Southern Vapors

Southern Vapors softcover book by Lynn Garson categorized under memoirs about mental illness.

Stranger than Fiction

This post is emmis, as they say in Yiddish. That means the absolute, unvarnished truth, the kind you can take to the bank. The word came to me from the fogbank of my youth, so I checked out the meaning here – I highly recommend a look if you have any curiosity about Yiddish expressions.

But I digress.

I often natter on about the overmedication of America, and the need for reflection and talk therapy instead of pills. I also natter on about how recovery is not a straight line. For me it has been sort of like this:

or, if I am feeling less positive, like this:

Recently two things were brought home to me yet again. One, how profoundly psychological my particular issues are, how fruitless it would be to try to medicate them away – like telling a teenager who has broken up with her first boyfriend to take an aspirin. The one does not in any way address the other.

The second thing that was brought home to me is that I can still fall far and hard and fast. I am in no way immune from the frantic, desperate emotions of my past. I may get a grip on my issues faster, and I may have more mental health to draw on to stabilize me, but I can still fall into the abyss.

Which I did two weeks ago. My mood had begun swinging suddenly and violently between being okay one minute and the next feeling a despair so profound that it seemed that I would never escape. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was going on. A friend suggested hormones, so I had my thyroid checked for the hundredth time. And for the hundredth time, it was stubbornly healthy (poo, poo, poo, as they also say in Yiddish). No easy fix there. At a certain point I threw all of my learning about myself out of the window and started researching new pysch drugs (which anyone who has read my stuff knows I don’t believe in for me). I left a message with the last meds doctor I had seen before I gave all that up, wanting to make an appointment to see if there was “anything new on the market.” (Ha! that tells you something right there.) Even my therapist, who knows my history of being resistant to medication, suggested trying the drug route to see if there was something out there for a quick boost. I think we were both shocked and worried that I had plummeted this far this fast. I would have killed right then and there for a drug, something to take me out of my misery. It is poetic justice that the meds doctor’s office never called me back. There is no help for me in that corner.

It’s a long way around to the punch line of this story, but it’s worth it. What was really happening is almost not credible, except that it’s the truth. Follow closely, because it’s a serpentine path from A to D. Pay attention to how many red flags I ignored along the way that were tipoffs that my thinking was out of whack in a way that would likely burn me. For my own edification, I have put an “F” after every flag that I now see in retrospect.

About four weeks ago, I came up with a plan to spend a week out of every quarter working in my law firm’s New York office. I have a big birthday coming up and I had been thinking about my life, about how much I miss the pace of a bigger city and big city “doings.” I had lived in New York for a year when I was younger, so it still seems a bit like home, plus I have plenty of friends and family there. I thought the notion of working there for a week was a great one – I wouldn’t have to take vacation time, I could go work in the Big City (visions in my head of Marlo Thomas in That Girl), and have fun and celebrate my birthday at the same time. I could fly up cheaply and rent a room on line, also fairly cheaply, and the time line was short enough not to be a big disruption in my routine (therapy, standing Trivia night, pet responsibilities, etc.). It seemed like a win win.

The firm was most gracious and after a few administrative emails back and forth, we got it all set up. I would have a desk and an assistant as needed, and access to a printer and copier. I was thrilled! I told some friends and they were all excited for me. I made plans with New York friends for the day and night of my birthday. I booked my ticket. I looked for rooms to rent (a fun way to find housing out of town; I used the website and loved it).

Then I hit a bump in the road. I didn’t notice it at first. I was a little worried to tell my mother about this plan (F). I knew instinctively that she wouldn’t much like it (F), that she would take it personally that I was not staying in town to celebrate a big birthday with her. But I mentioned it casually at dinner one night, and at least got over the hump of telling her. Her reaction was subdued (F), and she mentioned something about that being my birthday week. I justified myself (F) by explaining that the previous week was Labor Day and the next week I had a conflict. I was glad that she didn’t ask what the conflict was (a TV interview about Southern Vapors), since she would have disapproved (F).

I kept looking for rooms on airbnb and narrowed it down to a couple. I emailed the host of one asking a few questions, noting that this was all a little premature, as I wasn’t ready to rent yet. (F- there was no good reason not to go on and book it.) I noticed that I was dragging my feet a little, not calling any more friends or family in New York to tell them I was coming, not booking the room, not looking up events and activities that would be going on in the city during my stay (F). I noticed that for some reason, I wasn’t so excited about the trip any more, a trip that two weeks before had lit me up like a candle (F). I didn’t pay much attention to my curious resistance, because I had bigger things to think about. At this exact moment, I fell off the wagon into my eating addiction (F).

I talk about this occasionally on the Southern Vapors Facebook page, and the lack of response makes me wonder how many people really get it about an eating addiction. That it shares the qualities of the more well-known addictions, like drugs and alcohol, including the guilt, shame, pain, self-hatred and disgust that any addict inflicts upon him or herself. For anybody who doesn’t get that about food, just substitute “Scotch” or “Crack” when I say food, and you’ll get the idea.

This binge was textbook, in that like every other binge in my life, the more I ate, the worse I felt and the more I beat myself up. The more I beat myself up, the more I ate to comfort myself. Addiction is not called a cycle for nothing. I ate to excess except for the times when I didn’t eat at all, when from Monday morning until Thursday night for two weeks running, I had nothing but three low calorie protein shakes a day (except for the first day, when I only had two). The plan was to segue into a “diet” of some sort, only that didn’t happen. The segue was into uncontrolled and uncontrollable bingeing, but only at night. Daytime was controllable, but at night I would eat from the time I got home til the time I went to sleep. I was getting increasingly uncomfortable physically, and mentally it was killing me. I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to stop.

I wept during my appointments with my therapist. I called my friends and wept to them as well, responding to their concerned inquiries with an understated “I’m not doing very well.” (That’s my code for “pull out the stops, this ship is going down.”)

Everybody was sympathetic and checked in on me often and with great kindness. We all tried to puzzle it out. Was I in such a slump because my ex-mother-in-law was dying? We had been very close, and it did make me very sad when I thought about her impending loss. Was it because my youngest child had gone back to Virginia after staying with me for a month, and I missed her desperately? Of course I did, but to the point of self-destruction? Neither answer seemed quite right. After a couple of weeks of poking around, querying this and that, I casually pointed out to my therapist, “If I keep eating like this, I won’t be able to go to New York.” (FFF!)

She looked at me in amazement and said, “What on earth do you mean?” I said, “Well, I’ll be too fat to go,” as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. She pointed out to me that realistically, I was leaving in three weeks and it wasn’t enough time to gain but so much weight. It’s not like I would be unable to fit in the plane seat, or walk down the street, no matter how much I ate between now and then. So what was I really talking about?

She told me what she thought, which turned out to be exactly right. It was hard to credit it because the explanation seemed so far out, but it had the ring of truth the minute I heard it and the immediacy of my change from melt down mode back to stable lady lawyer was proof positive (hours, not days, as if a switch had been thrown).

Here’s the deal. My early environment, training and experience all have left me with a deeply held belief that I am caught in a Leviathan struggle with my mother, a competition that is as fundamental to my existence as breathing. I believe at a primal level that this competition will be, can be, survived by only one person. I believe with every fiber of my being that my mother will be that survivor each and every time, not me, not ever, not once. That always and forever, in any contest between us, she will be the winner. That in fact was how things worked out during my young years, which explains why I got stuck there for the next forty. Right here, right now, at age 59.999, in the Year of our Lord 2013, my trip to New York is a part of the contest. Who is fairer? Who more sophisticated? Who knows the latest happenings better? Who is smarter? Who is kinder? Who is clever enough to dream up a working trip to New York? Who is deserving enough to go there and experience what the city has to offer? These are all fields upon which my mother and I play, at least in my mind. (“Mirror, mirror on the wall…”) mirror mirrorIn fact, in my mind, every interaction we have is a field on which we compete. And on which I lose, either by combat, by acclamation, by default or by self-sabotage.

I had to lose this latest bout staged as a trip to New York like all the others. The question was how? By elimination, the answer was self-sabotage. My mother is almost 89 and doesn’t work; she clearly wasn’t haring off to New York by herself, so combat was out. No one else was saying that it should have been she not me to go, in fact everyone I told was really excited for me. Acclamation was out. She wasn’t going to win this one by default—I was the one going on the trip. So the only thing left to make my construct work was to take myself out of the game. Which I proceeded to do early, fast, and viciously, to the point that checking back into a mental hospital did not seem outside the realm of possibility. Food was the perfect vehicle for more reasons than I could count, principal among them that it is the precise point of intersection between my mother’s addictive behaviors and my own.

It is now four days after my revelatory experience. I won’t say that I’m back to 100%, because I am not. Understanding the problem is half the battle, but there is still the other half to fight. There is still the deconstruction of the myth that I am in an ongoing contest with my mother for my survival. I have believed that for far too long to let it go so fast. I do now see clearly that the fight is an old one and that on today’s battlefields I am fighting without an opponent, or at least one whose power has been vastly diminished. It’s like being triggered by a hologram, but triggered nonetheless.

To anyone who says, “Forget the past, why can’t you just move on?” I recommend this story. To anyone who says that medication should be the court of first resort, I say, “Not always.” To anyone who says that their recovery should be fast and linear, I wish you all the luck in the world. To anyone who would like to poke holes in this tale, I say that truth is far and away stranger than fiction. And to anyone who says that the mysteries and the revelations of this life are not worth it, I say that they are to me.

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