Posts Tagged ‘personal’

Finding Zen

Two faces of Buddha.

This is going to get personal. Perhaps uncomfortably so. But this has been on my mind a lot recently. Bail out now if you must. I won’t judge you.

Last warning.

Okay.

One of my most dominant memories of my dad was how no matter how early I woke up, he was already there, sitting in the dining room in the dark. He was one of the first things I saw when I padded down the hallway towards the kitchen. Sometimes he’d have music playing quietly, and my morning would be set to a soundtrack of Vivaldi or Beethoven or Dave Brubeck Quartet. He would sit alone in the dining room, a cup of coffee in his favorite mug, stolen from a diner in Denver when he was much younger, maybe a Camel filter or two, which he stubbed out in this salmon colored motel-style melamine ashtray, or maybe the abalone shell he reserved for just such a purpose.

Dad liked silence–quiet time with his books, or sitting in the sun on the back porch.

I owe a lot of who am now to him. Until the last few years, I didn’t realize how much. While mom took a very active role in our lives, dad’s aloofness left a different fingerprint.

When I was in 8th grade, I started having pronounced problems with school. At the time, I think they were viewed as a problem with authority, which I know has been an issue for me time and again. But there was a certain self-destructiveness that I couldn’t understand. I failed assignments I was perfectly capable of doing. I just didn’t bother putting in the work.

It drove my 8th grade English teacher crazy.

CRAZY!

At one point, as I was in danger of failing the class (despite acing all the quarterly tests), she suggested in a parent teacher conference that maybe I had a learning disability. Dad was outraged and I remember him kind of exploding at her. But he was frustrated at me because we all knew I could do the work. I just wasn’t doing it. My parents even sent me to see a psychologist for two unfruitful sessions.

I didn’t know what to tell her. She didn’t know what to tell me. We were back at square one.

I failed 8th grade English.

It was devastating. I knew I let my parents down. But I didn’t know why I couldn’t just handle my shit. I felt broken. Useless. I wanted to die, but in saying so, in saying I wanted to kill myself because I was such a fuck-up, my kid brother started crying because he didn’t want anything to happen to me. That was a bit of a wake-up call.

I don’t know if I actually would have killed myself. I doubt I would have. But it was the first time I actually thought about it.

I was 14.

I failed 8th grade English the second time, too, for the record. I don’t know if it’s possible for a teen to have a nemesis, but that particular teacher has been one of only two that I every truly cultivated. By my senior year, I was in AP English, a class in which I did quite well.

But I never quite figured out what was WRONG with me.

Then my dad died eleven years ago, and with that came a certain kind of distance that my mom felt comfortable sharing things that had never been shared before.

One of these was that my dad had struggled with extreme depression for most of his life. He generally woke up in tears and needed an hour or two by himself in the dark, steeling himself to go out and face the world. Sadly, that information was kept secret, even from my brothers and I. When I finally found out, I was halfway through my 40’s. I’d known several people quite well who were being treated for severe depression, but hadn’t seen the symptoms in myself.

Of course, once I knew, my deep funks and long, dark tea-times of the soul started to make a lot of sense. Knowing I was predisposed to depression made it easier to deal with, made it easier to take preemptive self-care as needed.

A few weeks ago, I read something about how depression manifests in complicated ways. It isn’t just sitting in the dark being sad. It’s also a messy home, or failing at work that you’re 100% capable of doing.

Just like I had in 8th grade.

Apparently, my parents were looking out for what they thought of as warning signs for depression, and they didn’t realize there were a lot of signs they missed. If they had been upfront about the history of depression in the family, maybe those two sessions with the psychologist would have gone differently.

But they didn’t. I continued to fail and flounder and wonder why I was broken for decades.

Around the time my dad died, maybe a year or two later, my son started having severe problems in school. There was only so much I could do about it, as he lived with his mom half-way across the country at the time. I could tell that his mom was at her wit’s end because she turned to me to help find out what the problem was.

The thing was, I didn’t know what the problem was.

See, I still didn’t know about the depression. I didn’t know about the role it likely played in my academic dysfunction. So ultimately I ended up as frustrated as my dad did.

Looking back, all the signs were there.

I’m proud to say that my son pulled it together, despite the burden of our blood. He’s a brilliant young man with a bright future, a spirit for adventure, and a real talent in the kitchen. And he knows the pitfalls that we’re dealing with because we’ve discussed depression since then.

Depression was something people kept hidden in my dad’s time. It was viewed as a flaw of character, a sign of weakness. And that’s bullshit. Depression is just like every other mental illness: an illness. It can be managed. There is a wealth of resources that weren’t available three decades ago. Part of what really helps me, I’m discovering, is being honest and open about it. And I’ve got good people around who I can talk to. I’m doing well now.

Maybe not NOW, now. But I know this comes and goes. There are bad days, and for me at least they’re greatly out-numbered by the good ones.

And that’s enough.

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days...

This tree, visible from my window, had been daring me to photograph it for days…

I don’t think I’d be speaking out of turn by saying that everyone has fears, whether you’re able to articulate them or not. There’s nothing wrong with fear. In fact, there are some who consider a true lack of fear to be a neurological disorder.

The emotion, the reaction, is hardwired. It’s a survival tool from our earliest ancestors warning us when there might be danger.

And as a frequent horror writer, fear can be marketable. Just ask Stephen King.

Since I was nine, I’ve had a fear of ventriloquist dummies. The commercial for the movie Magic (1978) with Anthony Hopkins and Ann Margaret was the triggering factor there, though the seeds had been planted for a while. Now, no one I knew had a ventriloquist dummy. It was as rational as being afraid of zeppelins. But I still had stuffed animals at that age, and I began to distrust them as collaborators. I wasn’t afraid of the stuffed Smokey the Bear, mind you. But I couldn’t trust him. So they were all bundled up in black plastic garbage bags and moved into the basement.

My dad’s reaction was to tell me, “Well that’s just going to make them angry.”

That was very likely key in turning a silly, childish fear into a full-on phobia for a good portion of my life. But that was dad just being funny. I know how it goes. It’s kind of fun to scare your kids with things that you don’t think will stick. I know I did it to my own kids and I hope I didn’t do any lasting damage to their sleep schedules because of it.

But here’s the thing: I know the ventriloquist dummy thing is silly. I wouldn’t be comfortable around one in a dark room overnight, but I’m not really afraid of them anymore. My real, deeper fear is something else entirely. And by coincidence it also has it’s roots in something my dad said to me, though he wasn’t being funny at the time.

My paternal grandfather had Parkinson’s disease. I don’t remember a time when he didn’t have it. He depended on his wife to help with his medications, but when her Alzheimer’s became serious the family needed other options. That option was to pack up and sell their house and move them across state to live with my parents.

It was the first time I’d seen my grandfather in a few years, and it was the longest I had seen him since I was a baby. But living there with my parents, I was sometimes called on to take him to appointments. I loved my grandfather. He was always incredibly kind and a hell of a gin rummy player. He had a bushy gray mustache and a fondness for plaid shirts and suspenders. They lived close to the train tracks in Denver, so I could hear the train at night and remember that grandpa used to work the line when he was younger.

But I had a hard time dealing with him when he came to live with us.

He could barely speak. The Parkinson’s disease was so advanced that he just couldn’t form the words easily and eventually he kind of gave up trying.

My dad told me that grandpa was still sharp–still fully aware and smart as ever–but he was effectively locked inside his body.

My grandfather died a few years later. Shortly thereafter my dad started showing signs of Parkinson’s as well.

You might say it’s a family tradition.

So, let’s segue into the world of geek media, shall we? That seems like a nice, safe diversion! Surely nothing in, let’s say, MTV’s Teen Wolf could trigger a phobia, right? Not that sweet, goofy show about bare-chested young werewolf boys!

Enter the second half of Season 3, episodes 13 and 14. (If you care, there will be spoilers from this point on. But this season is over a year old so whatever.) Stiles, the goofy comic relief character, the normal human in the group whose primary contribution is that he drives a Jeep, has a baseball bat, and his dad’s the Sheriff, was part of a story arc that put him halfway between life and death. One of the consequences of this (for him) is an inability to know if he’s dreaming or not.

Now, usually this is an opportunity to do a lot of dream within a dream within a dream fake outs (and yes, they take that trope and run with it). But one of the elements of his dream-state is that he finds himself completely normal circumstances and be unable to read anything. The letters jumble up. Or move around. Or everyone uses sign language. Gotta give them props for originality. It’s the indicator to him that he’s dreaming.

Needless to say, Stiles is deeply emotionally fucked up by this situation.

And I’ve never seen anything on television that terrified me so deeply and so profoundly.

Fuck ventriloquist dummies. Fuck spiders or clowns or any external object that is typically a focus of fear. I mean, if you’re afraid of them, fine. To each their own. But your own brain betraying you? That’s scary.

I watched those episodes and remembered my grandfather, still sharp, still fully aware and smart as ever, but effectively locked inside his body. I remembered him spending the last several years of his life either trying desperately to communicate and being unable to do so effectively, or giving up on trying. It’s difficult for me to look back at that and not see him spending his last years in a prison of his own flesh, all the things he wanted to articulate but couldn’t locked up in there with him.

It’s the scariest thing I can imagine.

And all I can do is hope that I don’t follow in the family tradition.