Here is my latest essay on Psych Central. It has a content warning for death and dying.
I knew a time when I didn’t consider turning a cartwheel a second thought – my arms outstretched my legs in a V and during those times falling wasn’t a concern. There was also climbing up on a horse and riding it as fast as it would carry me. I bent easily. I twisted with ease. Not so much grace, but flexibility. My body. My wonderful, beautiful, strong, capable, reliable body. Not everyone has a body that moves through the world without a struggle. I did, though, and now it is deteriorating.
My brother once said that Parkinson’s (which his partner has) is a series of letting go – saying good-bye to tasks and skills you once could perform easily and without effort. I am letting go. No cartwheels. No mindless walking where the tree trunks that have pushed up a concrete block in the sidewalk don’t make me slow down. I need a steady pace. No dashing from the shower without the fear of falling. No leaving puddles of water on the bathroom floor.
This body that for over thirty years was ready and waiting to bring a life into this world has even said enough to that as menopause begins to set in. There will be no children feeding on these breasts. No eggs. No build up of the uterine wall and then the shedding of that miraculous lining.
I grow older by the day. My body has become more fragile, less limber. I see some eighty-year-olds running marathons, that will not be me. For the past eight weeks, I have been bedridden because of an injury to my back and during that time I have dreamt of the lack of awareness I used to possess where my limbs and spine are concerned. I have drifted off to sleep imagining that I was floating in water, free from the aches and pains and weight of my out-of-shape body.
I’m not a person filled with jealousy. I rarely feel envy, but to watch the free-flowing movements of abled bodied twenty-year-olds brings a sting of missed opportunity and the lack of gratefulness and full appreciation of what this marvelous home I walk in could once do.
I know that aging brings with it pearls – treasures of a different kind: memories of how things used to be like life before the Internet, before cell phones, before selfies and if you are fortunate enough, age carries with it more wisdom and an eye and heart for what is truly beautiful.
As I let go of physical confidence and strenuous athletics, I keep my heart and mind open for the freedom to visit the past and soak up all that is precious there; grandparents who have passed on, friends who were taken much too young. I can entertain my young self and accept that she was right about some things, especially that the world is magic and she has mystical powers.
Okay, I know you have heard whispers that I write articles on things other than schizophrenia, and it is true. In fact, I am doing it more and more (although my new column on Drunken Boat will have to do with mental illness but in a totally exciting and unique way).
So, here is a light article on aging. I hope you will pop over and read it.
My dad turned eighty-years-old today. Just as I can’t believe I am fifty-years-old, I can’t believe my dad is eighty.
I’m so thankful that he is, though.
This post is for you, dad.
I remember you tucking me into bed at night. You listened to my prayers and read me my favorite books. Do you remember the book about the little princess and the boy who was blind? It was my favorite story. Somewhere in the stories, books, actions, our lifestyle, you impressed upon me a sense of justice. I like the world to be decent, kind and fair. I have a small town, blue collar sensibility even though I have spent years in college continuously increasing my education.
I learned the value of a dollar from you, and in this debt heavy society that was a gift you gave me that has kept me from purchases and tastes I couldn’t afford. Living within my means has freed me up to change jobs, move to different cities, and follow my dreams. I have never been a slave to credit card bills or loans.
I remember the science project you helped me with ( I probably got an A), and the handmade Halloween costumes, the sugar and butter sandwiches, peanut butter and mustard sandwiches, peanut butter and garlic salt sandwiches, and peanut butter and onion sandwiches. Some of those I still eat, and a good sandwich is still one of my favorite meals.
I remember the first year after your divorce on Valentine’s Day you sent me a music box shaped like an old phonograph player that played the song, “The Impossible Dream.”
So many things seemed impossible then. We didn’t know what the future would bring.
As a dad, you had three boys and me. I was the youngest and your one shot at raising a daughter. I have to admit I never felt like a princess, but I think that is a good thing – it kept me humble, simple and satisfied with the everyday.
We won’t get any recognition or win any awards for our roles as father or daughter, but I want you to know, you were always enough for me.
I wouldn’t be me without you. And the truth is, I’m happy, dad, I’m so damn happy.
This is a toast to life, both yours and mine! There is so much to celebrate.
We will eat cake the next time I see you!
Happy birthday, dad. I hope you get to blow out a few candles.
When I have a panic attack, I am terrified of dying. When I am having a good day and think about having a terminal illness, it doesn’t scare me. I like the good days. I don’t like to be fearful of the end of my life. If I have to be aware that my life is going to end one day, I don’t want to be terrified of how that is going to happen.
For the past twenty years, I have watched people from Mexico celebrate the Day of the Dead, and every time I see an altar, or a painted skull (I have one on my desk), I wish that we treated death more like our neighbors in Mexico. I want to be more like Mexicans and have a day to celebrate the dead, and keep them as a part of my life. A celebration of those who have gone before isn’t something I want to do alone I want to do it with others, as a part of a family or community.
I grow weary of living in a culture that worships youth, and where many elderly people are placed in homes away from their families. I know from personal experience that it isn’t easy or even safe, to always care for the elderly in your home, but many people are alone at the end of their lives, and that is tragic.
The first time someone I knew died, I was twelve or thirteen. Two boys, twins, from my hometown, (I had a crush on one of them) drowned underneath a waterfall near a lake outside of the town where I grew up.
Since that time, I have lost friends, a step brother, aunts, uncles, cousins, and my grandparents. Occasionally, I will write a story about one of them, and the process of putting a memory into words brings more memories of them back to me.
I love the young people in my life, and I know they have things to teach me, but so do the older people in my life. When I see older people, I know that someday, if I am fortunate enough to live a long life, I will be in their place. I may lose bits or pieces of my memory. I may completely lose my memory. I will be frail in comparison to my youth. I will have more doctor appointments and more medication. Of course, there are more and more stories of people living past one hundred who are still participating in a passion of some sort like music, or architecture, or other arts. Many people are living longer and healthier.
These are the thoughts I have on a Sunday morning in January. I am thinking of how I would like to celebrate those people who have died but are still a part of my life. I am also thinking about how we treat youth and age, and my mortality and the mortality of those I love.
It may seem like a weighty or depressing topic for the early morning, but it shouldn’t, and that’s the point – it happens to all of us and so many of the messages we receive from advertising is that it doesn’t have to. It does have to. It is a certainty; a certainty that we often hide.
I’m not hiding this morning, although I may be next week, and if I have a panic attack, I’ll be terrified of this very thing. I don’t want to be terrified. I want to celebrate and accept. Of course, I also hope to be writing my best stories at the age of one hundred.
At fifty-years-old I have daily aches and pains. My lower back hurts, my shoulder hurts, and I have things happening with my body that I wouldn’t discuss in public. Getting older is tough on the body, but for me, there is something else that is happening – I am more comfortable with myself. I thought that the comfort that I am experiencing was universal for women over fifty. But it isn’t because many of the women my age are now scheduling Botox injections, touching up every picture they post to social media and spending money and time on treatments, tucks, creams, clothing, diets, gyms, etc.
I can understand the desire to be healthy and I can understand the desire to look good, but does looking good have to mean a youthful appearance?
I haven’t lived a very healthy life. I smoked for over twenty years. I have battled depression and schizophrenia. There was a time when I drank to excess. There was a time when I used drugs. All of these things have left their imprint on my face. I have dips, cracks and crevasses that tell a story of a turbulent adolescence and young adult life.
Okay, so I don’t look thirty anymore. I don’t even look forty. It is possible that I look older than I am, but I am happy. In fact, I have never been happier with myself, husband, creative work, my whole life.
I don’t want to be the kind of person that acts like mental illness isn’t tough. It is tough, and not every day is a happy, shiny, positive-feeling-type day.
But when I look at the facts and my face, I can’t help but feel gratitude and a sense of celebration. I have lived to be fifty-years-old. I have been fortunate enough to be alive for a half of a century. I have never been a victim of famine or war. I have enough money to pay my bills. My husband has a job. We both have had the opportunity to go to school. I can sit at my computer (I have a computer!) every day and write, and that is what I love to do.
On the good days, I can see past my illness and my aging body to the far off horizon. On the good days, the landscape is large, and I can see that so many people in the world have more struggles than me. There are people who don’t know where they will get their next meal. There are places where bombs and terrorism are everyday occurrences. There are people living without medical treatment, people living in fear, desperation, and in the cold.
I don’t want to deny people the struggles of a mental illness, but I don’t want to go to a pity party either. Yes, I have social anxiety. Yes, I have panic attacks. Yes, I often suffer from paranoia. Yes, I frequently am bed ridden by fatigue. Yes, I am no longer young. Yes, I look like a middle-aged woman.
All I can say is that I am thankful I am a middle-aged woman because the alternative means I didn’t make it, and the reality is that I did make it. I made it to fifty, and if you don’t think that is beautiful, then you don’t see the battles and demons I had to fight.
Fifty is cause for celebration, not Photoshop. I’m so much more than the folds, wrinkles and the beginning of a double chin.
When things are going well, the last thing we want is a sudden change.
When I saw my psychiatrist last week my feet were both swollen particularly around the ankles. My psychiatrist recently checked my kidney and liver function so I wasn’t worried about that, but I was worried (I am a big worrier) about congestive heart failure. Because of other symptoms that were present, he felt pretty confident that hormones (changing hormones) were the cause.
We talked about menopause. I’m at that age. The idea of swollen ankles, hot flashes and moodiness do not seem too bad. What seems terrifying is the possibility that my medication will stop working which my doctor said is a possibility. We talked about the fact that many women with a mental illness have a very difficult time with this change in their lives.
The thought of losing the stability I fight for every day is so frightening to me. There are times when I can put the thought of psychosis out of my mind for days, or even weeks. Now, I think about what it would look like if my medication stopped working and I needed a psychiatric intervention.
I hope that sleep would go first, because that is a clear sign that my husband and I could deal with. I hope if something does happen it is the very slow unraveling of my thoughts like the way it happened the last time I became psychotic. Last time my thoughts became increasingly paranoid and delusional, and in some ways grandiose, over a year before I was actually suffering from the symptoms of a full blown psychotic episode.
I am terrified of it happening quickly like flipping a switch, the switch being the line between reality and psychosis. I struggle to be rational every single day, but if that switch gets flipped, I no longer have a choice. Fighting to stay rational is not an option once that happens. Psychosis is powerful and takes over every corner and level of the mind. I wouldn’t even know what a rational thought was or how to work my way toward one. Paranoia, delusions and grandiose thinking would be my reality while I was unable to reach the world of reality that most other people live in.
To be relatively rational, and have the fear of becoming completely irrational is like a bad dream, but one I know is possible, one I know I may have to live.
As I sit here, writing this, I think of the nightmare like existence of being psychotic. I do not want to go down that road. I do not want to be suicidal. I do not want to be lost inside my own mind. I do not want to run away from my life with my husband, because I no longer feel the love, the care, the trust of our marriage.
I do not want to think of the worst case scenario, but I have paranoid schizophrenia and not thinking of the worst possible outcome is not in my nature.
I am under a lot of stress. It has rarely, if ever, crossed my mind that my medications wouldn’t work. I must find a way to make each day during this transition as productive as possible considering my limitations. I want to squeeze the joy I get from writing out of each day. It is possible I will lose that ability to read and write again, and be left voiceless in the sea of other voiceless people. To be left without the ability to write, like I was for nearly twenty years, will be a loss I don’t think my soul could recover from.
I used to think that this illness had thrown some pretty dangerous things my way. I hoped the worst was over, but I guess vigilance is required at all times in this life, a life of broken mental health.