A post has been making the rounds, illuminating the fact that not everyone hears an inner monologue. It confirms what we already know: human beings are wildly neurodiverse. It brought about many interesting conversations about perception, including the topic of synesthesia. Here is an excerpt from my book which deals with my personal experience with Time-Space Synesthesia.
My best friend Janie and I used to sit in the canal at the bottom of my street and ponder the imponderables for hours on end. There were so many things in my experience that I wanted to capture with words. The way my memories seemed to be physically catalogued away, for instance. Did everyone see the past like that?
Janie tossed a rock into the slimy green water in the canal; it hit cement. Its ping reverberated up into the sky. A pair of startled blackbirds flitted from a nearby tree; the sound of their wings roused an unrelated image in my mind: bone dry laundry on a clothesline. We watched the birds disappear into the sea-blue California sky above us. I’d never see them again, yet I could see them again anytime I liked. A strange juxtaposition I wanted to explore with Janie.
But how would I explain it?
I thought hard and tumbled a perfectly tangible, sun-warmed rock in my hand. I contemplated the way the birds connected to that mental picture of laundry. I could see dry clothing hanging in our yard, the afternoon shadows cast upon the toys scattered across the patio. I could hear the shushing sound of thousands of bamboo leaves quaking in the gentle breeze.
Entire days and years of my life lived vibrantly in my mind like that, snipped up into little bits that could surface and fade again and again. My memory of the San Francisco of the 80s remained palpable; a mental diorama of smells and sounds, drab colors and boxy cars. The muni buses would drift around in my head, powered entirely by their web of synapses. Like the laundry, and the birds, and that day in the canal, I could see an imprint of my experiences––not unlike pictures projected upon a screen––wholly invisible to my eye, yet somehow visible to my mind.
But it was more than just pictures. Time itself seemed to somehow unfurl and occupy the space to the left of me, and it went everywhere with me: An invisible appendage. Any time I thought of a moment, or a day, or a period of my life, a section of time seemed to rise and glow on a screen in my head, and when it did, I had the overwhelming urge to place the memory in a chronological position. I wondered whether it looked like that to Janie, or whether her time-appendage was different.
“How do you see time?” I asked Janie.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“What do you see inside your head when you think about yesterday, or last week, or years ago? A calendar? A row of boxes?”
Janie appeared to think about my question, but after a long time, she simply said, “I don’t see anything.”
I didn’t know it then, but I was experiencing a form of synesthesia, a neurological circumstance that causes a person to perceive more than one sense simultaneously. I’d heard of people who could hear colors or taste sounds, but that was never my experience. What I was struggling to describe to Janie is sometimes called calendar synesthesia or time-space synesthesia. It was causing me to experience time as a spatial construct, and to recall three times as many details surrounding a memory as a non-synesthete.
Because of the synesthesia, I had always been unusually fixated on the past, especially sections that weren’t crystal clear. I couldn’t articulate it then, but I was instinctively driven to restore the missing facts of my early childhood so that my time-appendage would feel and appear complete.
So that I would feel complete.
Do you experience synesthesia? Join the conversation and leave a comment below!
I know for a fact that creative people are more prone to struggle with mental health issues, and I certainly do. I recall the earliest days of my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder vividly: The blinking, the counting, the fear of contamination, injury, death. Since then, I’ve come to intimately know these companions: depression, anxiety, OCD, and C-PTSD. I take medication, and I’ve been through very intensive therapy. I believe I’ve arrived at a place of clarity, strength, and resilience that is much more than I could have ever dreamed. Still, some days, there is a low-level hum of melancholy or doubt or worry or dread.
When my son was born, I decided that I would not go back to work as a Licensed Professional Counselor. It was not a difficult decision. Not a decision that took deliberation or soul searching. It was simple. And to be honest, I’ve never wanted to go back. It’s not that I don’t love helping people to heal; I know that’s a big part of my purpose on this earth. It’s that my primary calling is to create, and I need so much time and freedom for that.
Since my son was born in 2014, some things have happened. Two people I loved dearly died. One of them was a thirteen year old girl who was very much like a niece or little sister or soulmate of some kind. I was so stunned by her death and the realization that all of her future potential was just erased from the earth that I made a promise to her that I would bring forth all of the gifts I have within, for her. In those first months, I created and published an adult coloring book. Although I got on the bandwagon far too late for it to have been successful in a monetary sense, it made me realize that all of us are capable of DOING THE THING. There’s no magic knowledge or point of readiness that appears. Today is the day. You have no idea what you’re doing, and yet, you do it anyway.
And then, I decided to write my book. And I sat at my computer and I can scarcely remember that day, that blank document staring back at me, those first tentative words, or how the hell I found the determination to keep going.
It’s been almost 4 years since I started, and I have 307 pages and 87, 865 words written down. Some days it has flowed out of me. Some days it has been like “squeezing blood out of a turnip.” Some days it’s pleasurable, and some days stirring up the past is so painful I lay in bed for hours, unable to move. But I have to do it, so I’ve taken my time. Sometimes I spend 10 hours a day writing for days at a time. Sometimes I write once in an entire month. I have learned to follow my instincts.
The other thing about writing is that you cannot just regurgitate thoughts, feelings, memories onto paper and call it a book. That’s not how it works. I’ve been listening to The Manuscript Academy Podcast for about a year or two, and I remember one particular interview with an agent (whose name escapes me) who said sometimes, when she receives a query, she wonders: How long did you spend writing this? The implication being, of course, that a lot of people poop out a slew of words and think that’s enough.
It’s not. And that’s why it’s taken me so long.
It’s a turd at first, and you have to polish it. It’s painstaking and nasty. I have to take what I know and make it interesting AND palatable AND succinct AND AND AND. And hey, I’ve never written a book before this, and I don’t have any information that you don’t have. I’m a true “pantser.” (That’s what they call someone who doesn’t plot their writing, but instead flies by the seat of their pants).
So, sometimes it all feels too much. I have to ignore everything else to focus on one thing at a time, so sometimes that means I have a fresh-ass new chapter and a squalid house. Or my kid has eaten peanut butter and jelly for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Or sometimes I get so swept up in being my kid’s everything and all to the extent that my creative endeavors are like little cats out in the rain by the door, begging to come back in.
Of course, I would never wish for anything to be different. It’s all that I want, and I am fulfilled. But sometimes I feel like I’m doing several things poorly. Or sometimes one thing well, and everything else is in flames. And that’s when the ucky thoughts and feelings of sads and worries pop into my head and harass me.
Anyway, I woke up this morning feeling all of this, and I painted this card (pictured above) because I know it’s true that we’re all in the same boat, just doing our best. And someday, I’ll have a completed, published book.
I was born in 1981, and though fragments of the 80s had been vividly transmitted to my baby brain, my sense of it on the whole was faint, like the voice of a radio broadcaster in the next room. The main plot of the decade–both culturally and personally–were lost in a sea of conceptual superficiality: Life was made of Michael Jackson. Aquanet. Just Say No. Debbie Gibson’s Electric Youth. Reeboks. The simple dichotomies of grownups and kids, other people and me.
I can still feel myself standing in that decade; a dimly lit room. A pizza parlor arcade. The air was made of cigarette smoke, and all of the adults wore big glasses that made their eyes look microscopic as they looked down at me. Bicycles were the cars of children, and we all had license to go wherever, whenever, as long as we came back when the street lights flickered on. We stood in packs outside of drugstores, bubble-gum cigarettes dangling from our lips.
Then the 90s came, and as I went from single to double-digits in age, I began to actively take notice of things that made my family different from most. We were a trio of sisters being raised by our maternal grandmother, Nana, nary an invested parent in sight. I knew about mom’s alcoholism. I was told that she was away in rehab, getting better.
But the years rolled by, and mom didn’t return.
And eventually, I’d think to wonder why.
Those warm, blurry summer months nestled between the last day of grammar school and the first day of middle school were the last of their kind. The last of innumerable days spent with my big sister, Lupe (who we all called Lu), engaged in the kind of shenanigans unique to sisters, unique to the time before touch screens and the internet.
Lu was only a baby when I was born, so it didn’t take long before we grew to be the same size. Our Nana, Alberta, had an identical twin sister named May, and they had been knit so close that they claimed to feel each other’s pain and share the same thoughts. Nana did what came naturally to her and dressed Lu and me in matching outfits and gave us identical pageboy haircuts. Lu’s hair was a fine strawberry blond, mine thick and almost black. Like Nana and May, we too, had been knit close in that special way, our DNA a near-perfect mirror-image of one another.
What stands out most in my memories of those early years with Lu are the days upon days we spent happily wallowing together in a mud pit in the backyard. I can even recall a time when Lu and I tried to construct a diving board out of a broken door, my imagination still so grandiose that I visualized myself leaping off the edge, twirling and flipping through the air, disappearing head first into what, in reality, was a 12-inch puddle of mud.
There were entire days dedicated to trying to catch blackbirds under a box propped up with a stick, like something straight out of Looney Tunes. We balled up slices of white bread and hid them in the shadow of the box, beckoning a hungry bird to wander in. Lu and I would hide in a bush, holding a string tied to the stick, ready to yank.
There were the days when we skipped around the backyard, tearing all the petals off of Nana’s Tiffany Roses, enticed by their sickly-sweet scent. We tossed the petals into mixing bowls and empty jars and danced around them while chanting made-up spells. To us, the water that gurgled from the garden hose was a magical elixir with the power to transform those petals into potion and fine perfume.
There were the rainy days spent inside, listening to the children’s stories etched magically into a stack of shiny black records. We would memorize and sing songs, squatting together on the floor in our underwear, leaning against each other like two puppies from the same litter.
Of course, there had been squabbles, too. Jealous tirades when the other was given something different or better. Instances of throwing the other under the bus in times of social and familial trouble. Feuds about mutual friends and whose friend she was first. And by the summer of 1992, we were entering that canonical phase of sisterhood in which she became cool at an exponential rate and I, the little sister, became the thorn in her side.
Still, that final summer before middle school, there were many days spent together, planting giant balloons filled with water in the street in front of our house. When an unsuspecting car approached, we would scurry behind Nana’s Gardenia bush and peer through its leaves to try and catch a glimpse of the effect. The louder and more violent the explosion of water under the car’s wheels, the more maniacal our laughter.
That summer I turned eleven, and Lu turned twelve. Still little girls. Still sisters.
Neither of us knew that those days were fleeting, and what came next would split us apart.
Our mother, Debbie, and our much older sister, Tess, had each attended seventh and eighth grade at Parkway Junior High, in the 60s and 80s, respectively. Then, in 1992, sixth grade was moved from elementary to junior high, re-designating Parkway as a middle school. This meant that Lu would not get to enjoy her first year of middle school without her little sister in her shadow, a fact that was not by my doing, but which she blamed me for all the same.
Parkway was brand-new in 1961, but by 1992 it had fallen into disrepair. The outdoor corridors were drab, dilapidated scenes of concrete and steel surrounded by six-foot tall fences. A prickly sprawl of ice plant consumed the spaces in between buildings. Recreational time was spent wandering the massive, barren black-top, which turned out to be an ideal place for spontaneous fist fights and coordinated attacks alike.
It was the intersection of several factors that made Parkway what it was: The school itself lacked funding and classes were over-crowded, and the majority of students came from impoverished, vulnerable families. Lu and I fit the bill. Our mom had been in rehab for what felt like an eternity, and our dad, a hard-working immigrant from Michoacán, lived across town with his wife and their two sons.
While Nana did a bang-up job keeping us fed, clothed, and housed, she practically shooed us out the door during our waking hours. The negative effect of our parents’ absence was unquestionable. Without guidance, neither of us had ever performed well in school, and we became increasingly vulnerable to the sort of adults who preyed on unsupervised children.
For instance, years earlier, while Lu and I played in the front yard, a stranger approached us with a white bunny in a hat and asked us if we would like to come over to play with it. Without an inkling of distrust, Nana eagerly sent us to his house every afternoon for weeks on end, and eventually, he started showing us cartoon porn.
It’s hard to imagine, but in middle school, the stakes would be even higher.
In 1992, Parkway was the feeder school for several rival street gangs.
Lu eased comfortably into her own niche. She developed a tight friendship with two girls, Marnie and Corinna. Marnie was the little sister of a white nationalist, and Corinna was the daughter of a Hell’s Angel. They asked her to prove her loyalty to them by burning the back of her hand with a red-hot piece of metal, and she did.
Lu didn’t seem concerned about the consequences of her affiliations, but I was scared out of my wits, and I did what many kids in my shoes would have done: I tried to achieve invisibility by blending in.
I became a wannabe; Someone too chicken-shit to march to the beat of her own drum. Someone who would follow the majority, but only to the very edge of her cowardice. I worried that my unwillingness to go all the way would out me as–in the words of my peers, not mine–a pussy. I understood the consequences if I was found out: I would become the target of bullies, without any allies to come to my aid. But the consequences of claiming allegiance to a gang were scary, too: Kids with gang ties could, and did, get shot.
Which was worse?
Outwardly, I was just like any of the other girls affiliated with the Latinx dominated gangs. I adopted the Chola uniform: Starched Dickies, Nikes, gelled hair with two stiff curls hanging on either side of my face. But on the inside, I desperately wanted to be myself: A little girl who still played with dolls.
Early on, Lu tried to include me with her friends.
One afternoon, she let me in her room and she very pointedly instructed me not to knock down a textbook that was resting on the arm of a chair. Thinking that she was asserting dominance over me with a pointless command, I abruptly swatted the book to the floor, sending an enormous pile of weed (which I hadn’t noticed was laying on top of the book) to the floor. Naturally, after that, she saw me as a liability, best kept at arms-length.
For months, I watched from the sidelines as she and her friends got ready for concerts and parties, and while I knew the main reason I wasn’t going along was my own instinctual apprehension, I envied them. Loneliness was new to me, and I was so uncomfortable in it that I began to consider betraying my own instincts.
Eventually, Lu extended an olive branch. She and her friend Marnie invited me into her room to hang out. I watched as they smoked pot from the blue, three-foot bong.
Marnie blew out a puff of smoke and handed the bong to me, “Wanna try?”
I said, “Sure.”
Lu said, “Stand up.”
I stood up.
“Alright now, put your mouth in the top of the bong.”
I did what I was told.
Lu turned the spark wheel of a plastic lighter with her thumb several times until a flame appeared. She brought the flame toward the bowl that had been packed with sticky, stinky weed.
Marnie held her thumb over a hole in the bong and said, “Suck in until it’s full of smoke.” I did what she said and watched the translucent blue chamber fill with a thick cloud. Once the smoke reached the top, she let go and said, “Now breathe it all in.”
As if typecast as the adolescent known for reckless approval-seeking, I approached the situation without the restraint gained only from experience. I drew in three feet of THC in one fell swoop. In an instant I was overcome with a sensation reminiscent of brain freeze – except more like a too-big tickly cloud expanding in my brain cavity, paired with the sensation of crackling hot coal dust glittering throughout my mucous membranes. My lungs – in immediate protest – sent the smoke back out in a violent coughing fit. I coughed so hard and for so long that my oxygen-starved brain went offline for a few moments. When I logged back into consciousness, I found myself on the floor clutching a trash can in my hands, violently heaving my nothingness into its emptiness.
Once my lungs calmed down, I found myself ensconced in a delightfully dumb serenity. The tangible world was suddenly sprinkled with little fish-hooks of hilarious wonder, capturing my full attention for moments of complete eternity, trapping me in a pleasurable hall of mirrors in which all I could do was laugh with every nerve-ending at the gorgeous, otherworldly genius that possessed someone to invent corduroy, or chocolate chips, or paper.
The purpose of my writing is to provoke empathy, not sympathy. I don’t want pity. I don’t want worry. All I have ever asked for was understanding. And failing that, acceptance.
A friend of mine once had a cat named Peets–a beautiful sleek tabby cat the color of coffee beans with dark spots that made her look wild.
And she was.
When she was a kitten, her mother had carried her by the scruff of her neck to a hole, and inexplicably buried her alive. Not once, not twice, but three times before my friend stepped in and separated them forever.
Peets was never normal. She couldn’t be touched, held, looked at in the eye. She came and went as she pleased and only occasionally would she stand on her carers’ lap, expecting not to be touched, but to enjoy a few beats of closeness.
On her terms.
Through my acceptance of her distance, Peets grew to trust me. Eventually, she came to sit on my lap. Eventually, she did it often. Eventually she’d let me pet her gently, only a few strokes until her ears went back or her claws sank a millimeter into the meat of my thighs. I could almost hear her say, That’s enough.Just let me be near you.
I believe that Peets and I were kindred spirits. I understood that she’d been forever changed by her mother’s violation of their sacred bond. As had I.
But make no mistake: I know I’m not the only one like me. I’m not the only one who knows the vast wasteland of complete abandonment. The raw ache of being responsible for going on despite not being loved when I needed it the most. The terror of forging relationships when loss seems inevitable. I’m not the only one. Not by a wide margin.
Goodbye, Bill, read the post. My hand involuntarily clapped over my mouth, as if to hold onto the breath that would inevitably escape my lungs.
No. No, no, no. I thought. I frantically clicked over to his profile where the truth was confirmed. Bill had died.
It’s true what they say. We all take those we love for granted, to some extent. We know full well that those we love can be stricken down, leaving us to make peace with whatever regret lingers in their absence.
Did Bill know I loved him? Could I have helped him?
In the ebb of my pain, who could I call upon? Who did I trust? Who understood me, or at least, accepted me?
Bill was one of the only people who both understood and accepted me. Who had shown me through his actions over time that he could be trusted.
I felt a familiar numb withdrawal. Don’t lean in to the ones you love; you’ll only become vulnerable to the added hurt of their misunderstanding or outright rejection. Close yourself off until you have the strength to bravely face the world again.
In the months after Bill died, my friendship with my best friend flagged.
“I’m here for you. Talk to me,” she’d said.
“I can’t. I need to be alone.”
“Your situation isn’t unique, you know. You’re not the only one who goes through this. You’ve been so withdrawn lately, and it’s a lot to ask of me,” she said.
Those words signaled the end of a friendship that I cherished. A once-in-a-lifetime friendship that can never be duplicated.
I know it’s a lot to ask, to release your friend into the dark. To trust that she knows how to come back to the surface. But she didn’t understand that in her mantra of, “think positive; you attract whatever energy you’re putting into the world,” she was blaming me for my pain. Toxic positivity, it’s called. In one breath she was both asking me to be vulnerable, and rejecting my experience of pain.
And I knew then that she didn’t understand me. She didn’t even accept me.
I want to say that I cried when our friendship ended, but that would be a lie. I’ve grown to accept that I can be hard to love, and my ability to build lasting friendships was damaged in my early development. I’ve grown to love myself anyway, and I know that I’m worthy of being loved.
But I have an intrisic need–like Peets–to merely be accepted. Her survival depended on it. As does mine.
Worse than seeing my mother in the throes of a detox seizure or seeing her hauled away in handcuffs, was the realization that no one was coming.
What I mean to say is this:
Everyone, without exception, needs an unwavering source of nurturance and support in their infancy and childhood.
You learn your pain matters when a bonked head is kissed, when tears are met with comfort. Hunger, met with food. You learn that you matter when you are tucked in at night, read to, held. When you make a mistake and are met with gentle discipline and forgiveness. When you are helped in your learning.
Do we not take these things for granted, too? That everyone receives this type of guidance?
Oh, but not everyone does!
Some little children are left to wilt. Some little children have the life stamped out of them.
For a time, I thought that I would eventually be adopted. I thought I was waiting. I’d seen Annie, and All Dogs go to Heaven. I’d come to believe that I would eventually be scooped up by parents who loved me, that all would be set right.
But it’s wasn’t true. I never had parents who wanted me.
Nobody came. I went through infancy, childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood with nobody in my court. I had to forge my way through life with nothing but pure instinct and the hope that it would matter.
That I would matter.
I’ve been called resilient. Strong.
And I wear those words with pride.
But resilience and strength come at a price, don’t they?
I had to give up thinking that someone would help me. Love me.
Is it any surprise that the deepest part of my brain says NOPE! when someone says, “I’m here for you.”
I write this as a direct reflection of words that were spoken to me last Saturday, at a cousin’s wedding.
At the reception, one cousin (who is almost old enough to be my mother) approached me, and with tears in her eyes she said, “I want you to know that if you ever needed me, I would be on the next airplane. I will always be there for you.”
And even if I couldn’t feel it at the moment, I believe her.
Ten years ago, I met her (and scores of other cousins). I didn’t know any of them because they had been kept away. They knew about me, but because they didn’t have access to our family, they hadn’t known what was happening.
This was done intentionally.
Over the last ten years, I’ve worked very hard to let them in. To spend time with them. To kindle our relationships. I’ve come to know that they love me. I’ve come to believe that they would have helped me, had they known.
It is precious to be loved, even retroactively. This speaks volumes to the power of love and acceptance. It has the ability to heal even the deepest wounds.
If I had a dime for every time someone has said those words to me, I’d be able to fully fund time travel research, enabling me to go back and give a wet willy anyone who has said it.
Yeah, that’s what I’d do. Because what else would I change? I’ve seen Back to the Future, and I know better than to meddle with the past.
Furthermore, I challenge you to name one person who hasn’t been shaped or altered by what they’ve lived.
Today is September 18th, 2019. Right now my feet are propped up on the dining room table. A chorus of buzzing insects provide a peaceful backdrop of white noise through the open windows of the modest Duneland home that my family and I occupy. I want for nothing; there are four kinds of cheese in the fridge and I’m a little pudgy. I have a husband who makes me laugh and a son who gives me a reason to get up and wash my face in the morning. As if that weren’t enough, we have three cats, a dog, a third of an acre, running water, light, friends.
I’d be lying if I said I was happy all the time. Some days I’m so fraught with anxiety that I peel the skin off my face for comfort. Other days I’m so weighed down by sorrow that all I can manage is to cart my son to and from school, and if I’m lucky, I might wash a fork or two. But one thing I owe entirely to my past is my contentedness.
I want for nothing.
I not only accept my circumstances, but I appreciate them.
I’ve got it good.
I wouldn’t be this way without the vastly different circumstances of my past. My mom once ran over someone with her car while I was in the back seat. That was a bad day, but one among too many to count.
How can I possibly be discontented in a present moment that contains no such thing? The present is peace, and I know that precisely because of the past.
The past does define me.
The other side of the coin is far less heartwarming.
The perpetual reminders of what was lost. The innocent strangers who unwittingly touch that sore wound. Sometimes, I wince.
Do your parents live around here?
Long ago, I used to worry about the feelings of the asker. I learned to package the truth in a shiny box with a bow. Then there were the times when I angrily spit the truth out like something with a bad taste. You asked for it, I’d think to myself. Most of the time these days, I tread carefully into the truth, in such a way that the asker is off the hook as it comes to my feelings, Oh, I don’t have parents, but it’s cool. I’m fine. Everything’s fine.
Depending on the person, though, they may see my honesty as an invitation to a depth of connection many of us yearn for.
My parents lost custody of me as a kid. My mom passed away; my dad is not in my life.
So many times my honesty has opened up a rich connection with another human, and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Why does it matter anymore? I’m thirty-eight, for God’s sake. I’m a mom myself. Most of what I’m talking about happened when Ronald Reagan was president. IRRELEVANT!
But let me tell you why it matters.
Just last year I was at the 50th anniversary brunch for my Aunt Rose and Uncle Jim, and I casually asked an older woman next to me how many children she had. The light in her eyes changed for a fraction of a second, indicating an all-too-familiar internal crisis: Do I tell the truth?
She could have said, “I have four children,” and left it at that.
But she didn’t. She said, “I have four children, but one died in childhood.”
Oh, what profound vulnerability, right there as we leaned over our dessert. She had essentially just handed me a treasure, and I knew to treat it with great honor.
“What is his name?” I asked.
Her eyes lit up. “Samuel,” she said.
No matter how much time passed, it mattered that she had the opportunity to talk about him. It allowed her to remember him; to give him a place in her present moment. Because the truth is: He will always be there with her, everywhere she goes.
He is not her past. He is her present.
I am not comparing the loss of a child to the loss of one’s parents in childhood. They’re apples and oranges, and I’m not stupid. But two things in our experience are exactly the same:
I’ve lived through something traumatic that, although not uncommon, is not typical.
I’ll never have the luxury of escaping the truth of my trauma as long as I intend to leave my house and talk to people.
Having to face my grief and trauma in casual conversation has given me the gift of grace and a depth of understanding that does define me. Full stop.
My grandma grew up with a dozen siblings in a house on Munich Street in San Francisco’s Excelsior District. She was nineteen years old the day that the Golden Gate Bridge first opened. I like imagining her with her slender, stockinged legs and impossibly high heels waltzing happily across the bridge with her friends. I can see the lot of them in my mind: Their hair coiled perfectly like pin-up girls; their youthful red smiles.
Thirty years later, Mom was a seventeen year old girl during the Summer of Love. I imagine her sitting barefoot on Golden Gate Park’s Hippie Hill, music and smoke rising in defiance. The pots of peyote cacti that she sneaked into grandma’s garden would continue to grow inconspicuously on our patio throughout the 80s. I’m told by her former friend, Lonny, that she once “installed” some of said peyote in grandma’s coffee pot, and “the best day they ever had together” ensued.
That I would continue on as our family’s third generation in San Francisco seemed to have already been written in ink. I spent my own youth skateboarding along the Embarcadero when I should have been in school. I can see myself vividly, walking around with a group of friends in the Penny Arcade at Musee Mechanique, under the Cliffhouse. Decades later I still have my fortune, written out on a tiny card by a machine called The Magic Ray. It says:
Leaving California would not occur to me until much later.
By the time I was born, what was left of my family (grandma, mom, and sisters) was actively falling apart. Mom evolved into a violent alcoholic, and grandma was always her chief enabler. Our family’s never-ending drama reached its pinnacle when mom died prematurely at the age of forty-five, a direct consequence of her hard-and-fast lifestyle.
After mom died, only distrust grew between the rest of us. We became solitary characters in our shared narrative of unresolved trauma and suppressed grief. Each of us coped by instinct; clinging to whatever resources we’d been left with. Alcohol and drugs numbed the pain for each of us to differing extents, but eventually I chose to lean into my inborn sense of creativity. I’d always had a passion for drawing and painting, and though I didn’t realize it yet, these activities would have the potential to plant the seeds for the skills I would need carry me to through my pain.
All I knew for sure was that if I were to survive, I would have to amputate myself from my family. I knew that if I stayed, I’d never be anything more than their scapegoat, and that would be my own fault and no one else’s.
At first, I found a live/work opportunity 60 miles north of my childhood home in a dense redwood forest. I lived in a little army-green house called Tek Moira, along with a motley crew of other young adults. We all worked for a youth outdoor education program called Caritas Creek, and Tek Moira was one of several homes designated as employee housing. Each house had a name: The Vatican, Greyhouse, Castlewood.
My personal space at Tek consisted of the bottom bunk in a room with three walls of floor-to-ceiling windows. It remains one of the most beautiful places I’ve lived. The stillness I felt in that space was profound–it seemed to open up a portal to a new kind of creative expression that I hadn’t yet tapped into. It was in that forest room that I completed some of my earliest oil paintings; a triptych of myself, my mother, and my grandmother. I was unconsciously exploring what bound us together, and what made us different.
I look back at that time of my life and I realize that I was something of a refugee. I was safe, and my basic needs were being met, but the only life skills I’d mastered were how to survive, and how to make art. I didn’t even know how to express my most basic emotions.
My bunk-mate was a girl named Lisa, a kind-eyed yogini with a sharp aggressive streak (owed to her New Jersey upbringing). We were forever arguing about where our things belonged, and while I would say she was aggressive-aggressive, I admit that I incited her with my acts of passive-aggression. I seem to recall an incident in which, while organizing our room, I placed her shoes on her pillow and hid her accordion file folder in the basement. I vividly remember her seething contempt and the way she said, “You put my file folder in the basement?”
I could almost hear what she wanted to say but didn’t, “How dare you!”
I wasn’t used to someone coming right out and naming the unfairness of my behavior, and she wasn’t used to having to share her space with someone. Yet somehow–perhaps through our mutual desire to create a sense of peace around us–we explored the art of apology together. More than our arguments, I remember our earnest attempts to make amends, to hear each other out, and to do right by one another going forward. For me, it was the very first relationship I had that based on a mutual desire for reciprocal respect. Though we argued frequently, we became dear friends.
It was through my conversations with Lisa that I started to consider my future. She’d gone to college and obtained a degree in education, and now she was pursuing her yoga instructor certificate (and would later open her own yoga studio). I’d long concluded that a college education was not for people like me: Poor, without parents or a supportive family, not that bright. After all, I’d been a D student in high school. I had serious doubts that I could live up to the rigor of a traditional college class.
But after staring at my triptych for a while, Lisa said, “You should get a degree in Art Therapy.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
She walked me over to the computer. It was 2002, and the internet was not what it is today. I had very little experience with it beyond the AOL landing page with its flashing headline news and rudimentary email. She typed in Naropa University into the search engine, and a website popped up.
“Take a look at this,” she said, leaving the room.
I think I must have stared at Naropa’s website for an hour or two, and it was the first time I ever felt the desire for something so specific. It was obvious right away that Naropa was for people exactly like me: Sensitive, deep-thinking, creative. The school’s curriculum was touted as contemplative, a word I’d never heard, didn’t know how to pronounce, and didn’t fully understand beyond being an outgrowth of “contemplate.” I assumed it meant that a deep-thinker like me would be thoroughly engaged.
Images of students in their classes splashed before my eyes: Ikebana (traditional Japanese flower arranging), chinese calligraphy, thangka painting (traditional Tibetan Buddhist scroll painting), and various courses in poetry.
This is it, I thought. This is my college.
I was dismayed when I realized that the campus was more than a thousand miles away in Boulder, Colorado.
But I could move there, I thought.
Excitement stirred within me at the notion of picking up and moving to another state.
Just as I was imagining myself living in the snowy mountains and meeting new people, I discovered that the annual tuition was tens of thousands of dollars.
You think too much. You’re obsessive. You take everything way too seriously.
I can recall the first time I was made aware of the way my thoughts seemed to wind themselves–of their own volition–around me. A single thought could loop once, twice, dozens of times around me, until I was bound within it.
I was twelve, and my friend Jane asked, “Why do you constantly harp on things?”
Her words were a slap.
I harp on things? The thought hooked itself into the meat of my brain and began its familiar revolution.
How I harped on those words, how I begged Jane to explain. “What do you mean?”
She was angry; mean. “You just…obsess. Over everything.”
Worry wart, my family called me.
I can still feel the way the words what if pecked at my brain like a flock of red-winged black birds, the day I found a used condom on the playground. My curiosity and poor impulse control led me to poke it with a stick. The instant the stick touched that gooey blob of latex, my hand seemed to vibrate with contagion. I knew about AIDS. I knew how babies were made. But my child-brain did a funny thing. A series of uncontrolled thoughts emerged in my mind:
What if I get pregnant? What if I get AIDS? What if I’m going to die?
went home and confided in my grandmother about what happened. I told her about
“Did you touch it with your bare hand?” she
then, you’re fine.”
I didn’t feel fine. Those worries wound around and around me, and nothing would
stop them. Soon, I found myself blinking a specific number of times between the
change of minutes on a digital clock. Or challenging myself to put each item of
clothing on within fifteen seconds. Or avoiding touching certain things in the
house, because they were contaminated by some invisible thing that could kill
me. In my mind, the consequence of not doing these things would be the death of
me or someone I loved.
wasn’t until I was 26 years old and living in Chicago that I discovered the
root of those thoughts. In the fall of 2007, my thoughts took on a brand-new
form. Every time I drove over an especially deep pot hole, I thought, “What if
I just ran over a person?” I would drive around the block, sometimes multiple
times, looking for a person in the street. I would check my car for blood
spatter. Look beneath it.
or twice I even checked the news for stories about a hit and run.
course, a rational line of thought would go something like this: Don’t you think you’d see a person if you hit
them? Don’t you think bystanders would stop? Don’t you think you would be
tracked down? Wouldn’t there be blood? Wouldn’t your car be dented?
that, my brain would say, What if I didn’t
see them? What if I’m in the middle of a psychotic break and I couldn’t see the
person I ran over? What if the police are after me? What if I’m only imagining
that I don’t see blood or dents?
The thing other people cannot understand is that these are not like typical thoughts. They don’t rise and fall, they don’t respond to logic, they don’t leave room for other things, they can’t be willed or distracted away. I often describe the way the thoughts manifest inside my mind by using the example of a scene from the move, The Aviator.Leonardo DiCaprio plays the role of the American business magnate, Howard Hughes. The movie illustrates Hughes’ struggle with OCD, and in one memorable scene, he repeats, “Show me all the blue prints,” over and over. My thoughts are very much like that. They fire inside my head rapidly, back to back. There have been times when I’ve been so fatigued from obsessive thinking that my day-to-day functioning suffers until I withdraw from others.
In the Fall of 2007, no matter where I was or what I was doing, I worried whether I had killed someone with my car and was wanted by the authorities. I knew that it didn’t make sense, but the fear was real and unrelenting. Every rational thought was eclipsed by another what if.
weeks of feeling as if I were on the precipice of a psychotic break (and,
perhaps I was!), I met with a psychiatrist who diagnosed me with Obsessive
everyone appreciates labels but learning that I have OCD was one of the most
liberating moments of my life. I knew that what I was experiencing has a name,
it is common, I am not alone, and there is treatment. I started taking Sertraline right away, and for the
first time, I felt the way I imagined most other people do.
My obsessive thinking can be maladaptive, yes. Medication is not a cure-all, and when I’m under an unusual amount of stress, my brain will find something unhealthy to harp on.
even beyond OCD, my thought process is rigorous and strange, and it can lead me
to the unusual and delightful places that are directly responsible for the
things I create.
instance, just last week a friend brought me an injured kitten. He was a fuzzy
grey ball no bigger than a bolillo, and
the tip of his tiny nose had been shorn clean off. I took him to the
veterinarian where they weighed him (he was .8 lbs) and discovered that he was
full of maggots. The little bugger was sedated, cleaned out, stitched up, and
sent on his way with me until his adopter could pick him up the following day.
I had him with me for less than 24
hours, but I was impressed by his chutzpah
and will to live. It was as if he had no sense of the pain he should be in. He
was jolly. Ready for life.
His brief presence in my life
started up my rigorous and strange thinking.
I contemplated the circumstances of suffering.
His, and my own.
I thought about the fact that he had
possibly been thrown from the window of a car, or mowed over unintentionally by
a city worker cutting grass in the ditch he was found in. One possibility malevolent,
the other random.
I thought about the fact that my
parents hadn’t wanted me, that I became a burden. Not unlike the kitten, I was
cast away, helpless. In my helplessness, I was hurt both intentionally and
unintentionally. My nose wasn’t shorn off, but I have carried the invisible
wounds, the writhing maggots of Chronic PTSD. And yet, like the kitten, I have
a jolly way about me. A will to live.
I thought about the way pain gets transmitted,
and even after we have stopped the cycle, there are the types of pain we can’t stop
from being introduced into the world. The untimely death of a child. Cancer.
Spontaneous acts of violence.
I take responsibility for the multi-generational pain I’ve been charged with healing, but what about the pain of a kitten in a ditch? Someone said, “You should go look and see if there are more.” After considering that, I said, “Well, there are always more.” There are always kittens in a ditch. Even after every last one of us has healed our own pain, pain will find a way to start the cycle somewhere again.
I am not a religious person (though I do have a BA in Religious Studies from Naropa University), but while I was contemplating the very beginnings of suffering, the thought of Eden emerged in my mind.
All sexist connotations aside, the
concept of Original Sin finally made sense to me.
I wrote out a few lines of a poem:
Who should bear the weight of Nature’s cruelty?
Was it Eve’s originality that bungled Eden?
The pleasant stasis of Eden replaced by earthly disequilibrium.
The apple, destined to be Humankind’s hot potato.
The hunger born of its taste The mother of invention.
Did Eden, too, have Hops, Poppies, Sex Ready for the taking?
Our earthly desire to explore Conquer Make Destroy
Are they all just apple seeds?
Of course, I don’t believe in the
story of Eden as truth, but it is an interesting way of understanding the
nature of earthly experience. We have free will to interact with one another
and our flora and fauna, and because humans are all capable of Good and Evil,
there will always be the transmission of pain on earth. We can’t delete it from
Some might say it’s absurd that all of this was brought to the forefront of my consciousness by an .8-pound kitten.
But this is just how my brain works.
In my blog, I will share the products of my obsessive thoughts, both maladaptive and creative. I do hope you’ll interact with me.