Shoot the Left Ramp

In the summer of 1993, I practically OWNED the pinball game, Creature of the Black Lagoon, which was installed at the “little arcade” in my hometown of Cape May.

From 10-5, I’d be knee deep in Hello Kitty wares at my “main job” , and from 6-12  at my night job of dipping ice cream at an ice cream shack on the main drag. In the time between I could either return to my really crappy, but really huge apartment over a bakery on the pedestrian mall or I could hit the arcade. I had always been a bit of an arcade rat growing up, so I often chose the latter.

I ate a lot of peanut butter & banana sandwiches that summer, which I attribute to what became Pinball Savant Season. I’d play every second I could between jobs, fuming if someone else was on the machine. I’d grudging take another, and in my mind, lesser, machine, looking at my watch, trying to discern how many games I could fit in before I started portioning out soft serve WITH JIMMIES*.

When the summer ended, I moved to New Orleans with a guy I’d met  at the ice cream shack, strangely enough. But when I returned  next season, Creature From the Black Lagoon was gone. I was heartbroken.

The next summer saw me back in Hell Kitty, but instead of ice cream, I sold harem pants & Grateful Dead t-shirts at the hippie shop on the beach front in the evenings. Across from the “big arcade”. Where I met & fell in love with the “Star Trek: Next Generation” pinball machine. Oh Picard, you made my flippers twitch.

Up until recently, I hadn’t played much pinball or even given it a thought. Chris & I will seek out a machine if we’re up on the boardwalk, but I haven’t felt the burning desire to play. And then Chris discovered the Pinball Arcade download for the gaming system, which had all of our old favorites.

For the past week, in my free time (of which there’s very little), I’ve been playing. And holy cow it has been FUN. While I like my job and am excited about the volunteering I’ve been doing at my local animal shelter, and have been steadily selling those weird magnets I make, I feel like I haven’t been having much fun.

I can’t play for long stretches anymore, which is probably a good thing. My eyes start to tear & burn after about 15 minutes, and my hands & fingers don’t have the sustainable “flipper power” (or button mashing), but it is FUN. For 20 minutes at a clip.

Because of course I’ll still play, with burning, itchy eyes if I’ve got a good table going. Of course I will.

*sprinkles, jimmies. same same.

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I generally ignore Facebook’s automatic “memories” function, as it’s normally some status update that involves cats, coffee or something ridiculous about me personally.  Until today.

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Over coffee, I remarked to Chris “Hey, it was six years ago that I got out of the Behavioral Hospital”. Six years ago, feels like eons.

While I don’t think about it much at this juncture, I sometimes wonder about the people I encountered while inpatient. I’ve written about them, stayed in vague touch with two (greatly frowned upon for clear reasons, but common nonetheless).

One of the two didn’t make it. Two years ago, early one morning, while scrolling through my feeds, I was alarmed to discover fellow patient, Matt* (the Atlas Shrugged guy) had committed suicide. My stomach dropped into my shoes & I had the metallic taste of fear on my teeth.  Goddammit.

Not that Matt & I were close, not that we really kept in touch. But he was someone that I knew for a specific amount of time, in a specific amount of space**. And he didn’t make it. It broke my heart. It could have been me.

But it hasn’t been me, it’s not me today, and hopefully not tomorrow. Or the next day. Or the next week. And so on.  Six years out:  four years of regular, active therapy and two years of freewheelin’. I know my rough spots, have learned some important skills, faced some ugly truths, still keep on keeping on. Sometimes it’s a train wreck and difficult to not let the bad days multiply while I’m not paying attention. Because they will.  And they do.

There are many days where it feels like the only thing I can do is keep my head up. Usually it’s enough. I’ve gotta see where I’m going.

*Not his real name

**He used the phrase “Goat Prison” in reference to the hospital. It made me laugh, which is why I call this sub-category “Stories from Goat Prison”

 

 

 

 

Three Nanoseconds

When I first met Doug Letterman, it was my first day of junior high, 7th grade.  I don’t remember much, except he didn’t look like other teachers, with his hippie beard & baggy pants.

What I do remember, however, an algebra lesson early  in the year. Something about time & math. He crossed the room & flicked off the lights. A roomful of 12 years olds sat in semidarkness for a moment or two & he flicked them on again.

“Three nanoseconds”, he intoned. “It took three nanoseconds for the light to reach your eyes.”

Apparently it was the only thing I remembered, and I received a “D” for my efforts, which were poor.

Several years later, in my senior year, I was flailing  in my Algebra/Geometry/Trig class, and I turned to him for help. He’d moved to the high school a few years prior, and we’d struck up a pleasant, somewhat snarky, friendship.  He agreed to tutor me, get me over the Math Block. He still had that hippie beard & baggy pants, and I ribbed him about this one shirt he wore often, one I’d remembered from 7th grade. It had once been a black & white plaid, but had faded to a weird grey-green, threadbare. Every time he wore it, I made a smartass comment which he tolerated.

The day before I graduated (with a B in that math class), he gave me that shirt. I wore it for years, until it disappeared into the ether.

When I returned to Cape May after 10 years & started working at the shop, I was shocked & amazed & delighted to discover that the cool recycled metal fish we sold were his works. Whenever he popped in the store, it was always fun banter & laughter. Still, with the hippie beard & baggy pants, now with tales of VW Buses, retirement.

Watching him decline these past few years as he battled ALS made me acutely aware of time. I asked him questions about his life: about his time serving in Vietnam (for which he was a proud Veteran), about his creativity, about his life in general, about his thoughts on Game of Thrones. I wanted to know more about the man behind the beard & pants. I’m very lucky to have gleaned a few insights to a man I came to admire so much.

About two years ago, I asked him about the Nanoseconds Lesson. He chuckled & shifted in his wheelchair. “Well”, he said, “it would all depend upon the dimensions of the room. It’s funny you remember that”.

Three nanoseconds. The time it takes light to reach my eyes in the 7th grade math class, the time it takes to strike a friendship, the time it takes to let go.

Letterman

If you’d like to do something cool, please donate to Doug’s Walk to Defeat ALS page.

Extraordinary Machine

One of the mantras that I keep on mental speed dial is the fact that I’m not alone in my brand of crazy. When Jenny Lawson posted this yesterday about how mental illness has affected her & what she’s learned to help others, I figured I’d toss in my two cents. Because loneliness & feeling like you’re the only one can really put the thumb screws to you.  And me.

How Mental Illness Has Affected Me: I’ve been like this as far back as I can remember, cycles of years, a roller coaster. There are labels: Major Depressive Disorder, Chronic Anxiety, PTSD. Therapy, meds, a hospitalization or three, therapy. It affects every area of my life, every relationship that I have. Working in retail, I sometimes fight regularly to keep my head up and get on with it. More often than not, one issue will outweigh the others, like my recent bouts of crippling anxiety.

What I’ve Learned: While the past few years have been relatively even keeled (compared to the mid to late 00s), I know that I become suicidal every year, like clockwork, from the end of January to the beginning of April. As a result, I know how & when to ask for help. I know that my body lies, that my issues manifest themselves in my limbs, my stomach, my neck, in chronic infections that don’t clear up despite the antibiotics.

The biggest lesson I’ve learned, and just in the past few months, is that I have to try. To make a conscious effort despite what the choir of assholes in my head tell me, to prove them wrong with my actions. The world will continue to rotate on it’s axis despite the crushing feeling in my chest. The more I invest in myself, the more I take care of myself, the better I feel. Some days I do better than others.

I have to keep hope, even if it’s just a nearly invisible silk thread. If I have a really lousy day, when my head is all fucked up & I can’t seem to keep it together for one more goddamn minute, I know there’s tomorrow. If I can keep that hope, hang onto that silk thread, I can make it.

And maybe tomorrow won’t be as bad.

You are not alone, I promise. (I’m writing this for me, too)

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As the summer revs it’s engine in my seaside locale, I’m fraught with anxiety. It’s been a struggle, these past few weeks, with chronic anxiety issues.  With work becoming steadily busier, a change in our household schedule, a change in dietary habits & other regular life stuff, I’ve been a little squirrely.

The other night, for instance, I went out to see some live music for the first time in years. I went after work, tentative plans to meet acquaintances. I ignored the stomach acid sloshing around as I headed down to the restaurant, talking myself into doing something social.

I took the first seat I could find, which was unfortunately in front of a mirror. After I ordered a coke, I caught my reflection across the bar: slightly disheveled, ruddy from elevated blood pressure.  A full-on panic attack loomed.

Despite my best intentions of trying to power through it by ordering food & focusing on my friends who had now started to play, it was too late. My squid arrived, beautifully plated & crispy perfection. But vaguely threatening. I felt like I was on fire.

When the bartender passed my way, I stuttered for the check. There was already $20 clutched damply in my hand.

I lasted about 20 minutes, total. It was embarrassing. I was embarrassing. I failed.  That’s how I felt that night, anyway.  I know I didn’t really fail. I made an effort over just having an intention. And that’s ok.

Routine is a big part of what keeps me on an even keel, and our lives are all about creating new routines at the moment. It’s disorienting & scary & frustrating. I spend time consciously controlling my breathing, getting through the day 30 seconds at a time.

Everything will even out eventually, I know. Three weeks, a month from now, we’ll be heading into the Full Summer Swing, where days run into each other, and this rough spot will be an anecdote over breakfast.

What Matters

One day he grew up. I chalk it up to another milestone that I missed.

I saw a photo, and he was unrecognizable to me.  All of the oxygen left my body in one rush and that metallic taste crept into my mouth,  my stomach went sour. Who is that kid, and what makes him tick?

We have sporadic contact, mainly texting. I have no idea  what he’s about, what inspires him, what defeats him. If I think about it long enough, ten minutes or more, it becomes an endless source of angst. Given that it’s “birthday season”, and the “off season” in my seaside locale, I find myself in this place more often. There’s a fine line between being “interested” & a creeper. A very fine line, which I try to walk respectfully & carefully.

While fairly at peace with myself, at least with the version of myself that made this decision, I’m not yet at peace with the outcome that we may never have a relationship. But it’s a reality that I need to consider.

I am reliable in my efforts, every few months, open ended questions that don’t demand any taxing emotional thought. I divulge small, inconsequential bits of personal information if the exchange warrants. My therapist taught me well.

What adoption has taught me, over these nearly 17 years, is how to wait. How to be patient beyond all personal expectations & previous experience. How to really stretch & flex those emotional endurance muscles.  The trick is how to live, actually build a life, while waiting. And there’s no chapter in the Birthmother Handbook* on that topic.

*yeah, there’s no “Birthmother Handbook” either.

To Spite Your Face

“What you think about me is none of my business”

This was first said to me about fifteen years ago as a way to get the last word in a difficult exchange. And it worked. I was stumped for something further to add to an already awkward conversation. Because it essentially cut me off at the knees, I’ve been thinking about it. For fifteen years.

I think this is a fine, reassuring statement for a child or even a teenager. A more civilized version of “I don’t care what you think about me! NYAH NYAH!” I see & hear it everywhere now. Makes me cringe.

At what point as adults should we care about what others think of us? Because I certainly DO care what you think of me and it should be my business to build & maintain a reputation of sorts: in my relationships, in my marriage, with my family, at work and even online. I value my employer’s viewpoint in my skills and weak points. It pains me when I hurt someone’s feelings. If someone is upset with me, I want to know about it, so we can fix it. Or at least talk about it and attempt to come to a mutual understanding, even if it takes some time & distance.

That quote isn’t one of self-empowerment as I see & hear it used, but of dismissal. A verbal flip of the hand. And handily enough, it absolves the quoter from responsibility, as it’s now the recipient’s problem solely.

Is it just easier to say we don’t care? Even when we do? Especially when we do? Who does it serve?
I know, I know. You’re rubber and I’m glue.

Blessed Are the Ignorant

adoption tweet

 

I found this gem last evening. I get this guy’s point – He & his wife are looking to adopt. I find myself caught between being fundamentally appalled at his Neanderthal approach to finding an expectant mother considering adoption for her unborn baby and laughing my fool head off because of his language. Probably the latter.

I mean, it’s a shame that he & Allison can’t just go down to the cabbage patch & pick out a shiny new infant.

While God may have “called them to adoption”, he certainly didn’t bestow on them common sense or ethics. It’s not as if there’s a Birthmother Boulevard where an expectant mom is waiting on each corner, looking to “give up her baby”.

On the flip side, part of what I find so laughable is the complete lack of guile. He’s saying exactly what he wants. He doesn’t know any different. Because he doesn’t see “birthmothers” as people.

Vaya con Dios on your “journey”, mister.

Fissures

subtitle: “pre-birth matching”, “picking a family” & other subtleties with coercion in open adoption. I don’t pretend to have any answers or solutions. It’s simply an idea to consider.

It’s one of the benefits, they say. It’s one of the reasons many women, myself included, choose open adoption. You choose the family. And in doing so, while awkwardly wielding this Club of Choice & Capability, you’re unconsciously chipping away at your own sense of self.

When enough forms have been completed & a “reasonable” level of intent revealed, I got to The Books. The Books of Waiting Families. In earlier posts, I’ve made dating analogies about “picking a family” in 1997. Books full of profiles of Waiting Families (very rarely single folks, always 2 or more implying ‘family’) trying earnestly to be The One. I flipped through the books over a 2 week period.

“No, no, no, shudder, gah, maybe, no, no”

What I saw repeatedly over those two weeks were “families” who were better educated, had better jobs, nicer cars, their own home, money for vacations & ponies at their fourth birthday. Over & over & over & over. As I searched the books, sometimes arbitrarily (i.e. anyone with cutesy stationary was immediately discarded), I was reminded sneakily of what I didn’t have.

I’m wondering if “pre-birth matching”, this touted benefit to open adoption, is an emotional scam. It plays on the expectant mom’s shaky sense of self. For about five years after the Kid was born, I’d tell people (if asked) that “the Kid deserved someone better than me” or “deserved a better life”. And obviously a pony at his fourth birthday.* I had convinced myself that Betty & Barney were better because they had “more” , and must have their shit together because they passed their home study. So that’s official, right?

“Picking a family” reaches its emotional zenith at the First Meeting. Let the bonding begin! Become emotionally invested in these strangers because it’s one more reason to go through with it. Because of the intent, they’re expecting you (literally), think-how-disappointed-those-nice-people-will-be. That nice family. Maybe you start thinking of Impending Baby as “our” baby not “my”.  Say goodbye to a another little piece of your heart, babe.

You “pick them”. You become “their birthmother”. And you still have 10 weeks before your due date.

(Part One of multiple installments)

(*I know nothing of ponies at birthday parties; this is merely an example)

 

Digging Heels

I saw this post come through my Facebk feed a few times before I read it. Hooray! An article from The New Republic about open adoption which paints a more realistic view of “birthmotherhood”. But a few things made me cringe, and that was before I even read the comments.

The past decade has seen the rise of a broad and loose coalition of activists out to change the way adoption works in America. This coalition makes bedfellows of people who would ordinarily have nothing to do with each other: Mormon and fundamentalist women who feel they were pressured by their churches, progressives who believe adoption is a classist institution that takes the children of the young and poor and gives them to the wealthier and better-educated, and adoptive parents who have had traumatic experiences with corrupt adoption agencies.

I’m quoting the entire paragraph here to ensure my point is not made out of context. I believe adoption is very classist, but I don’t believe for a second that it’s solely marketed to the young & poor. I’m sure there are stats on this, but just ask my Jr High Math teacher: numbers just aren’t my thing. I know my experience. Most of my “birthmother friends” are white, middle to upper middle class, with families who would have been supportive (or come around to being supportive). Smart young women with uncertainty that is natural with any expectant mother, exacerbated by unpleasant & often temporary circumstances. With a volatile mix of personal doubt, work stress, financial troubles, family/religious/social/societal shame & growing a human being, there is a market for redemption. We’re told that we build families, but often at the expense of destroying our own.

While the ubiquity of open adoption—today 95 percent of all adoptions include some kind of contact between birthparents and children—is universally seen as a step forward, it can present its own challenges. Pregnant women, encouraged to choose and bond with an adoptive couple before the baby is born, often get the impression that they and the couple are going to be “kind of co-parents,” says Kathryn Joyce, the author of The Child Catchers, an expose on corruption in the adoption industry. But then, when the baby is born and relinquished, the couple closes ranks, wanting—understandably enough—to cocoon as a family. The birthmother is left feeling like, in Joyce’s words, “’you were all over me when I was pregnant, but now that you have the baby you don’t want anything to do with me.’”

Let me make this perfectly clear.  Perfectly clear. At no time, ever, before I had The Kid or after, did I believe I was or was going to be a “co-parent”. This statement infuriates me into next week, as it paints me (I can only speak for myself) like a dolt who doesn’t understand the finality of the Termination of Parental Rights. With that you invite the “that stupid woman wants it both ways! she’s not the Real Parent! the Real Parent is the one who is holding Junior’s head over the toilet at 3am! but she wants the ‘good parts’ of being a parent!“. The reality of that is ridiculous. I know who I am.

There has been a bit more progress on open adoption. Fewer than half of U.S. states regulate open adoption agreements. In the rest, openness depends on the whim of the adoptive parents, many of whom soon tire of feeling they’re sharing their child. In Mills’s case, a supposedly open adoption became “don’t call us, we’ll call you,” she says. Georgia enacted a law in May that makes open adoption contracts legally binding, meaning birthparents are guaranteed access to their children as often as their agreed-upon contracts specify. Utah passed a similar measure earlier this year, but only for children adopted from state custody.

This. Yes. But more work needs to be done. Open adoption needs to be legally binding. And you know what that amounts to in many, many cases? Pictures & a letter once a year. Once a year. How hard is it to keep that simple commitment once a year? We gave you our children, our babies, in an act of supreme trust because we believed at the core that you were better. All I ever wanted to know (at the basest level) was that The Kid was loved, having fun, growing into an exceptional human being. When I went for years without hearing a peep, it was devastating. It is unnatural to believe it would be otherwise. I’m his mother.

The only universal experience in this is loss. Each woman’s story is as different as their DNA, and there’s no right or wrong way to cut a path. Making an incredibly painful decision livable is not a time-based test. It’s about making it right for yourself in the end, however long and by whatever means.