This was motivated by two things: First, I wanted to watch The Price is Right (which I called my “weekday show”), and second, I loved the triumphal return--how the day after a good sick I’d walk in and everyone would ask how I was, would give me petting words and sympathetic pats. “How are you?” Erika Benton would say, her coolness mixing with concern until she looked like a hip mini-mom.
So I invented illnesses. Well, maybe not invented. Maybe I believed myself. I had a headache, a hangnail, growing pains, a stuffy nose. Once, after getting my blood drawn at the doctor’s office, I called my mom from school to bring me aspirin for the pain. I loved being out in the hushed hallway, my mom digging through her purse, while my teacher’s voice droned on about arithmetic a few feet away. Another time, I went off a jump sledding and hurt my back. That night, I had my dad make me a DIY wheelchair out of a PVC building block kit I’d gotten for Christmas, and the next day, I made my friend MJ wheel me to school. I loved movies about wan, consumptive girls wandering the moors, their illusive illnesses making their faces stark and pretty. Once, when I’d been sick for a whole week, I came back to school during lunch recess. I was hoping for a hearty welcome, but I did not expect what happened next. “Hey!” said one of the cool boys from the top of the metal eagle’s nest, “Ashley’s back!” and everybody cheered. I felt like a queen. The empress of illness.
You’d be forgiven for thinking I came from a negligent home, but I wasn’t. My mom and dad were nothing if not attentive. I just liked being sick, in a munchausen-for-upward-social-mobility kind of way. It was, you could say, my jam.
I mention this because in the years since second grade, I have become a more frequent traveler in the actual land of the sick, but haven’t wanted the attention. I meant to say that from about age 20 on, I’ve had persistent, brutal, and often acute depression. I have my reservations about calling depression an illness because of the condescending way that many use the term. But I am calling it an illness here because that’s what it feels like in my body: I want to stay home, in bed, with all the lights off and rain noise playing on my computer. I want a warm hand on my forehead and a voice telling me I’ll be better in no time. I want to be read to sleep, and I want a hot water bottle. But mostly, more than anything, I want to say: I can’t, I’m sick. As in: I can’t come to your potluck, I’m sick. I can’t write this legal brief, I can barely remember my own name. I can’t throw this party because I can’t put my pants on, and it is not a pantsless kind of party. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.
But unlike my second-grade self, I don’t want to say this. I don’t want to be sick. First, the Price is Right is off the air, and second, the kind of sick I am doesn’t get cheers from the eagle’s nest or notes excusing absences or DIY wheelchairs from dads. Because despite people’s copious and condescending use of the term mental illness, people don’t actually think of it as one. Not really. Not in the way that gives a person some slack. If you are sick in the head you are just sick in one place--not the whole body--and so of course you can do your job, of course you can get to the gym, of course you can show up like you promised. The word “illness” in this sense is a condemnation, not a forgiveness, and so to admit you are ill feels like it can only increase the reproof. You are a bad worker, a bad friend, a bad doer-of-chores. But they already knew that, of course: you are mentally ill, after all.
And so I have spent my whole life trying to hide my depression, to say, What illness? I’m not sick! I feel a responsibility to make up for what I perceive as a constant deficit, imagined or real. When depression strikes, I start making my lists: When was the last time I flaked? The last time I called in sick? The last time I didn’t do the dishes? And even if it was long ago, I feel I must make up for it. I feel sick in a social sense: contaminated by a bad reputation, a propensity for failure. And so I try to make up for it. Yes! I say to this plan, or that plan. Yes! I say to taking the train into the city. Yes I can do that yes I can write that yes I will call you right back. And then I go through my brain’s couch cushions, looking for spare energy.
This yes-ing is hard. So hard, in fact, that I have found it easier to be another kind of sick, to return to my second-grade ways and simply have a headache, a hangnail, a stuffy nose. When I am depressed, it seems so hard to say my mind hurts and so much easier to say my head hurts. There is, I know, a privileging of the body in our culture: cancer is worse than depression, hitting someone is worse than harming their heart. It seems strange that this is so, but I know it is so. And so I say I’m sick, in the common language.
I’m not lying. Often I am both kinds of sick, since depression is a wily multi-tasker and can cover both body and brain. I do have aches, and I do have a cold--it’s just easier to say headache than than heartache. Even so, I feel like a liar, and while I lie in bed (pun intended), I think of something my friend Heidi wrote once, in her memoir about her Mormon mother: when you can’t say what is in the brain, it comes out in the body; when you want to be a singer but you’re stuck at home, you might get sore throats. And that feels more accurate. I do have depression, and it is real, but when I can’t say what I need my whole body hurts.
Lately, my therapist has been asking me: could I say what I actually mean? Could I say: I want to see you, but I want to just sit and not talk? Or: I tried to do too much, and now I have to revise? Or: I know we have plans, but I have to take a bath first? Or: Will you read me to sleep?
I am scared, but I am trying. I am hoping that honesty really is the best medicine, a morphine from the mind to the body, or vise versa. I am hoping to say what’s on my mind so my body doesn’t have to. I am hoping for attentiveness, not attention. And I am hoping, too, for a world where the mind is as real as the body.
. . . . . . . . . .
Mine is very short, but just in general I feel I wish I had said more to stand up for myself and to say “You’re not treating me right, how can we fix that?” Or, “I need to get out of this friendship.”
I wish I believed I could find some confidence to make new friends. On the flip side these things we don’t say make us the people we are now. Could it be #noregrets is the realest hashtag ever? Who would know what my life would be like if I changed its course? Maybe I would be happier, maybe I would be worse off. I do know that living in what if’s can and has been hard for me, so I do my best to not.
The day my sister, ten years my younger, called and told me she was silenced in a religion class, my heart puffed with righteous indignation on her behalf, but I didn’t do what I should have for her. She was silenced in front of the whole auditorium for making a comment about Heavenly Mother, speculating how She might feel toward us. My sister was told “That’s enough, I’m going to end you there.” The male teacher raising a flustered hand to signal ‘stop.’ She said her face turned red, class ended and she went home, lay face down on the bed and wept.
I am old enough now to have settled into my own heart, to fully reside in the ache that is a woman’s body. The stitches that sutured the lines made to remove my three babies have long since dissolved back into the flesh, but the familiar ache of torn muscles, the parts that are numb even years later are still there. This familiar physical aching is reminder of just how unfamiliar this world I live in can be.
When my son was small and full of melting down, I read in a book that every six months or so a child’s brain reworks what it understands of reality. Instead of simply placing a few more blocks on the tower they’ve been constructing of their world, the entire tower is knocked down and they are required to rebuild anew from scratch, incorporating the new pieces. It is the work required to expand—our world crumbling, being rebuilt into something unexpected, but better.
And so, to the man who was too afraid to hear a young girl ask about her Mother, I am sorry that you have not yet recognized the ache you were inevitably born with, the one you seem too afraid to fill. I am sorry that the tower you have spent so much time constructing does not have a place for women. I am sorry that I am more than sorry. For the first time in my life, I am angry. Anger toward people who I even like, who are kind and well-meaning, but also unwilling to knock down what is not working. I should have said this to you myself, or given my sister the courage to do so.
Once, a spiritual healer spoke to me about the room my God had made for me. The healer woman spoke words that walked me up wooden stairs to a light-filled space, warm as a womb, with a window overlooking maple trees. In this case, the God who was a man gently showed me what He had done for me and I loved Him for it. And all through the house, there was a woman, also a God. She made streams that lead to fountains outside. She welcomed guests and asked bad spirits to leave. She asked me the right questions and did not give me the answers. She moved through the outside and the inside making everything bloom, but also allowing me to sit in the shadows.
The religion I grew up in is the room, but we have not yet built a house, and there are many who are homeless and waiting. Women are working. They are planting, building, laying against the earth to understand just what it is she would have them do. It is beautiful and nourishing. The people who are afraid of change are cloistered in the one room, and while it is not a bad room, it is just a room when there is a house and a yard to be lived in.
So, to the male professor who silenced my sister, I am angry with you, but I don’t want to stay that way. Your refusal to make room for a woman is not new. Your belief that women have a place and a job that you understand is no longer useful. When women are not given space, they create their own. You might silence my sister with a shaky hand in front of a room full of people, but trust me, her words will find traction, her thoughts will not be contained to live inside the walls given her. She will continue marching, because there are people waiting to be lead. My daughters are waiting to be led by women. My mother is just now starting to tell the stories I’ve never heard. My grandmothers are speaking from the other side, whispering into the ache and filling it slowly. More of the same, a block added on here or there will not fix this problem.
In a feminine spirituality there is no “that is enough, I am going to stop you there,” because there is not enough and no one is going to stop us until we say we are ready to stop.
I have always struggled to communicate any deep feelings to almost anyone. I would say that it has been one of the things that I have battled with internally for most my life. I have so many recollections of times when I wish I had said something... I have always internalized everything and then later would say to myself, I wish I had said that.
One instance that comes to mind, is when my younger brother wrote me a letter explaining his sexuality. I remember reading it, and thinking of what I was going to say when I saw him next. I thought that I would start off with the fact that it changes nothing for me. I was happy he was happy in whatever choice he made, and would support him in anything he did. I wanted to tell him that even though we were 10 years apart, I felt closer to him than many of my other siblings. We had many things in common, and that I hoped in the future that he could come to me with anything...
So the next time I saw him after he had given me the letter I said... nothing. I acted as if I had never received the letter at all.
I have struggled within my personal relationships to convey many of my feelings, and it has been a daily struggle that I combat internally and hope to master one day.
Not saying what I really want to say for fear of hurting someone... story of my life. I once believed that I upheld truth over any other value. Then I realized that wasn't true, that I was more afraid of hurting someone than of telling the truth.
Most recently, Facebook has convoluted this situation even more. I'm in a praise band that was directed by someone who was very competent and supportive of our efforts as musicians. I was grateful for her efforts, but also somewhat oblivious since she did it all. She decided to leave the church and was very upset at some of the people outside our band. As she was in the process of leaving, I asked her a bunch of questions, trying to help the transition.
She got very angry at me. I didn't understand. I was simply trying to help. No one had asked her to leave. She was leaving of her own volition.
She had Facebook-friended me a couple weeks prior to this. A month or so later, I made a post about how I was really happy how the band was coming together as a team. In response, she blocked me from seeing her posts, and, I assume, blocked her feed from seeing mine.
I wanted so badly to say something: to write her directly and say, "I'm sorry your feelings got hurt, but all I was trying to do was help the band out." That I still wanted to be friends with her, but I didn't want to do the tortuous dance where I edited her out of my facebook feed. That I would rather she unfriend me than be so passive-aggressively avoidant.
But I didn't write her any of these things. Instead, I stopped using Facebook. Why? Because I was sure that trying to be direct about it wouldn't help anything. That if she got mad at me for simply saying the band was doing well, that she wasn't going to like me complaining about the way she chose to handle our relationship.
But I'm really, really, really, really, really, really mad. I wish people would just confront each other instead of lapsing into hurtful silences. But there is another part to this story.
I had a friend who I was very happy about. She was the kind of friend who I felt as nourished after conversing as I do after reading a good book. She did something hurtful. I wasn't upset at her, but I did feel like I needed to be clear about how I perceived the situation. So I wrote her an e-mail telling her exactly what I felt. Her response? She decided she didn't want to be friends anymore. But she stayed Facebook friends.
What the hell? Why do people think it is somehow MORE of an injury to unfriend someone on Facebook than to unfriend them in real life? It's confusing!
So it seems I can't win. Either I put my heart on the line and end friendships or I don't say anything and end up never interacting with the person who is avoiding me anyway. I'm already so scared of my expressions of appreciation being burdens and this experience made me feel like my fear is well-founded.
"Why do you stay? What's in it for you?"
"I'm waiting for trust. I'm optimistic. I'm gracious. I'm a gentleman. I'm always waiting for trust to return."
"I'm a gentleman," you say for the fourth time. And with every time you say you're a gentleman I believe you less and less.
You're not waiting for trust. You're waiting for her to slip up. To pull the trigger and run. You've put her on trial for four years and counting. She could never make you trust her because you don't want to trust her. You want her to fail. That's far more safe. And fail she shall.
Waiting for trust. Code for a self fulfilling prophecy of lies and deceit and control. Waiting. Forever waiting.
But instead I say, "How beautiful." How gracious you are to still have hope. O strong and gentle man. I could never give her what you can.
Hope is just another word for fear said Pema Chodron.
Hope and trust like oil and water. Like you and her. Like you and the world. But you're alright being the oil, the one on top, never letting that water see the light of day. You are cold and solid and seal her life away. And then you say you have hope, all the while never bringing your separate selves out to the warmth of the sun, never pouring your souls into that pot on the fire to let them meld.
How gracious are you to have hope. I bow to you, gentle man.
There was a time when I said exactly what I meant in the easier form of a letter but it backfired in a terrible way. I confessed a crush to a new neighbor via a couple notes on the doorstep of her apartment. I thought my childishly innocent poem would at worst be ignored with a little embarrassment and at best be an interesting way of introducing myself. My naivete boomeranged back to my doorstep a couple days later in the form of the Orem police department, interrogating me about 'some suspicious letters' someone had complained about to them. I was the hero of my own mind-movie but it was, sadly, all in my mind.