My bag, my self

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She’s ruddy and beautiful and tired and torn and we’ve been absolutely everywhere together.

Up and down, up and down, up and down the steps of two state capitols (and a few times, the national one). I clutched her to my side as I teetered into my new job in a big new city two winters ago, trying desperately not to look as overwhelmed as I felt. She knew, though. She could feel my trembling hands.

In high school, someone once said of my backpack, “You hang onto that thing like a shield.” And so it’s been with my first business girl bag, my sidekick and my shield for some of the most turbulent years of my life.

This bag has been by my side as much as my husband has the past few years.

She and I first got together at the start of a job I loved, and I proudly carried her all through that too-short time, stashing my victories and joys in her multitude of pockets. I clutched her through the long difficult months after my husband lost his job, making mine all the more important. She was my companion, my security as I plowed through the days at a new job that paid the bills in style but left me miserable. One particularly grueling day, I almost passed out with her on my arm, and the doctor told me I was carrying too heavy a load, I had to stop stuffing her to the seams. And she rode my shoulder, progressively lighter, the whole time I was pregnant with Banana.

For months I’ve known that her rippity seams were too far gone to fix. But I resisted, brushing away the loose strings and using the zippers that still worked, telling myself it didn’t matter that I was headed back into the world of meetings and conference tables armed with a bag that Goodwill would reject.

She’s a tangible tie to a life that I loved so much. And giving up this bag feels like an admission that that life is gone, when I still haven’t quite figured out the new one.

I quietly looked for weeks. I hemmed and hawed over color, style, whether to charge it to my work account or pull out my own debit card. Not that any of those things really mattered, at least not nearly as much as I made them out to matter. It was a ruse, an old procrastinator’s trick to put off letting go.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I was in Target and something bright caught my eye. The bag was biggish and boxy, red like her but a brighter, cherry lollipop shade. This one I tested on my shoulder. It felt different. But it felt good.

New bag sat around my house for a week, winking at me with her cherry skin while I continued to haul Old Faithful. Then one day I grabbed them both, walking to work with a bag on each shoulder. And while a webinar droned in the background that day, I moved the files and the cards and the makeup and the notes-to-self out of my loyal old leather shell and into her perky replacement.

That evening, I carried my empty old bag inside the new one as I headed for the train. Music was drifting over the still-bright evening air as the cherry bag and I added ourselves to the swirling mix of people on the sidewalk.

It’s only a few steps to the station. Right before I ducked inside, a man sitting on the corner with a can full of change smiled at me and said, “I sure do hope you figure out where you’re going soon.”

Maybe he was talking about the train. Maybe he wasn’t talking to me at all. But I smiled back at him. I sure do hope I figure it out soon, too. It feels like I’m getting a little closer.

 

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Diversify Your Worry Portfolio

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What if our finance guy takes “retirement” in Aruba Bernie Madoff style and leaves me and Mr. A eating cabbage and wearing shoeboxes in our grizzled old age?

What if a 3 a.m. trip over a catnip toy on the stairs sends Banana and me tumbling to our parchment floor doom?

What if my entire freaking world falls apart and I CANNOT FIX IT???

The laid back happy go lucky types I know respond, don’t worry about it! Leaving me, of course, worrying about worrying about it.

Like many paranoid overthinkers I do have some very consistent themes going – an avalanche of financial ruin and physical doom raining down on our little family, the constant Greek chorus of “you’re not worthy” that lives in my head, and bad things happening to animals (which I won’t even go into cause it upsets me so much).

But! Silver lining time! There’s a bunch of worry-worthy stuff out there that doesn’t phase me in the slightest. So to take a break from my usual loop of ruin-death-drama-destruction, I thought I’d spend a little time ruminating on those things that don’t freak me out. Things like…

Conspiracy Theories. These, ladies and gentlemen, are not merely a good thing, they’re a cornerstone of our democracy. If all the stories we heard about government were about actual government stuff, stuff like the revision of code 18.887(c)6987.a.1923….not even the most “engaged citizen” is going to pay any attention to that over a decent lineup of Buffy the Vampire Slayer reruns.
But think the NSA might’ve skimmed last night’s text to your better half asking him to pick up some peanut butter and K.Y. Jelly? Oh hail NO, not in my democracy! So what if most of it’s only true in Oliver Stone’s imagination? Without whiffs of conspiracy most of us would pay even less attention than we already do, and governments are like toddlers – they should not be left unsupervised. So do your patriotic duty and be a little paranoid already.

Having a Barbie body. Sure, I’m bipolar and codependent and obsessive compulsive and probably lots of other fun things found in the DSM-5. But anorexic? Bulimic? Body image dysmorphic…..which is psych talk for ‘screwed up in a bad way’? Nope. For whatever reason, the bad body gremlins never got their teeth into my stretch-marked flesh.

On the contrary, I claim my blubby tummy as a mark of experience and character. “Experience” as in “traumatic childbirth” and “character” as in “yes, I know I look like I could eat a supermodel. And yet look at me rocking this bathing suit with Bond-girl confidence! Go ahead and ask me where to buy doughnuts!”

The end of the world – Let’s think outside the box here. Why not see it as a big unifying event? Amigos, if it comes, it comes, and we’re all in this together!

Okay, that’s morbid, flippant, grossly insensitive and rather stupid. The thing is, the stuff I realize I can’t control is oddly relaxing for an obsessive perfectionist. And what’s more out of my control box than Armageddon?

On that strangely relaxing note….I actually feel better now. Namaste.

Sunscreen, Chlorine & Gold Trophy Glory

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All you need is a Speedo, a towel and a little pocket change for the snack bar. Bonus points if you can hold your breath for as long as it takes to frog kick 25 meters and not care that you have permanent prune fingers, but really those are just the ketchup on the hot dog. Welcome to any summer day of my childhood (and maybe yours?) – circa ages 6 to whenever we started having stuff to do that was more pressing than diving for pennies in the deep end.

Where I grew up, the neighborhood pool in summertime was as much a fact of life as school during the rest of the year. And even though the pool, like school, was sprinkled with adults who were allegedly in charge, the pool came with a freedom that brought a wholesome edginess to our days there.

Like if my teacher, Mrs. Fincher, told me to do three more math problems, I pretty much had to do them or get ready for a walk to the principal’s office. But if Brian, my swim coach, told me to do three more laps, I could tease him that I wasn’t going to do them. I could bargain that I was just too tired, that I couldn’t do it unless my mom got me a pepperoni roll. And then when his back was turned, I’d rip them off in what I thought must be record time, imagining him smiling and shaking his head indulgently in my wake. Ha, ha, Brian, we’re friends but you’re not the boss of me! 

Of course, unlike Mrs. Fincher, Brian was cute. Plus, he was in college and I got to call him “Brian”. How cool a seven-year-old am I? Did I mention I have an array of bathing suits like the Skittles candy rainbow? 

Over the years I racked up a wall full of participation trophies and ribbons and eventually that elusive prize known as the high point trophy. But more than the points or the wins or the racing itself, I loved giggling with the other kids on my relay team as we tattooed each other with markers. The warmth of a towel and my mom’s arms wrapping around me after a race, with the sugary tangle of a Rice Krispie treat soon to follow. Huddling under a blanket savoring the delicious chill while we waited out a thunderstorm.

On slow days, jumping over the lane lines pretending to be a mermaid, and retreating from the splashing above to the silent world of fleshy limbs and bright suits under the surface. It was a world whose privacy never failed to amaze me – a little biosphere of bubbles, just feet under everyone else’s nose.

By the end of elementary school that era had come to a close. There was suddenly more to do in the summertime than hang out at the pool all day, and even when I did get to the pool, the one-piece Speedos had been replaced by bikinis.

Luckily for me, a few years later someone saw me teaching my brother how to do a flip turn and decided I would be great as the new swim team coach. Brian had been gone for years by then, but I conjured up my memories for inspiration and got to enjoy it all again from the coach’s shoes (or bare feet, usually). I also quickly went back to one-pieces, since bikinis did not stand up to tugging little hands!

After a few years I moved on from that too, onto more serious summer jobs and then real jobs and grad school and moving and marriage. I went whole years without putting a toe into a swimming pool. But my water-loving heart never forgot all the fun of those summers that I permanently smelled like chemicals. And now that Banana’s here, and it’s summertime, I’m hoping the two of us are soon to open a new chapter of life in the water. Maybe even the three of us, if I can get my husband over his aversion to chlorinated public spaces. To be continued!

 

 

Mommy’s Dilemma

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To work or not to work? That’s the grizzly bear of a question that’s got its teeth dug into my brain.

Pros of not working: all day every day with Banana. Being the unquestioned chief architect of her childhood world of sunshine and magic. Escaping from a work culture that seems to draw people with the enthusiasm of unneutered puppies and the sanity of rabid muskrats.

Cons of not working: all day every day with Banana. Being the desperate struggling architect of her childhood world of coffee fumes and crankiness. Scrounging the couch cushions for change to pay our utility bill while dreaming of a nice night out at Wendy’s.

Which is why after hours (days, weeks, months) of soul-chewing internal debate, I went to my boss seeking the holy grail: working part-time. With health insurance. Holy socialism, Batman! What do i think this is….freaking Europe?

Geopolitical aside: did you know one hundred and seventy eight countries have paid maternity leave? Not including the U.S., because we aspire to be like wonderlands such as Papua New Guinea and Swaziland. Seriously, Congress, get on the reality train already.

Back to our story: I went to see my boss with my (Communist!) part-time plan. And…he agreed.

Now, I admit in the past we’ve had our differences. I even admit i’ve occasionally wanted to wallop him with a codfish. But at that moment, I was so relieved I could’ve kissed him. Or the codfish.

In my life, as in any life, there’s a lot that’s not easy. I landed in inpatient for a reason, people. But this is pretty freaking fabulous.

And instead of obsessing over all the icky sticky tangles i tend to tie myself in knots over, I’m trying to focus on what’s great. Like my amazing husband and our little firecracker of a daughter. And the fact that I get to try this experiment, working for a decent wage while keeping my main focus on us.

Grateful is the word of the day. I know I’m damn lucky to be able to do this – and that’s rather sad. Here’s deeply, sincerely hoping that by the time my kiddo and her peers are in working mom shoes, part-timing has become the norm – for everyone who wants it – rather than the lucky exception.

 

Hello Bipolar

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The week I became a mother, my brain crackled.

Being in my head was like being stuck in a race car zooming down the freeway. Everyone else was humming along in their lane while I squealed and zipped around them, occasionally thrilled but increasingly terrified of a crash.

Work. Work work workwork always work dear God work. The work that had been seeping everywhere taking over my life for months – I suddenly had all the answers. I’d do this and connect this and write that and call this person and meet with that person and…and…and…

And the baby. The baby, the baby, dear little baby. Had to hold the baby, see the baby, check the baby, check check the baby again. Must do everything, everything right for the baby or something terrible will happen.

And God. Suddenly I know – deeply know – Him, know and feel and am talking to a force whose existence has never been certain to me. God and I are suddenly so connected that in a moment of inspiration I think I must be a prophet.

And something in my rational brain comes to life, kicks back and tells me NO. That’s funny farm quality, looney tunes level thinking right there. You are not a prophet. Something is very wrong.

When my husband found me I was in the shower, talking to God in a humbler way. I couldn’t say the words out loud, so I lifted my hand and waved at him. That’s when my husband knew something was very wrong too.

Family drama and whispered discussions and rivers of text messages and panicked phone calls asking, begging for and demanding help. Finally it slows down. Finally it’s quiet. And I’m coming to on a couple of waiting room chairs under a hospital sheet, waking up from the first sleep I’ve had in a week. It’s Christmas Day in the psychiatric ward.

I’m bipolar. How are you?

I’m bipolar. I’m also a wife, a mother, a daughter and a friend. I’m a successful professional, a writer and athlete and Ivy League graduate. And I never, ever thought this would happen to me.

They say having a baby changes everything. And they probably didn’t even go to the psych ward!

But I did. And a lot of other people you know did too. And now I’m figuring out my world again, after so many of the things I thought I knew were flipped on their heads and smashed. Welcome to my blog.