Are things better?

Prompted by a thoughtful letter from a friend and former colleague, after reading a recent post.

Are things better? Well, not really. That said, I have started a skills class that uses both cognitive behaviour therapy, acceptance commitment therapy (kind of CBT 2.0) and other techniques based on mindfulness. My application of these techniques is still somewhat rustic; some of the techniques are more familiar and useful, and I find myself employing them to constructive ends. Counting, for example.

Other times, the notion of radical acceptance,  a critical piece of these therapies, seems anathema to who I am. Would I have been able to work where I worked, and do the things I did were I to radically accept the environments in which I worked? It seems, in some fundamental ways, that my radical rejection of the status quo was the key to my professional successes, if not my personal ones.

That is not to say that I don’t radically accept situations around me – it’s just that I am aware of my ambivalence. I sit and offer both radical acceptance and my reticence chairs next to me, and keep my hands, palms up, on my lap. It’s new, and difficult.

Another technique critical to CBT in terms of dealing with trauma is encouraged disassociation. This is another one of those tools that doesn’t feel natural. Trauma in me triggers confrontation, not hiding or pretending something doesn’t exist. Again, it’s a matter of degrees, of understanding that the dissociation is only used sparingly, and in a temporary manner  – to give a bit of breathing room and of space, to allow for the right solution to make itself more apparent.

My moments of peace and happiness to the point where I feel close enough to happy to be making up songs, are in the kitchen, and with the kids at bedtime. So I do get to have them, and they are delightful, and I can forget the other aspects of my life completely. Baking is just wonderful, and a good outlet for me. I enjoy making things that are appreciated, and the cakes I’ve made for my son’s school auctions (mostly in the form of year-long subscriptions) have allowed me to investigate recipes on behalf of the client family. And musically speaking, keeping a melody, a metered lyric, a rhyme scheme, and a child’s attention at bedtime, when they’d prefer to be jumping on the mattress, are distractions aplenty.

We have projects here and there; my son has sports, school activities, and a certain melancholy. My daughter has yet to decide whether to use her tremendous personal power for good or evil. We are about to embark on a large remodel which will create a family room, a new bedroom for my son (it will be the nicest room in the house, given that he will inherit both Doug fir built-ins
– a bookcase and a floor-to-ceiling cabinet), and will give up half of the spider park that is our two-car garage for a new bathroom. The lab technicians took 13 samples to determine whether we will be exposing lead and asbestos in the inevitable clamor of demolition. Plus the permits.

And yet, there it is. The sadness is still very much there. The lack of community. The sense that the only help I get with my depression requires payment. The things I miss.

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writing into the wreck

Years of struggles with depression, where talk therapies, light and dark therapies (not magick, literal use of light and darkness), SSRIs, SNRIs, Mood stabilizers (all meds since becoming a mom), trying to address a moderate to severe case of appeared to be obstructive sleep apnea (but may actually be central-nervous system), plus the seemingly endless but hardly clean chute that is perimenopause is taking its toll. It has gotten to the point now where typing is my safest communications method.

Typing, especially in a buffer, allows for edits. Yanks, esp, for all you emacs people. I can sit, look at the sentence and say, “No, I think I will regret both saying that and leaving a bit trail.” I wish I could type to my kids, but my buffer is shot in the face-to-face stuff.

I have never shied away from talking to my children about things in our world, but at levels they can understand and handle. My depression, which clearly has a sleep-disorder component, is something I’ve told my son about this way: Mom has trouble sleeping. She doesn’t get the deep sleep you get, because different parts of her body and brain want to do different things. Her body, especially her mouth and throat, want to just relax and have a “California stretch” (something he learned at soccer camp, which is basically laying down sprawled on the ground and approaching napdom). But when they do that, they block the airway, and she doesn’t breathe. Sometimes it lasts for a second, many times it lasts for more than 30 seconds. And every time her body stops breathing, her brain has to wake up her body, so she never gets sleep. And a brain that doesn’t get sleep doesn’t work well. A brain that doesn’t work well gets irritable, and sad. So we have to find a way to get Mom’s brain and body to work together, as a team.

But no sleep, no peace. No buffer. No high road, just the chute. No reserves, and few opportunities to fashion them from the remnants of what I have to get through the day, mentally.  CPAP to sinus infections to BiPAP to more sinus infections and swallowing air to the point of abdominal distention resembling me at 28w pregnant. Losing 20 pounds in three months through the first real exercise program I ever took on, and still, my airway would collapse while I was upright and awake. One year later, the MRI revealed all sorts of obstructions in my nose and throat, so we went in and did a complete airway overhaul.  It’s three months since the surgery, and my husband still hears me gasping for air in the night, and I can barely get out of bed.  Not surprisingly, the quality of my communications have plummeted. It’s no fun to be me, and perhaps even less fun to be around me.

As a result, I have found myself less and less open to realtime conversation, even if I like the person. The typing is safer, less volatile. The way I get around it with the kids, if I can pull it together, is to read stories to them, complete with dramatis personæ, and drift off together to sleep. That there is a way for them to know I love them, and that it somehow has to do with how perfectly they fit in the crook of my arm or curled up under it; for this I am so grateful, I would consider revisiting the whole virgin birth business and saying, “Okay, I guess I can’t disprove it.” But obviously, this doesn’t work all the time.

I’ve had to write news like this, only with much more detail, to two different people over the past month. I didn’t want them to think I was ignoring them, or that I had a bee in my bonnet – of course, I do, but it has a different name. The advice I am getting now, to reflect on different stages of my life and write them down is exactly what I have done in my stronger, struggling times, and is precisely what I am terrified of doing now. I read the simple questions in a thoughtful book, or the gentle alto comments of my counselor, and there it is – all that I know are problems, and how they seep into me like so many toxins in the groundwater. The guilt of knowing I’m responsible for the spread, and not knowing if any of the correction in which I’ve engaged from literally the first waking moments of my firstborn will take. As much for his (and his sister’s) lives as for the record I will leave behind. Pretty small person, hm? I never thought I was proud, but I am, insofar as I would not want to look back on what I have done in my life and felt embarrassed or ashamed.

The typing, again, is easier. The talking, and the physical writing, what I did for decades before now, is what I feel incapable of doing – my supplest, longest-lived pleasures, those of voice and story, of my voice and story, and I can’t bring myself to say or write what is there.

 

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Dear Birth-father: Woman up. Please.

This is a copy of a letter I wrote almost 23 years ago to my birthfather. Literally half a lifetime ago, before marriage and children. I wrote it after the adoption agency which handled my placement and had received a court order to contact him did so, by registered mail. His response was to call the social worker charged with fulfilling her legal responsibilities and yell at her for sending mail to his home. No denials, but he did ask for all of my identifying information, which she gave him. Afterwards, I noticed a rash of hang-ups on both my work and home answering machines (this was before VM, though after the Internet).

Not surprisingly, my birthmother was waiting for me to contact her, and had left her information in my file at the agency in case I wrote to them with questions. It was she who gave me his name, and his address. His college class. I gave all of that information to the adoption agency, as they had no intention of contacting the father. I had to tell them that it took two to make me, and I wanted to have information from both. (I think they couldn’t believe how lucky they were with my birthmother that they thought I should have been satisfied.)

In reading this, I realized that in spite of my youth and what others would consider an abrasive, obnoxious personality, I really like the woman who wrote this letter, and I love how clear her heart is. I love how she invited him to do the right thing, not because she had an exclusive on it, but because it was well within his abilities to do, and perhaps it was a matter of his just not knowing. Of course, much of what I wrote here was incorrect – over time, more things reveal themselves, or perhaps I just learned how to recognize them. But also in transcribing it, I realize how I was trying to convince myself as much as him, that I was worth getting to know – or at least meeting. I want to hold this young woman in my old lady arms and tell her she’s wonderful, that not belonging is real, but so is loving yourself without pre-conditions, and that the latter is something she can control.

I also remembered that, as I read it aloud, I felt so vulnerable. It was so clear what I was pleading for – accountability, acceptance, apology, acknowledgement – and the closer to my heart I got in the prose, the more I realized it would take me nowhere good. Instead, I kept it in a manila folder.

For laughs, it’s worth noting that when my dad read it, his eyes welled up and he said, “Jan, you need to become a lawyer.” And my response? “Dad, being argumentative doesn’t mean you have what it takes to get through law school.” I think we were both right.

1 August 1990

Mr. John W. Caputo, Jr.

address known, but withheld

Dear John,

“My Name is Janet X and I am Information Officer for Project Athena. I schedule visits to Project Athena and am responsible for presentations as well as the dissemination of written materials.”

This is the way I begin any one of a hundred letters every month. I tell people who I “am”. It was only four months ago that I began to really understand who I am and how many people it took to make me.

Each person had a different role. Two people created me, literally. Two new people worked with the raw matter and molded me, shaped me, and then removed their hands. There was part of each creator that was visible in me – my adoptive mother’s speech patterns, my adoptive father’s irrepressible personality, as well as their shared sense of ethics and morality were “givens” for as long as I can remember. No one knew where my height came from, my bawdy sense of humor, my voice, my artistic abilities, much less how I learned to read at age 2 1/2.  No one even knew so much as my ethnic background. Two of the four creators were lost behind a curtain of vague allusions, and it was assumed to remain that way.

You cannot understand what that is like. We as human beings base much of our self-perception and identity on belonging – looking to where we “came from”. To not be able to point to a person and say something as simple as “This is who I came from” impacts your sense of identity. The impact becomes stronger even as you age and begin to think of creating children yourself.

I have always known about the shadowy “other” creators. Because my parents told my brother and me from the start that being adopted meant that we were chosen, we grew up without social stigma concerning our origins. Yet, the faces, the tangibles of our starting points remained unknown… always shrouded, veiled from light. And as I grew older and learned where babies came from, the tangibles became veiled in shame and I felt the drape of guilt become leaded, impenetrable, as if I had destroyed the life of another person.

After years of not knowing, I have found you and (my birth mother). And regardless of your feelings and decisions at the time, you must realize that I am now a living, breathing adult, who is fully entitles to know her origins. You can refuse to see me; that is by law your right. However, by denying me access to to essential information about my medical history, you are clearly denying me my basic rights. You may be afraid to see me, to acknowledge that you are, in part, responsible for my existence, because I represent a point at which you were irresponsible in a time of need. John, we are all adults now and all adults make mistakes: those of us who face our mistakes are more adult than others. Those adults who forgive are more human.

You see, I already have one birthmark that required cancer screening when I was fourteen months old. Next month I must have a number of lesions biopsied. If they prove malignant, I will require major surgery – skin grafts, possible chemotherapy, etc. In the last five years, already there has been a genetic pattern determined for skin cancer. This is only one example I choose to cite in this short letter. The questions I face each time I make a visit to the MD seem endless, because I am unable to answer them.

John, I am not unaware that you ahve gone on and created your own life and family. I assume that you did not tell your partner about the people you left behind. I can even understand that you may not want to see me, and by ignoring that court order, you can deny my existence. The information you can choose to keep from me, what is referred to as “identifying information”, is no linger an issue. I did all the investigative work myself, and in fact, was the one who provided the adoption agency with your name and address. I accessed information available through public records, and am aware that you have a family.

The straight information I need regarding medical history is invaluable to me, an adult about to engage in the full breadth of activities of adulthood. But equally important to me is removing the veil, the shadow from your face, seeing who had a hand in making me. Aren’t you interested in seeing your mortal legacy as well? An observation that in any other circumstance would be forgettably minor: when I met my birthmother face to face, she remarked that I have your smile and teeth. I cannot articulate how I felt at that moment, hearing that your hands, your contributions to me are palpable, tangible.

I am not asking to be part of your family; I am asking that you give me a chance to meet you. I am giving you a chance to realize that your greatest “mistake” did not spoil what may be one of your greatest achievements. And, more importantly, to thank you for the gifts you have unknowingly bestowed on me.

You can either write me at the above address (ed note: this was on my work letterhead) or call me at work after 5pm. I know you may feel as if you have a great deal at risk. I do sympathize. Please realize that I am also risking more than I’ve ever had to in my life. I believe my efforts will be worth it. I want to assure you that  making a courageous effort at this crucial time will be worth the risk as well.

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An Open Letter to Senator John Kerry

In 1984, I took part in my first political campaign, and voted in my first election. I stood holding a “Kerry for Senate” banner on the side of the pond in the center of the UMass Campus, and I stood with John Kerry in his run.

Twenty years later, I took part in my first Presidential Caucus, in WA state. Although pregnant, I got up on a bench and gave an impassioned speech about the Democratic Party and supporting John Kerry in particular. In the face of Deaniac Washington, our town went Kerry, as eventually did our state. I was asked to take a place in the stands behind him (big, blue and pregnant made for good optics for a pro-choice candidate forbidden to receive communion by the bishops of his own faith), met him, thanked him for running and campaigned until the end.

I am profoundly disappointed in the Senator today. The only way that the mandatory contraceptive coverage component of the Affordable Health Care Act is about religious freedom is about the freedom of the EMPLOYEES, not the employer. It is about basic health care for women, and having to provide it EVEN IF the religious beliefs of the employer include the notion that women were from the beginning, made wholly from the rib of a man and unequal to him.

Catholic Charities would like us to think that their mission is about service, but really, when it comes to the status of women in their world, it is about SUBSERVICE. But Bishops are not the rulers of our land. They do not make the laws, even though the rate at which they break them, against the most vulnerable amongst us is despicable.

Women do not deserve second class status if they work for a Catholic institution such as a university or hospital, because the LAW, which governs us all says that Women and Men are due equal protection under LAW.

Put another way. If AIDS drugs are covered by ACHA, would you then say that covering men with HIV would be at the discretion of the Catholic Church because they condemn homosexual activity? If blood transfusions are covered, would it then be at the discretion of a Jehovah’s Witnesses based charity to disregard those? What about the Christian Science Monitor? Can they forget about prescription drug coverage in its entirety?

If you cannot find the words that express the supremacy of the rights of equal protection over any individual religion’s dictates, take mine. This is about HEALTH CARE, and the right of anyone who works for any employer to not have their employer’s religious whims, caprices or beliefs infringe on what is their legal right to receive.

Women will never get the chance to vote for Catholic bishops – hell, they can’t even have give a homily! – but they will vote for Congresspeople and President. And they will vote the same way they obey the edicts of the pope when it comes to birth control. Ignoring them when it makes no sense, with the full support of the law.

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2011 recap

On the second day of 2012, I found myself frustrated with the char limit on FB – don’t even get me started on twitter – and thought I’d send a little note on what has happened in the last year which I made no time to tell you.

  1.  After seeing myself in a picture in February and then stepping on a scale, I got serious about getting healthy. I began exercising (10k/day on an elliptical, 5x/week), stopped eating off the Vikilings plates and dropped bread. What a difference I was able to make in my health, and quickly. Confirming that keeping new habits is harder than starting them.
  2. I am 45, but keep forgetting. (Goes hand in hand, yes?)
  3. Perimenopause, in full unpredictable and irritable force. Highly unrecommended, though likely inevitable.
  4. Ben is now 7; Nora is 3. Ben is gentle, perceptive, and a natural athlete. Nora is not gentle but equally perceptive. Her athletic abilities remain to be seen.
  5. Nora had eartubes put in back in April. The full procedure and recovery was less than 90 minutes. Sadly, they are already out. She has also had hand, foot and mouth, Fifth’s disease, two ruptured eardrums (pre-tubes), and assorted boo-boos that far exceed those her brother had.
  6. Ben is more me than the Viking, I’m afraid. I am hoping he can shake some of it off and find a great place in himself, in all of his quiet power. But of the parts of me he has that I hope he keeps are his sense of humor, of accountability, of ethics, and his love of singing. The boy wakes up singing.
  7. This year, I volunteered to be a room parent in Ben’s class. It has been great to be in the classroom with the children every week.
  8. I ran for office in our town on a platform of “The more you know, in context, the better you can make decisions.” I lost 2:1 to a candidate whose slate was, more or less, “Hang the mayor.” All of the candidates who campaigned on that slogan won by huge margins. And yet, I wasn’t sad. It was a great experience.
  9. I don’t think I was able to finish reading a single book all year, thought there are at least 15 of them around the house with bookmarks at different points, none of which are 1/3 of the way. Not good.
  10. I did manage to spend some quality time in the kitchen cooking for neighbors, which was enormously satisfying.
  11. In an effort to broaden Ben’s exposure to different cultural traditions in ways that are appealing to him, I signed him up for a children’s chorus at the local, rather progressive Episcopal church. He enjoys it, and was selected to play Joseph in the Christmas pageant. I’m glad, too, that he is learning and asking questions about God. But the questions that come for me, time after time, aren’t answered in a way that makes my heart feel at home.
  12. I decided to cut my hair but good just before Thanksgiving. Transformative, yes… but who would have thought a haircut could encourage new balances and shifts in personality?

So I came to the end of the year, and I am better in some ways but still restless.  Still a stay-at-home-parent, still looking in consignment shops for clothing that would survive the carry-on bag and go to a meeting. Still missing Boston/Cambridge/Somerville/Cape Cod, and its attendant pleasures. Cooking more, eating less. Next up, what’s in store for 2012 – I hope more reading and writing.

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“Without them, there is no this”

This is a polished version of the email I sent to my local NPR station for its Valentine’s Day program. The title of the show was “Without them, there is no this.” He solicited stories from listeners about the people whose love changed and/or sustained their lives. Reflecting on those people in my life, I was prompted to spill some words and see how they flowed. Not entirely smoothly, it turned out, but the content was compelling enough to read on-air. (Or there was a danger of dead-air.)

I’ve edited and extended it to make it a better read, but some turns of phrase remain unchanged.

My love story starts before my birth, when a social worker phoned Mary Maida, a 59 year old widow living outside of Boston. The social worker was interviewing members of a potential adoptive family for an infant yet to be born.

The social worker asked, “Would you feel like an adopted grandchild would somehow be less than a natural-born grandchild?

Mary replied, somewhat angrily, “What? I only have one grandchild! I need more, and I don’t care how I get one!”

And from the day I arrived into her family, she was the singular person who accepted all of me, with joy, and without any evident disappointment. The connection with her was seamless; I would have done anything for her, and she did everything for me. When my mother warned that she might be too ill to see me in a play, or come to my college graduation, or attend a night dinner in the city, my grandmother always surprised her with a Yes… but it was no surprise to me.

Even though she was legally blind, she could spot me walking in unexpected places, and ask my aunt to pull over. My aunt wouldn’t understand why, and then she would recognize me. I served as a benchmark for her less happy things. My aunt and mother let me know that she realized her
eyesight was failing when she could no longer know me by sight on our semi-regular visits.

And when her mind began to fail, somehow she always managed to give me her precious moments of lucidity – a gift of love if there ever was one.
She passed away in May 1998, a few hours after I left her room, but not before I could wash her hands, wipe her brow, and cry.

The following nine months were laden with grief. Levity came, ironically, in the form of my own layoff. Of course, there would need to be a new job, and rent, and all of the other notes and obligations. But losing her physical presence helped me find the words to express what she gave me: unconditional love. It also was a clue to what I would need to start giving to myself, no matter how many of my own weaknesses I acknowledged, or how much of the past vexed me.

And so, around the end of those nine months, I began a new job. On the first day, my eyes fell upon the man in the office next door, and kapow! He was the man who would become my husband – though I didn’t know it at the time. I was just angry that I had to work with someone so gorgeous. We became friends over the first few months, and then started dating, albeit in secret.  When he moved away to Seattle, we stayed together.

I left the other love of my life, Boston, to be with him, and we married in 2002. He met me at a time when I was grateful for everything, and while those moments have been less frequent than they should be, he always makes it clear to me that he is grateful for the choice we made together, to be together. It has not been easy for either of us, but we have done our best to weather the challenges in each other, and to find the right, honest, kind words to overcome those challenges.

Everyone has their issues, the questions that vex them. (I think, had my grandmother and husband met, they likely would have shared the position that neither of them have issues; a chuckle within itself.) And for me, one of the challenges of my adoption has been the lack of fit, which wasn’t simply a family issue. Where do I really belong? Who actually gets me? Can I be understood and accepted just as I am? (I’m not saying it’s an exclusive question set to adoptees, though that part of my own history was a major component of my young life and trying to understand who I was, really.) And all of those questions are separated from the nerve center, which is, “Am I lovable? Who would, who could love me?”

I feel my grandmother and husband have given me that love. My grandmother did it for over 31 years without blinking. My husband has been doing it for 12, sometimes blinking back tears (as have I). The pregnant pause between them gave me the time I needed learn and understand my grandmother’s love for me, to begin learning how to love myself, and be ready to begin to love another.

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Some things that I need to write through, 2011

1. Ben goes one step forward, mama takes one disappointing step back

2. Presumed malfeasance

3. Miscommunication,

4. The politics of fear and its communications support structure

5. Simple pleasures

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