see that you’re suffering because actions speak so much louder than words. But you keep your private life too private. Or they were just that blind? Or maybe they weren’t blind, but just incapable of parenting. Another family would “adopt” you; see, they had parenting all figured out!

You taught yourself to interpret the negative experiences in your life as meaningless. And because you never gave them any weight, you didn’t understand the load it seemed like you always carried. What load? Something felt heavy, but you were incapable of putting your finger on it. Move along. Nothing to see. Even when you sometimes collapse under the weight. Share some salacious fact.

SOME SALACIOUS FACT

You ran out of the room crying while sleeping with your best friend. “I’m sorry. I can’t do this!” Grabbed your keys and drove shitfaced to her house at 2am. Climbed the trellice, made a racket. She whispered harshly, “Jesus, what are you doing here?” You were sobbing and spewing incomprehensible feelings. The lights in her mother’s room suddenly clicked on. You panicked. Leaped off the roof. You landed hard on your feet and made a run for your car, but couldn’t find your keys. You kept running down the street. Veered into a drainage ditch, accelerated down it, ran into a fence and knocked yourself out. She arrived minutes later. “Get in the car!” she ordered, then drove you back to your house. “You’re daughter,” she said, as she presented you to your caregiver. Caregiver said, “I can smell your liver rotting.” Best friend had left at least a dozen tearful messages on your answering machine, wondering what he’d done wrong! Nothing. He hadn’t done anything wrong. It was all you. You were wrong. Two days later, she would say, “My mother says I’m not responsible for your crazy.”

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