Battles (Spoken Word, Words3)

She does better sleeping in the room across the hall. From there, she can use the old desktop computer to read the obituaries and scour the internet for breaking news until she gets too tired to keep her eyes open. I say scour loosely, of course. She can’t get very far with the parental controls. It drives her crazy, getting the message that a site has been blocked.

The computer is old, I tell her. Someone else put those rules on there and I can’t get them off. I’ll talk to someone about it soon, when we have more money to fix it. Mercifully, that explanation works every time. But it doesn’t stop chaos from chattering away through her brain. I keep an eye on her through the open door. Terrorist attacks, car crashes, and natural disasters fill monitor. I never fight with her about it.. The truth is, she probably won’t remember it by tomorrow, and chastising her may end with a door closing in my face.

I know from experience, that the anxiety will always find a new fixation, and we will start it all again anyway. As horrible as it sounds, she might as well fixate on a disaster that isn’t ripping apart her life so she doesn’t have to face her disease every waking moment.

She spends more time watching the computer screen than she does watching her soap opera, The Young and the Restless, which is on five times every week for one hour every day. A few months ago, I got my hands on some old recordings from the early 90s. Between the new episodes, I occasionally trick her into watching the reruns. Her eyes are glued to the characters, and it is the only time when she becomes distracted from all of the ways her brain is trying to suffocate her. These are the happiest moments, where the demons lurk in the shadows and wait their turn to play. Sometimes I like to picture this as my personal journey to Mordor. We go over the mountains of triumph and hold hands as we cross through the dark valleys in her memory together. While the disease erases precious things so often, like the memory of teaching me to read, or even the fact that I am her granddaughter, it hasn’t completely extinguished her fire.

On a better day, while she sipped on sweet tea in her rocker and watched a drama unfold before her on television, I suggested that Victor Newman should really end up with Jack Abbott. The writers had gone everywhere else. She whipped her head around at me, and her eyes were wide.

“Victor Newman does not go for both women and men. And if he does, then I’m getting to him before he spots your grandpa in heaven,” she quipped, moving one hand over her bouffant hairdo. “This is no competition for that shiny bald head.

That sent us both into fits of giggles that brought tears to our eyes. We settled down, and her eyes went back to the screen.

I’m not sure what is worse anymore: when she forgets, or when she remembers. A few moments after our laughter died down, she wondered aloud where he was—not Victor Newman, of course—my grandfather.

The tears came back behind my eyes, and I was relieved that she didn’t turn to look at me. I cleared my throat and did what I do best. I lied.

Gesturing towards the television in front of us as if to indicate time by her soap opera, I replied, “It’s the middle of the day, Gran. He’s at work.”

She nodded, moving her rocking chair slowly back and forth. Never mind that we were not in her house, or that it was dark outside, or that he had been dead for five years. In the ground before he knew that she would grieve him anew almost every day for the rest of her life. By the time the episode ended, she wanted to know where she was, and why she couldn’t go home.

“I know you don’t think I can take care of myself, but I can,” she said to me, as I escorted her down the hall. I turned on the light in her room.

“I know you can,” I replied. “But it’s too late to go home now. You may as well get some sleep, and we can talk about it tomorrow.”

She nodded and walked to her bed, found her housecoat and slipped her arms through it.

“I’m just going to check the news first. Can you help me get this thing on?”

I sighed, and shuffled to the computer on the desk in the corner. The next morning, she woke and cried softly through dawn like she always does. She pulls herself together before she leaves the bedroom for breakfast. I don’t ask her why she cries, or even acknowledge it. Gran presents herself with an air of dignity that is a last little grasp she has on the life she led before her memory began to fail her, and her anxiety moved in to consume the rest of her waking hours. She still combs her hair. She still brushes her teeth. When we go out, she takes two hours to dress for the occasion, even if it’s just to get her hair reset.

When my mother or uncle call, they never believe me when I ask how she’s doing. Which is fair, because I never tell the truth.

“She’s fine,” I say. “We’re okay.”

“Miranda,” my mother says slowly, “she’s only going to get worse. We need to get her set up in a nursing home. You can’t spend the best years of your life taking care of her.”

Of course, what neither of us say, but both of us understand, is that the odds are not in our favor. One day, this will be our mountain to climb too. And yet, beneath shattered debris of her past, my grandmother is alive and she’s fighting. If she only has one memory left before it ends, I want it to be of me fearless by her side, ready to carry the light when she no longer can.

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City Girls

Written for February Words3
Theme: “Love”

(Author’s Note: This piece began in response to a writing prompt at a conference I attended in January. The goal was to focus on a souvenir and form the story around it. I used an actual souvenir from a trip I took years ago and wove a short fictional story that may become a memory for a character in a sequel to The Huntsman. I’ve changed the title since I first read it in February.)

We were a little tipsy by the time we saw the sign for the record store. I can still remember your hand on my arm, guiding me to it through the crowded sidewalks. It was snowing that night in Boston, and we were a few blocks from our hotel.

Between the buzz of my anxiety just beneath the alcohol and the hum of the city around us, I could barely hear your insistence that this place looked like a sanctuary for punk rockers and anarchists. You, who wanted to buy your way into both worlds with your parents’ money. And me, who really just tagged along for free plane tickets and hotel rooms.

The cold pushed us down a stairwell and through the glass door to a bright, open room with white walls. The cashier barely glanced up at us over his rimmed glasses, and I marveled at the thought of him pushing his tiny frame against the wind to wherever he called home once his shift was over. He wore a blue plaid shirt and jeans, but I know you don’t remember. Irony was always lost on you unless it helped you in an argument.

My hands were shaking, but it wasn’t from the lingering cold in my bones. I could feel my stomach clenching in the new silence of the store. I felt around in my pocket for the little pink pill my doctor told me to take for my panic attacks, and when my fingers found it I remembered what the bottle said about mixing it with alcohol.

I weighed my options as you sifted through Iggy Pop and Gogol Bordello albums for the little piece of treasure you believed, with all your heart, had to exist beneath the city streets. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a table filled with books. For the first time on our week-long journey, I found something to distract me from making sure your needs were met. The pill fell back into my coat pocket.

I crossed the room, past photos of Prince and Johnny Cash that stared back at me with what could have been indignation. The table was small—no bigger than the nightstand in our hotel room. A giant book featuring a cover with a tattooed Marilyn Monroe was propped up on top. Various other titles were stacked together next to it. On the shelf beneath that one, local publications were strewn carelessly, almost covering a stack of tiny bright green pocket-sized books covered with illustrations of protestors.

I picked one up, and flipped through the pages enough to realize that it was not exactly a book, but a planner filled with quotes from people who had protested different forms of injustice throughout history. I was fascinated, and I felt a smile cover my face as I read through them. It was at this point that you realized I was not right behind you waiting to be lectured on the imposters of punk rock and the artists that mattered to the genre.

“Are you ready to go?” I heard you ask from over my shoulder. I turned sharply, book in hand, and saw that yours were empty.

“This place doesn’t have anything good,” you added, loud enough for the guy behind the counter to raise an eyebrow as he thumbed through a magazine. “Let’s go grab another beer.”

I looked at you then, sickly pale in the fluorescent light. Your blonde hair was sticking to the sides of your face. I couldn’t remember the last time I saw you completely sober.

“I’m just going to get this,” I said softly.

You took it from my hand and flipped through it before laughing and spitting out, “A planner? Really?”

I felt heat flood my face, and my stomach turned once more. I thought I was going to be sick. Closing my eyes, I inhaled deeply and took it back from you.

“I’ll be outside,” you said, pulling out your phone as you left to text someone more vibrant than me. Someone who needed less so they could be more for you. Someone who didn’t need some silly green planner to feel better about their free ticket to Boston.

Except it wasn’t actually free, was it?

After almost two years of watching you drown yourself in alcohol and self-medicating to the point of disaster, that trip to Boston was when we both realized that I was not capable of truly loving you, because you made me hate myself every time I tried.

I barely looked at the cashier when I bought that planner—just like you barely looked at me when I joined you on the sidewalk. We drank that night, and the next. On our last evening there, you roamed the city alone while I packed for the trip home. Somewhere between you falling off your barstool and stumbling to a taxi, I was making a list of all the things I needed to do to move out of our apartment when we got back.

I can’t remember much about Boston—all the streets rich with history, the tiny shops, or the people who lived there. What I remember instead is the chipped nail polish on your fingernails, and the way you painted on your face like a mask every time we left the hotel. I think of you only when I see lipstick stains on cigarette butts. In those moments, I realize you are still out there somewhere in search of the perfect record, the perfect girl, and the perfect distraction. Our ghosts, on the other hand, haunt those cobblestones with all the other memories of love and war.

Poetry: Sweet Sixteen

On moonlit back roads
a cigarette dances
between nervous lips;
the devil, she’s sure
wears a crooked smile.

She is nothing short of captivated
far too young to be out so late;
her fingerprints on a bag of shrooms,
time accelerates ninety miles an hour
to escape headlights she cannot see.
But blue eyes promise
they will not be caught,
two lanes turn to one, lines blur
the adrenaline is what keeps them high
the Main Street stoplight
flashes ahead
the smell of brake fluid
draws him back to her.

Just moments later
they pass a cop car
the speedometer
tells them they’re safe.
Back in town he swears
he will protect her
never let her go;
a few months later
blue eyes will vanish
leaving memories
tattoo souvenirs
a taste for vodka
and a broken heart
sixteen and too young
for all of these things
a cigarette between nervous lips
burning memories
and the smoke forgives
what she can’t forget.

 

Published in the Winter 2017 edition of Falling Star Magazine.

 

Stop Worrying

Two nights ago I experienced one of the worst panic attacks I’ve had in a long time.

I can usually anticipate their arrival. For at least an hour leading up to “the main event” I have that weird sinking feeling in my gut. It’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t felt it before. It starts out mild—like “I wonder if the yogurt I ate this morning was expired and if it’s going to make me sick.” Before long, the real worrying starts. “Did I leave the fan plugged in? What if it burns down the house?” Over the years, and through therapy, I’ve learned to curb this negative self-talk as soon as it starts. The shaking still comes, but I can usually breathe through it. If I focus, sometimes the panic episode doesn’t last longer than ten minutes.

But I didn’t know this one was coming.

I don’t remember feeling too anxious. Even after breaking off a key in a frequently-used drawer at work—my bosses weren’t upset, and we worked through it. I finished my shift at 9 pm, and was in my car driving home by 9:20. I turned on an audiobook, lost in the story, and suddenly felt my old friend wrap its hands around my heart and squeeze tight.

I started the breathing exercises immediately. Breathe in for six counts, hold for two, and breathe out for eight. After a few cycles, I’d feel the tension release for a few minutes, but it soon started over again. I had to pull over twice on my 45 minute drive home, and I probably should have pulled over more than that, but I didn’t want to be alone.

I texted my husband from a parking lot.

I’ve pulled off at a gas station for a moment. I’m feeling lightheaded and my pulse is up to 108. Not sure why. Just going to work with my breath. I love you.

I wondered if the gas station attendant would come out and tell me to leave. That thought just added fuel to the fire, so I pulled away.

My left side started to feel numb and tingly, which is a sign that things are getting out of control. At this point, in addition to counting out my breaths, I also had to convince myself that I was not having a heart attack.

When I finally made it home, I felt some of the fear of being alone dissipate. I convinced myself that maybe I was hungry, so I had leftovers and went straight to bed. There, my husband worked with me on my breathing and held me as I cried until I fell asleep.

That should have been the end of it.

But I woke again, less than an hour later, with my heart thumping fast and hard in my chest. I jumped up from the bed, practically gasping for air and went out to the living room to calm down. I took two Benadryl and was able to fall asleep again half an hour later, this time effectively ending the episode.

It lasted for a total of almost three hours.

Though I know people mean well when they suggest medication, meditation, or dietary changes to end this issue, after living with it for over a decade, I have found a specific combination of things that work for me (most of the time). It doesn’t include a prescription because every one that I have introduced has made things worse. So much so that I haven’t tried any for several years now.

A therapist that I visited for this problem once told me that the goal was not to stop panic attacks from happening, but to lessen their frequency and their duration. Sometimes, I go long enough in between the physical portion of anxiety that I forget what it’s like to live with it. When I do remember, I often don’t talk about it, because it’s embarrassing.

It’s not something people can see, so it’s hard for them to believe it’s real. “Just don’t worry so much,” other well-meaning folks say. As though it were that simple, to stop the fight or flight response by telling my heart not to worry. “We’re probably not going to pass out and die for no reason other than the chemical imbalance in our brain.”

Or reminding my lungs that there is enough room in them for air. We just have to breathe correctly without so much concentration and it will pass. “Just chill.”

And then there is the fear of someone believing you are incapable if they do understand that it is real. All of your accomplishments, your work ethic, and the passion you put into your work just disappear. They don’t matter in the face of the stigma that often accompanies mental illness. What no one seems to realize is that, after you’ve lived with it long enough, some people are able to work through the attack without letting anyone else know it’s happening. They go home exhausted, but no one is ever the wiser.

So it is a silent problem, and the most unfortunate part about this situation is that it shouldn’t have to be.

The more I talk about my own experiences, the more I meet people who share their own struggle with anxiety with me. Often in quiet rooms, hushed conversations, and behind closed doors.

“What can I do to fix it?”

“I didn’t want to tell anyone because I’m afraid they will think I’m crazy.”

Real people. Professional, strong, beautiful men and women who are terrified to admit their humanity for fear that it will set them back. As if the burden wasn’t heavy enough already.

So I’m sharing this on a larger scale, not because I want pity or advice, but instead because I want to strip my old friend, this terrible beast, of its power. I want other people to know they are not alone and that there are safe spaces out there to share these experiences. We are all human, and that means different things for everyone. It’s time to respect those differences, and be our best selves. It’s time to work together to defeat the monsters under our beds.

I’m ready. Are you?