I’m not sure what it is or what to call it where I’m going with it, but I think I’ve hit upon something. It’s unique and it’s mine and no one else is doing anything like it. I don’t need anyone else’s help to do it. I do it by myself. I don’t need fancy expensive equipment or software or know-how. I don’t need anyone else’s cooperation, such as meetings for rehearsals or setting up with anyone ahead of time. It’s all done by myself. So what would be a better niche for Julie Greene, who claims she can’t deal with humans anyway? When I was a composer, one of my main problems was dealing with the other musicians who were always not showing up when they said they were going to show up, or not playing the wrong notes, or losing their parts, or showing up late….You guys know the excuses people make. Or a rehearsal or performance was supposed to be tape-recorded, and the tape recording would mysteriously go awry and come out blank. For most of my life, I was a closet composer anyway cuz no one even wanted to play my pieces or look at them or cared that I wrote my own music. Jeepers. No wonder I didn’t stay a musician very long. Other people are too frustrating to deal with.
But with You-Tube, it’s all mine. It’s a performance medium and I can choose to perform a part that’s written medium, that is, my own writing that is written word-for-word, such as reading from This Hunger Is Secret, which I did the other day to promote my book. I can read all sorts of things and that’s like doing a public reading just for fun. I can improvise a piece like I did last night in “Main Street,” in keeping with the fact that it’s eating disorders awareness week. This is sort of a new medium for me and I like what I did. You’ll have to go see the piece and tell me what you think. I can do how-to and instructional pieces, such as my piece on how to put on and take off a dog sweater that I did here. I wonder if folks drop in out of cyberspace and find this useful. I’m planning to do a piece on feeling a bit more hopeful these days. And of course I made a You-Tube that simply told folks what was to come next, sort of a sneak preview.
I hope you all enjoy my You-Tubes. Have a nice day!
I got to feeling nostalgic, so I went through my files and found this paper I did at the end of my graduate studies. We call this a Process Paper. These vary considerably between students. Here’s what I came up with:
Flowers, Books, and the Making of a Dog Sweater:
My Life at Goddard College
Another vase of flowers awaited me as I returned to my apartment after the funeral. I didn’t know their names–I don’t bother learning the names of flowers–let it suffice that, for a change, they meant something to me. I unlocked my door, set the flowers on my table, and let my aging dog out of her crate. She peered at me sadly.
I had been brave. I had survived two wakes on Friday. Hundreds of people had shown up. I kept reasonably together at his funeral service. Yes, I nearly lost it when they put him in the ground and now I’m a damn widow–
I stopped. I told myself; don’t be so selfish. Think of the family. Think of your writing. At least you’ve got that much. And you have the dog.
A message on my machine. I would listen to it later. I stepped into my kitchen, and peeked into my refrigerator. Nothing good in there. In the bathroom, I ran the sink water and splashed cold water on my face. Oh god I look horrible….
August 19, 2003. The day my boyfriend, Joe died. Heart attack. I had seen him only an hour or so before he collapsed in his elevator. What would I do? Joe had been my constant companion, my only companion, for many years. We had done everything together, from coffee dates to baseball games to romantic dinners, and we’d seen each other through some hard times. You’d done things to make me mad before, Joe, but why’d you have to die on me? Why?
I returned to the living room, picked up the phone, then put it back down. I went through in my mind the things I had to do over the next few days. I had to go to UMass/Boston to register for my first graduate class: a poetry survey course taught by Lloyd Schwartz. It would keep me occupied until I was accepted into an MFA program. I had had my hopes set on eventually attending Goddard’s low-residency program in Vermont. But now, registering for just one poetry course–going into Boston by subway, and navigating a campus I barely knew–seemed impossible. If Joe had been alive, what would he have said? Would he have told me to give up? No. But I cannot do this thing. I am stuck in my tracks without you.
I sat at my table, eyeing the sports memorabilia that Joe and I had collected over the years: bobble-head dolls, mini-baseball bats, cards, and on the wall, a photo of him with my dog, Tiger. It was one of Joe’s dreams to catch a ball at a baseball game and give it to a child. He was a ferocious ice cream eater. We spent an occasional weekend during the summers at his family’s summer home at Humarock, a spit of land between Scituate and Marshfield, Massachusetts, one of the most peaceful places on earth. One phone message. I pressed PLAY. “Julie, this is Paul Selig, director of the MFA in creative writing program at Goddard College. I’m pleased to let you know that we’ve accepted you into the program, for the spring 2004 residency, which is in January. The admissions office will send you a letter in the mail in a few days, along with some information….”
I slumped on my couch. This couldn’t be true. A dream had become reality, a dream without Joe. The irony was too much to bear. I grabbed a Kleenex and sobbed.
The winter of 2004 proved to be one of the coldest on record, especially in Vermont, where temperatures reached under 25 below in the mornings. Being accustomed to Vermont winters–I had lived in Vermont for nine years once–I wasn’t fazed by the weather, but many Southerners at the residency were overwhelmed by the cold, and buildings at Goddard weren’t heated properly, either. One morning during the eight-day residency we were without power. Temps in the dorms dropped to the forties. I ventured to the “help desk” to assist by answering phones. People in charge considered evacuation of the campus, but fortunately, power returned at 7am. I jumped from my seat and screamed, “Yes!” with my fist in the air.
Joe was everywhere at the residency. I wanted so much to call him, to tell him of the beauty of the place, the long, blinding, white walk to the library–I nearly veered off the road and got lost in the woods–and the snow-topped trees. I wanted to tell him how annoyed I was that the place was not wheelchair accessible, that he would have had trouble navigating the narrow, gravel-covered paths if he were here. I told him these things in spirit, and was overwhelmed with grief.
I met Kenny, my advisor, who I found was also physically disabled, and I felt an immediate kinship with him. Advising group was lively, fast-paced, and challenging; the students were bright and on their toes. Kenny, always with a sense of humor, called me Gail by accident several times. From then on, I was known in advising group as “Not Gail.”
I wrote up a study plan and reading list, deciding to write about “madness, not what it is, but how it is expressed.” I was referring to my own disability, mental illness, which for now I kept tucked away, as it had not yet presented itself as a problem. Books to be annotated included Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground, Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, the complete stories of Flannery O’Connor, and twelve more texts. The plan for creative work was to write short stories and a novella, though what panned out was to become a novel. I began writing immediately. Joe, you are right here with me…see how excited I am!
Back home again, I immediately ran into snags with the reading list. I found One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez painfully tedious, and could not read another page past about one-third of the way through. I did, however, finish it, and wrote an annotation about Garcia Marquez’s marvelous invention of the “sleeping sickness” in which people forgot absolutely everything. I confessed to Kenny that I had skimmed portions of The Golden Notebook, and in my annotation clearly stated that I felt that the book was much longer than it needed to be. Kenny wrote: “I think you mistake length for what is organic and necessary,” to which I replied, “I feel the character centers her life too much on what happens in the bedroom…at her age she should know better….In the “Free Women” section it’s all expository dialogue and could contain more action.”
Finally, though, I found books that I liked, such as Jane Eyre and its complement, Wide Sargasso Sea by Jean Rhys. Regarding the Rhys, I wrote, “Antoinette is powerless because she is a woman, and has inherited madness from her parents. It is inevitable and necessary to the narrative that Antoinette should disappear. She makes sure she has literally and fatally disappeared for good. Considering this, Antoinette has finally claimed her right.” I wrote my first short critical paper about two pages of Jane Eyre, dissecting Bronte’s methods of building suspense.
I was so moved by Virginia Woolf’s depiction of the mad Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway that William Styron’s Darkness Visible, a brilliant work in its own right, was somewhat of a disappointment, and this subject I took on in my second short critical paper. One should “show, don’t tell,” I pointed out–the old adage that isn’t always a steadfast rule. Here, I brought in The Golden Notebook, stating that Anna Wulf’s lame descriptions of her “anxious tension that [she] could positively smell, like a fog of nervous exhaustion,” noting that here Lessing had said positively nothing. Yet I wasn’t taking into account the fact that Wulf was an unreliable narrator, that her account of mental turmoil didn’t have to be eloquent, much as Styron’s account was meant to be tamer, more methodical, and more instructional than the wild fancies of Septimus Smith. I did, in fact, use Styron’s work, and not Woolf’s, for my teaching practicum, when I wanted to show my students examples of descriptions of mental illness.
My creative thesis was moving along at a reasonable pace. I fashioned my main character, Irma, after my mother, who seems to have some form of ADHD. The novel takes place at Humarock, where, as it turned out, Irma, then a widow, was time-sharing a cottage on the beach with her daughter, Megan, who has anorexia. I started the piece in third person, and fluctuated between Irma’s and Megan’s point of view, but then Kenny suggested the switch to first person narration, which I tried and stuck with, though I wasn’t certain it was the best choice. My creative work was not at all integrated with what I was reading. This would not begin to happen until my third semester, which was then light years away. Nonetheless, my writing took off under Kenny’s tutelage; he was very, very quick to point out problems with the building of tension in narrative and the discrepancies in voice and point of view. Whatever questions he had in his responses, I had to answer in my next process letter, and correspondingly, had to make right in my work.
All along, I knew I wasn’t working up to my potential. I knew that without Joe’s encouragement, school was a shell I couldn’t crack, a world not my own. It wasn’t that I was uninterested or bored with school. I lacked motivation and perseverance, the two qualities that Joe admired me for the most when it came to academia. I passed the semester, but I didn’t think Kenny was particularly happy with my work.
One struggle I had during the semester was that my puppy, QB took up much of my time. He was a difficult puppy, and more than once I considered taking him to the behavioral veterinarian recommended by QB’s regular vet. But I held off. QB would improve, I reckoned, in time. Meanwhile, the heartache continued. I missed my old dog and I missed Joe: what would Joe say about QB? What would he recommend that I do?
Two days after mailing in my last packet, I was hospitalized in a local psychiatric ward. Enough was enough–the stress was too much, and my psychiatric disability was getting the better of me. I came to my second residency with a secret plan to beg Kenny to change my grade for the past semester to an “Unsuccessful Semester.” Failure.
But Kenny didn’t fail me, and proceeded to write up another difficult reading list for me: Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield, which would count as two annotations, since the book was so long, Grace Paley’s complete stories, stories by Anton Chekhov, Janet Frame’s An Angel at My Table, Harriet Doerr’s Stones for Ibarra, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes were Watching God, and others. I found the one teaching text, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, useful during my third semester when I finally wrote my long critical paper, and Kenneth Koch’s I Never Told Anybody: Teaching Poetry Writing to Old People was very helpful when I eventually did my teaching practicum, years later. And I found the old standard, Huckleberry Finn, to be an eye-opener when it came to inner dialogue, particularly when Huck wrestles with himself as to whether to turn Jim over to the authorities.
At my second residency, I was fortunate to have a wonderful roommate, Jennifer Rumford, who would subsequently become my mentor throughout my schooling. Although Jennifer was a semester behind me, she graduated before me, and guided me along the long road toward graduation, always supportive, always there for me.
During my second semester, I couldn’t pull together the required long critical paper, nor could I successfully plan a teaching practicum. Academically, things weren’t looking up for me, and in October, I was hospitalized again. The grief was too much to bear. I was able to get an extension on the semester.
I chose to attend the January residency, and was lucky enough to get permission to do so from Paul Selig. Unfortunately, I developed a bad cold while I was there. One night, while I was in the throes of a fever, Joe appeared to me in a dream: He was grinning. “You should see this place!” he said. “The food is great, and they have shows every night!”
I did finish up the semester, in March, by the deadline, but barely. One packet contained only four annotations and no creative work. Another packet contained creative work but no annotations. It was all I could muster. Kenny passed me. I don’t know why.
I spent the next year in and out of the hospital. The social worker and nurses there told me that I should give up hopes of ever returning to Goddard, and that I should attend a mental health day program, where I would attend “groups” all day long from 9:00 in the morning until 3:00 in the afternoon. I also enjoyed knitting, so they recommended a knitting club. These would provide the “structure,” the social worker said, that, according to her, Goddard did not provide for me, “and will give you something to do with your time.” I argued that though the program at Goddard did not have “classes,” it had provided “structure” and I was certainly busy with it. I became angry and despondent. There was one nurse who was on my side, but there was little she could do to change the status quo. “Just don’t give up hope,” she said. “I, for one, think you’ll make it back to school. Something has to give, somehow.”
I left the hospital feeling hopeless that I would ever improve, but something did change, suddenly and significantly. I was put on a new medication, Topamax, and that changed everything for me. I was able to write again and concentrate. I began a blog, and wrote regularly in it. I wrote furiously, and it became an outlet for creative expression for me. After the renovations were complete on the local library, I began studying there every day, writing in my blog, and gradually the quality of my writing improved. At last, I decided to take writing courses at the Boston Center for Adult Education, with writer Toni Amato, and finally, made the decision to return to Goddard at last. I had rediscovered myself as a writer, no longer writing fiction, but creative nonfiction as I was writing in my blog, and I took my writing very seriously.
It was then that I made the very difficult decision to abandon my first thesis, the novel, and go on with another thesis, a work of creative nonfiction. The novel was doomed to failure anyway. Why? It was because my character, Irma, was based on my mother, first of all–and secondly, it was because Joe was everywhere in my thesis. The story took place at Humarock, and Irma’s husband was dead, and his absence filled my pages like the grief I felt over losing Joe–and my father. I was not ready to write about Joe–yet.
My decision to change campuses came to me in a flash. I knew I needed a “geographical cure.” I needed a smaller situation, where I would know more people and not get lost in a crowd. At meals at the Plainfield campus, I had generally eaten alone. No one had bothered to sit with me. They all had their own friends and their own little cliques, sadly. And when I examined who was on the faculty at Port Townsend and saw the name Aimee Liu, I knew I had to make the change.
July, 1981. I was in the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester, Vermont, perusing the paperbacks, when one caught my eye. I liked the title: Solitaire. Didn’t that describe what I was doing with my life, playing against myself, constantly worrying about my weight, my body, restricting my food intake to the point of starvation? I glanced at my bony hands that shook as I held the book. “One young woman’s triumph over anorexia nervosa.” And what was that? Some kind of cancer? I opened the book to a random page: “Already I’m as thin as Twiggy. Kimmy’s mother is so concerned about my weight that she’s offered to send along an extra lunch to school each day for me. I graciously decline….I will eat nothing for dinner for a month….” I had to buy this book. And it was not from some therapist, nurse, or psychiatrist, but from Aimee’s book that I learned that I had anorexia. So when I saw the name Aimee Liu on the faculty at the Port Townsend campus, I took it as a sign of good fortune: I would switch campuses. And although I never worked with Aimee directly, I always felt a special connection with her. I felt as though she was looking out for me the whole time I was there.
I arranged with Paul Selig that I would come to Port Townsend as a G2, and subsequently complete four semesters, including a G5 semester, totaling six. And with two extra years in the middle (it would be two and a half including another semester I took off) my entire schooling took five and a half years instead of the expected two years, which isn’t bad considering it took me nearly three decades to finish my bachelor’s degree. I would attend a total of three residencies in Vermont and five residencies in Port Townsend, plus my graduation residency–nine in all.
Something tragic had happened, in the meanwhile, that would color my thinking every day of my life afterward: QB had become aggressive. After a lengthy ordeal and sessions with the behavioral vet, a Prozac trial, and biting incidents, I had to put him to sleep. I have thought of QB every day since.
Though I love airplane rides, it is traumatic to fly across the country to a different coast and a different time zone and climate. Though I came prepared with the right medications, clothing, school supplies, and books, I was still overwhelmed because I was in a new place, Fort Worden, and my mental illness flared up every time I came to the Port Townsend residencies. I found myself wishing that I could call Joe, and I imagined his gruff voice, reassuring me on my cell phone–but I was on my own now. Thankfully, I had wonderful roommates, and the general atmosphere around campus was caring and supportive. I was never completely alone at the residencies–there was always someone to help. At one residency, I was so doped up on one of my medications that I fell asleep in most of the classes, but thankfully people were understanding and kind, and somehow, I survived it all.
For my first two Port Townsend semesters I studied under the tutelage of Paisley Rekdal, who patiently guided me through the beginning stages of my new nonfiction thesis and some very interesting literature. It was serendipitous that I would start out with Lauren Slater’s Welcome to My Country, because this book formed the backbone of my study of literature for the four semesters I spent at Port Townsend. I identified strongly with the narrator, who had been a chronic mental patient and then had become a writer. Slater writes about her work as patient-turned-psychologist. Eventually she worked in the same hospital where she herself had been hospitalized. Later, in my G3 and G4 semesters (fall ’07 and spring-fall ’08) when I did my teaching practicum, I experienced first-hand what it was like to break out of the role of “patient” and become “staff,” as Slater had done. This book was also the case source for my long critical paper, “Traditional Narrative Structure in the Narrative and Non-Narrative Essay,” that I wrote during my G2 (spring ’07) semester. I made a vow to myself that after I graduated, I would write to Lauren Slater and thank her for writing this wonderful book, explaining its significance in my studies.
My creative thesis was underway. I started writing immediately at the residency, a piece about my very first admission to a hospital, a chapter which became the main story of my thesis. I later called it “A Forgotten Line,” because in the chapter I forgot lines from the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer that, as a Jew, I am not supposed to know, anyway. Because I was writing my creative thesis about my mental illness, I found Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression a particularly helpful book, because of Solomon’s lucid descriptions of his own and others’ depressions. I also attempted to write a story about my dog, QB. It would take three attempts to finally get this chapter right, but not for another year and a half. I read poetry by Anne Sexton and Robert Lowell, essays by John D’Agata, Joan Didion, Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, and Annie Dillard, and Temple Grandin’s Thinking in Pictures: and Other Reports from My Life With Autism. Susan Griffin’s What Her Body Thought: a Journey into the Shadows had particular influence on me both at the time and later on. I asked myself how Griffin could take two seemingly unrelated stories and weave them together, integrating them and finally bring both to a single climax at the end of the book. I wondered if I could possibly do something similar in my own work. I attempted this in miniature in my essay, “Pro Re Nata.” Later, I chopped up my thesis as a whole, and kept it that way, combining stories woven together to form a climax toward the end of the book. I knew I had always wanted to write like Susan Griffin; and there I was, living that dream.
My long critical paper, upon which I finally put the finishing touches in the beginning of the fall ’07 G3 semester, used Welcome to My Country and the essay “In Bed,” from Joan Didion’s The White Album. I wanted to show that the essay can have a climax, and can build in tension and in fact be built in traditional narrative structure. I framed my paper using John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction and Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing. Perhaps it was with a touch of sadness that I included Natalia Ginzburg’s essay “He and I,” about Ginzburg’s relationship with her beloved husband, which I had studied as an undergraduate at Emerson College while Joe was alive.
The other pieces I wrote that semester other than the beginning of “A Forgotten Line” include “Illness” (a piece I scrapped much later on); “Hunger,” a piece about hunger for love, God, and thinness; “At the Crossroads,” a piece about my attendance at a day treatment program; and “Pro Re Nata,” a piece about my stay at Metropolitan State Hospital and also about coping skills, which I reworked many times. Hunger has gone through countless overhauls until it arrived at its present condition. I also wrote a few short pieces about the drug Thorazine, that I did not use in the book. A portion of “At the Crossroads” was published later in Swamp Magazine.
Around the time of my fourth packet, I my mental illness surfaced for a brief time. I described the problem as “Evil Beings that lived in my head,” and the word “hospital” popped into my head–and my therapist’s head as well. But this difficulty passed, and I wrote in my process letter to Paisley: “It is incredibly difficult to write while my thoughts are totally scrambled. In a future creative bit, I’ll write some about what that’s like.”
During my G3 semester, I wrote three pieces that were of publishable quality but did not belong in my thesis, Paisley and I decided. These were “Lenses,” “Consumers,” and “It.” The latter was about Joe, and was a very private piece. “Consumers” was later published twice, in Pitkin Review and Breath and Shadow. Paisley asked me to consider seriously what my thesis was about, and decide what to write based on what was needed, so as to avoid writing unnecessary pieces (though they may be quality works). I agreed wholeheartedly that this was essential to my work, and that perhaps I should give my creative thesis a title, but I did not title my work until my G5 semester! I also wrote “Noid,” about paranoia, which I scrapped, because it wasn’t very good, and I wrote “Locker #47,” “Walking the Line,” “Kohlrabi,” and another unsuccessful attempt at the QB story. Kohlrabi was a two-page experimental story that was successful right away, to my good fortune. I did not have a complete draft of “Locker #47” until the end of my G4 semester; it is about my high school life. “Walking the Line” is an experimental piece about my illness later in life. The piece went through countless revisions and edits even after I finally had a draft at the beginning of my G4 semester.
During my G3 semester I read memoirs by Lauren Slater, St. Augustine, Nick Flynn, and Lawrence Sutin, poetry by C. D. Wright, and short stories by Amy Hempel. The high point of my reading for the semester was Michael Klein’s memoir Track Conditions, in which he described himself as a reckless man, doing things that could make him a very unlikable character–getting drunk, stealing a car, sleeping around–yet because of Klein’s love for horses and his general appeal as a character, I found myself rooting for him, wanting what he wanted, and even getting mad at him for making stupid mistakes. My dream was that someday readers would react similarly to my work, and get mad at me, too.
October 2007. _____Hospital, psychiatric day program, _________, Massachusetts. I stepped into “group” as “staff,” not as “patient,” for the first time. I wore a badge that had my name and photo on it and the word “volunteer.” I was dressed up sort of. I held my notes in one hand, a pencil in the other. We sat in the circle. My co-leader, J—, began, as she would every week: “This is Julie Greene, she is a student at Goddard College, and she is going to be doing a writing group with all of you….” The students were attentive. Some wanted to write. Some did not. The challenge was to keep them all engaged for the entire 45 minutes, and it wasn’t easy. Gradually, I became less nervous and learned to be flexible and to trust my instincts while teaching, to be totally prepared yet “go with the flow” and let the class take the lesson to wherever they wanted it to go. One exciting part of teaching was watching every single pencil scribble on the page during freewrite time. And of course it was always gratifying to hear people share their works. What amazed me most, though, was the role-reversal. I no longer had to knock on the staff office door to enter. I could hang my coat in their closet. Heck, I was staff!
In class, I used exercises suggested by my faculty Elena Georgiou and Jane Wohl and Goddard College, and Bill Holinger at Emerson College. I used quotes from William Styron and Andrew Solomon. I also used a song, “Lithium,” by Amy Lee and Evanescence, in one of my classes:
Lithium, don’t want to lock me up inside.
Lithium, don’t want to forget how it feels without
Lithium, I want to stay in love with my sorrow.
To illustrate mental illness, in my teaching essay, to those who didn’t understand what it was, I quoted Elyn Saks’ The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness, and Vaslav Nijinsky’s Diary.
The next semester (G4, spring ’08) proved to be a rough one, and after the first packet, I chose to drop before the add/drop period was over. I tried to understand the packet response that my advisor, Beatrix Gates, had written for me, but I was too depressed to decipher anything. Everything seemed so flat and lifeless. Still, I remembered the nurse’s words, “Just don’t give up hope.” It was ironic that shortly after, my doctor put me on the drug, Lithium, and I was so doped up that I only woke up to do my teaching, and slept for the rest of the week. It wasn’t until months later that I was able to comprehend Bea’s packet response and revise my work. I came to the next residency and could barely get out of bed each morning, and slept through many of the classes. I took myself off the drug the following August, against my doctor’s advice, and woke up.
This time, I had another, more productive G4. I was now working closely with Dvora Zipkin, Goddard’s new disabilities specialist. Our weekly phone calls proved invaluable to me. We set up study schedules and modified them as I became more proficient at my work. From then on, I worked closely with Dvora, and I can truly say that I would not have made it to graduation as smoothly–or at all–without her.
Now, with Bea as my advisor, I revised previous works and wrote some new material as well. I wrote “Going Back,” “Jungle,” “Connections,” “The Farm,” and “Colors.” These were short chapters. I also finished and revised “A Forgotten Line,” “Locker #47,” “Walking the Line,” and “Pro Re Nata.” At last I was able to write a successful version of the QB story, called simply “QB.” “Connections” was a piece based on Lauren Slater’s Prozac Diary, asking the same question Slater asks: What happens to the creative process when a person recovers from a mental illness? Then, I read Kenny Fries’ The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin’s Theory and it blew open my whole creative thesis.
Why? Kenny tells his stories in order, but they alternate. The whole book is done in such a way as to leave the reader hanging at the end of every story. I wanted to do this, too. I kept in mind Susan Griffin’s What Her Body Thought: A Journey into the Shadows, too. Griffin cleverly intertwines several stories in the book and then brings them together to a terrific climax at the end of the book. The connection seems far-fetched at first but gradually, the reader catches on, and when the reader realizes the connection, he or she also reaches an epiphany just as the book climaxes. Fries does this, too, by lining up the most climactic chapters back-to-back (his are divided into short chapters; hers are mostly divided into sections within larger chapters). I wanted this for my own work.
So I chopped up my thesis, in hard copy, and put it back together, in “braided” fashion, like my hair. This was painstaking work and involved the use of a notebook, lots of printer ink and paper, a paper punch, and a large table. Not long after, my chapters were spread out all over the furniture. Soon, though, I realized I would have to make an outline, and this would simplify the task. I wrote an excited e-mail to Bea explaining my intentions. To my surprise, she didn’t write back saying I was nuts.
I came to my last full residency in February 2009 excited–and a little scared–about the coming semester. As usual, I struggled with the rigorous residency schedule, but frequent contact with Dvora, planning out how I would take care of my basic needs, and which workshops I would attend, kept me on track, and the residency panned out with very few hitches. I sent off my manuscript–then titled Forgotten Lines: For an Occasion as it Arises, the subtitle coming from the definition of the Latin “pro re nata”–to my advisor, Darrah Cloud, and to Bea, now my second reader, to arrive February 25 instead of the assigned March 16 packet due date, because I had it ready, and was especially excited to get started on revisions!
In the meantime, I crocheted a sweater for Puzzle, my dog, a project I had been working on while on the plane to Seattle. (I always had a needlework project to keep me occupied on the airplane.) Then I took a leap, and began a new book–about my six years at Goddard, beginning from the moment I was accepted, and ending at the projected graduation date. What was most exciting about the project was my plan to use my first creative thesis, the short novel, embedded in the memoir! This, Joe, would be the book for you. Excited about the project, I finished seven pages–then Darrah’s feedback arrived March 3.
What Darrah requested was simple: the old adage “show, don’t tell.” What was summarized had to be fleshed out with scenes, she said. This had to be done especially in the essay, “Hunger,” but also in some of the narrative chapters as well. I was summarizing too much. There were places where I was too vague, and the reader was confused about which hospital was which.
I attacked the manuscript with fervor as I had never had before. The schedule I had set up with Dvora allowed for two hours’ study in the morning, just over an hour in the early afternoon, and two hours in the later afternoon. Instead, I found myself working all day, usually over seven hours a day, on the manuscript. After 17 days, I had added 7,000 words, and I had 144 pages of the revised manuscript. I wrote to Darrah, and she asked me to send the first 50 pages. Darrah responded by telling me, among other things, to make one of the villains “meaner.” I turned to my journals for ideas, and added yet more text to the manuscript. Finally, on April 17th, I made the last chapter addition to the manuscript: “Pool,” an experimental chapter, in which the villain forces me underwater, and holds me there. My first draft was 47,000 words long. I now had 62,500 words, and was on my way to completion of a third draft. I sent Darrah about 65 pages in my third packet. She explained that my entire manuscript was centered around the theme of hunger, and that I should follow this theme. This was very, very important.
But I had run into a snag. My mental illness was sneaking up on me. I had begun to starve myself. As time went on, I ate less and less. My concentration, mood, and motivation suffered. I nearly fainted on several occasions. The same theme that ran through my thesis was now eating at me. As I had written in one of my chapters, “My hunger was secret. My hunger was special.”
Why now? Did I not want to leave Goddard? The eating disorder had submerged me many times before, notably in 1981, when it caused me do drop out of school one semester before graduation; I would not let it push me underwater again!
No matter the reason, I had to take action. What would Aimee say? What would Joe say, if he were alive? I recalled the time he wheeled onto the unit at McLean Hospital, when he was visiting me there, with a brown paper bag in his lap. “I know you can’t stand the hospital food,” he said with a grin, “so I’ve brought subs. Meatball and tuna. I want you to eat the meatball right away, while it’s hot. Don’t argue.”
I made some phone calls, and arranged a meeting at a local eating disorders center, where they made some recommendations. I worked closely with my therapist and my primary care physician. Dvora, too, had some excellent advice, explaining that one never truly leaves Goddard. I asked for support from my friends and my brothers. I petted Puzzle–a lot. And I wrote.
And it was through writing–and leafing through some old Goddard papers, that I came across what I had written semesters ago: “In a future creative bit, I’ll write some about what that’s like.” What did this mean? Of course I knew what it meant! Someday, I would get through this, and gain perspective on it, enough to be able to write about it. It would pass. Somehow, the starvation would end.
But I was scared. I was worried that my therapist would hospitalize me. I made up my mind that I would mail in my thesis on the seventh of May. I had three days.
I set goals for myself. I worked extensively on “Pool,” which had become a poem. I plunged into my chapter, “Hunger,” and made numerous last-minute changes. I read a fair portion of the manuscript out loud to myself, and was surprised at how smoothly it read. At last, I mailed in my thesis, completed–twelve days before the due date.
In 2005 and 2006, when I took time away from Goddard and was hospitalized, doctors and social workers had told me to give up on the idea of ever returning to graduate school, and to attend a mental health day program and join a knitting club. I have, in part, taken that advice: I have indeed done plenty of knitting. I knitted many, many sweaters for my little dog, Puzzle. I knitted these sweaters to pass the time during my trip from Boston to Port Townsend, Washington, to attend the Goddard College residencies. Today, Puzzle wears these sweaters without a thought, but to me they symbolize not only a journey, but my refusal to give up, my defiance of those people who were supposedly treating me, the very same people who doubted my ability to succeed. Well, I have succeeded. My thesis has been accepted. On July 12, 2009, I will have my degree at last.
When I graduated from Emerson College, my undergraduate school, Joe was right there beside me. If he were alive, he would be attending my graduation for certain, despite the travel difficulties that his physical disability may cause. But he will not be at my graduation physically, or the graduation banquet; I am assured, however, that he is enjoying a great meal in Heaven.
Of course, I am very apprehensive about what the future may hold. But I will continue to revise my creative thesis, now titled This Hunger Is Secret, and work on my new book, which begins with a vase of flowers. I unlock my door, greet the dog, and pick up my message from Paul Selig, with news that will change my life forever.
May 31, 2009
I am a person with anorexia nervosa who was recently hospitalized for severe malnutrition and dehydration. When I went in I was in pretty bad shape. I was in a medical ward for ten days and spent a few days “upstairs where I *belonged*” in the psychiatric ward, which was hell for me. I was then released and spent eight days on the worst streak of binge eating I have ever experienced. I went back in voluntarily, spent 24 amazing hours in the psych emergency room, where I did a lot of healing, then went “upstairs” again for a few days, and was released.
I have been pretty much okay. I am delighted to be out. Hearing of the storm was just another challenge for me. In New England we’re due for something I’ve never experienced before. I’ve seen bad rain, sure. I think everyone living in the East has. It can come down in pellets even in the heat of the summer. It can be dry and hot one moment, and then, 20 seconds before the bus arrives, the sky can open up, and I’m soaked by the time I get on. Sometimes, an umbrella is just the thing to bring on a bus trip into Boston. Other times, an umbrella isn’t quite enough because it’s either too windy, and the umbrella turns inside-out (grrr) or the rain is so thick that nothing will protect against it. On those days, it’s best to leave your laptop and electronics at home. Some insist that they only need a hood to protect themselves against the rain. I have never understood this thinking. My little Puzzle wears one of the 17 or 18 (lost count) wool sweaters I have knit for her. These are naturally waterproof. Her fur isn’t. I, in turn, wear one of her matching wool hats and we go in style, even in the middle of summer.
But this will be different. It’s like those winter emergencies we have all the time here in Boston, only it’s summer and we don’t get emergency weather in the summer except for a couple of days when it’s a bit hot out. I have never been evacuated from my home. Being a person with a psychiatric disability, that is, I do not have a mobility problem, but what some people call a “brain disorder,” I still end up spending a lot of time at home even though a physical problem isn’t what’s keeping me here. My home is my home and because I’m here a lot, I cherish it more (I think) than someone who just finds it a place to sleep at night and store food in the fridge. I haven’t had what folks think of as a “job” for a long, long time. When I had “jobs,” they didn’t agree with me. I guess when you think of things you value, “job” isn’t one of them for me. Work is.
They say mental illness can’t be seen. Sometimes, on public transportation (here in Boston called the “T”, which, by the way, will be closed Sunday and Monday) you see posters of smiling faces and on the poster is says, “What does autism look like?” or, “What does schizophrenia look like?” Actually, anorexia nervosa is often a very visible illness because of the person’s extreme thinness. But you don’t see that on the posters, just in the fashion ads in magazines.
I got online and read all the experts’ advice on how to prepare for the storm. I’ve done what I can within reason. Also, I have my own brand of common sense. There are things they don’t tell you about that you just have to figure out for yourself. They tell you to stock up on diapers, but they don’t say anything about toilet paper or “feminine” supplies.
Now is the time to think about what “things” I value most and might want to protect from harm at this time, or bring with me if Puzzle and I are evacuated. Some things that immediately came to mind were my degree certificates, some of the best sweaters that I knitted for Puzzle (I can’t bring all of them), and a few of my old handwritten journals I have from years past (there are over 20 of these and I’m just going to have to pick a few to bring) that will be lost forever if I don’t take them with me. As a memoirist, I find journals an important tool for writing and remembering. I also find them useful when I want to learn about my life years ago, and about the onset of my eating disorder. I have maybe 700 books here, some are quite expensive reference books, that would be destroyed if this place flooded. There’s nothing I can do about that. My friend recently gave me a wall quilt she made for me, that is quite lovely and easily packable in a suitcase.
I asked myself: If I have to go to a shelter, I won’t be able to weigh myself, what do I do…I might fly into a panic! I dared myself to pack the scale. No, I am not really packing, just packing mentally, but I dared myself anyway. Instead, I took the scale off the floor, wrapped it in plastic in case this place floods later on Sunday (it’s Sunday already on the East Coast) and put it in the closet. Now, I will see how long I can leave it there, even after the storm is gone and left us, till I take it out again, step up on it, and admonish myself for not being as thin and starved as I’d like to be.
They told us to stock up on food and water. I have water. Food, that’s another story. It’s a tough thing for someone with an eating disorder to deal with food, natural disaster or not. Even when faced with a life-and-death situation, food is an issue…why? Because eating disorders, for you idiots out there that don’t know, are fatal illnesses, that is, you can die of them. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of all the mental illnesses including bipolar disorder and major depression, both of which carry suicide risk. It’s not just about being skinny and it’s not about vanity. If it was vanity, I’d toss it aside in a natural disaster. Let’s say I’d be capable of putting it on the back burner while Irene passed through.
But I couldn’t. I did heed the experts’ advice, though. I bought a couple of cans of stuff. I bought things that felt safe for me. For the most part yesterday, I didn’t eat much. But then I started in on the diet soda, and I couldn’t stop drinking it. I don’t know what got into me. I just started drinking it and drinking it. It tasted pretty good, actually. I drank some water and some milk, and more diet soda. It was easily two gallons. Suddenly, I was very, very full. And scared. I am not supposed to be doing this. It’s dangerous, very dangerous. It can screw up your electrolytes and it can screw up your kidneys. I was scared because since I have had this disorder for a long time, my system has kind of slowed down, and I know I’m not necessarily peeing right. I sat there with my belly sloshing around wondering why I had done this dumb thing. Nothing was coming out. I figured I’d either pee real soon or throw it all up. Nothing. So I waited around. Nothing. My stomach kind of hurt. I lay down and tried to think of other things. I thought that what I had put into myself had to come out somehow.
Yeah, it did. A bit later, I was shitting my brains out into the toilet. I feel much better now. I could feel better but letting go of it felt kind of liberating. My stomach doesn’t hurt anymore–well, it does, but I can think straight and not be distracted by it, anyway.
I am 53 years old, no longer in my 20’s. I can’t do this at my age. No more mucking around with dangerous stuff. You can die of this. You can die of anorexia nervosa. You can die anyway but it’s stupid to do mean things to your body. I guess that’s one essential part of eating disorders that’s hard to overcome, the self-meanness part. It’s kind of built in.
This on the eve of Hurricane Irene’s strike on Boston. In 12 hours, winds will exceed 30 miles per hour, maybe 40 miles per hour, and at that point, vehicle travel is just plain unsafe. If you’re going to have a medical emergency, forget it, you’re on your own. Or that is what I heard. So now, of all times, is not a nice time to be mucking around with my electrolytes. Now or anytime. Ever.
You know something? I’m thirsty. I don’t understand why. I just am. Maybe deep down inside, I thirst for something else, and can’t put a finger on what it is, and that is why I feel so empty inside, and why life seems to have no meaning to it. I’m going to go have a drink of water at this point because I know it won’t satisfy or fill that longing even though my physical sensation is very real, my body’s sleight of hand, I guess.
I do remember feeling this way at the onset of my illness, that I’d lost something and was desperately searching for it, and that it was so lost and so deep-seated that I had lost sight of what it in fact was or that it even existed or had existed for me. I just felt this void, and a deep hunger. Whatever I had had, I wanted back. Desperately.
I don’t think you get back things you had when you were 18, or 21, when you’re in your 50’s. It’s over 30 years later, and life doesn’t work that way. Maybe I’m wrong. I’m not going to find it, whatever it was, now. Whatever I find now, though, was unreachable then, because I was only 21. So I should consider myself fortunate that I have lived this long.
I want to wish everyone peace during this hurricane. Just take a moment during your preparations to remember loved ones who have passed, to enjoy cherished memories, to care for your children, to feed and hold your pets nearby.
I am managing as best as I can. Later, I will call a friend in a different time zone, zone out, and sleep I hope. I had my modem replaced today (for free). That’s communication, after all. Faster. Better. More efficient. Wow. I should be writing this at lightning speed, maybe running the Marathon next year. Since getting out of the hospital, I’ve realized that soon, National Novel Month will be approaching, and I would like to get the ball rolling on my paperback preparations and get all that done by the end of next month. So you will have a bit of hard copy to read next year I hope.
Irene, Irene, Irene. I think I will share a bit of my chapter, “A Forgotten Line,” from my memoir, which focuses on the character, Irene, in a coming post. See you then.
I may not have hope, but for now, I can spice up my life. I can wear a different shirt every day. I can rearrange my tiny apartment to suit me. I can write many e-mails to people around the world. I can write to my dog. I can write to God. I can write to myself. One of these people might write back.
Although I eat very little, I can season my food differently each time I eat it. My food is colorful. I arrange it pleasingly on my plate. I garnish it. I eat with a fancy napkin. I have several tables in my apartment, and I can eat at a different table at each meal. I can choose to heat my food, or I can eat it ice cold.
Though it is a very small town, only four square miles, there are many streets here to explore. I have lived here nearly 25 years and I have yet to see all the nooks and crannies of the neighborhoods here. But every day, my dog and I take the same route. Why? Why not spice it up? Well, I am a person who likes regularity, and they say that dogs like to do the exact same thing every day for some reason. So we take the same route.
But I listen to different music each time we walk. The weather is always different. My thoughts are always different. Whether I am feeling hopeful, sad, depressed, or full of anticipation for the day ahead, each walk is vastly different from the other. Yes, our walks are spiced up.
Although I do not have hope, I can do things to spice up my life. I can knit using colorful yarns with varying textures. I can make dog sweaters. I can make hats for myself to match. My dog and I can go in style.
And going in style we do. Because every day, when we walk down the street, I say to myself, “This is my dog. This is my creature, that I care for, that I love and cherish, that each day greets me with a wag and a sniff awaiting a treat. And I brush this dog’s teeth twice a day every day and she’s got the most shining smile in town.
I may not have a shining smile to match hers, but we go in style. I may not smile at all. I may not have a drop of happiness in me. But I know how to spice up my life. So I do so. And this simple task is a comfort to me.
It is clear to me now why I am restricting, but I don’t know what to do about it. I know this makes absolutely no sense, but bear with me. I am trying to get revenge on my T for leaving, so I am starving myself.
I am hurting myself in order to hurt her. Logical, right?
Absolutely not. But this seems to be happening. I am hurting no one but myself. I am disappointing her and nothing I can do, no amount of starvation, will keep her from leaving me. No matter how little food I eat, the office where she works will still close on December 2nd and she is getting laid off. My last appointment is Tuesday.
She is leaving me and leaving me and my hungry body behind.
My body cries out for food, for nourishment, for love. My body yearns to be cared for. My body has been kicked around long enough.
I promised my body I would never be mean to it ever, ever again. I have broken that promise. I have broken other promises as well, that I cannot mention here.
Most of the time, I am deeply depressed. I cannot bear it and I feel as though my own mind is torturing me. Occasionally, I peek through all this and can see something, some hope, and everything seems okay for a moment. Like when I walk Puzzle, or when I run. I listen to music real loud and feel joy for a few minutes, and I try to grab hold of it but it is gone.
It is Puzzle’s birthday today. Today, I am thankful that I have a wonderful, healthy, happy 4-year-old dog who loves me. She is crazy and walks so fast. You’d think she had a fire bomb behind her. We move like the wind when we walk. Yesterday, for her birthday present, I gave her a two-hour walk.
We felt strong. We moved–fast. I listened to two Dar Williams albums. I hadn’t had anything to eat all day. Near the end of the walk, though, I suddenly felt fatigued and nearly lost my balance twice. I didn’t fall, though. I came inside and eventually had a bite to eat.
Yeah, I finally ate. Thanksgiving Day. Half a banana. Then later I ate an orange. That was it for the day. No turkey. No stuffing. No pumpkin pie. Oh, yeah, I also didn’t spend the day with my mother (thankfully). I think I’d rather eat two pieces of fruit for Thanksgiving than eat all the trimmings with my mother. Eating disorders do that to you.
So to my therapist, I say this: I am thankful that I have had the opportunity to work with you for the past two years. You have helped me tremendously. I have told you already that therapy kept me above water during the darkest days of Anorexia Hell. I will not go back there. You are a great therapist.
Thus saying, fuck you.
I know this is completely illogical. I know it is not your fault that your office is closing and that you are being laid off. I know it is not your fault that you cannot keep me as a patient. I know the circumstances totally suck for not only myself, but both of us. I know that I am not the only one that is unhappy about what has happened.
How dare you leave me behind. How dare you abandon me. How dare you do this thing to me. Because I am starving before your eyes. I am dying out. I am disappearing. You can hardly hear me calling out to you anymore.
Soon, we will part. You will go on, I will go on–probably. Depression never lasts forever, they say. This one has already lasted a damn long time–for me. Mine generally only last a day or two, though they are very intense. Then life goes on, and I suppose it will, eventually. I see no end to this, but maybe there is one, somewhere, somehow. I just hope the end of the depression comes before the end of me comes.
It is Puzzle’s birthday, as I have mentioned already. She is four now. Four years ago, I brought home a tiny delicate fuzz ball that could barely hold her head up, and called her “Puzzle.” Four years ago I was just returning to Goddard College after a break, starting off at the Port Townsend campus for the first time after spending two semesters at the Vermont campus. For the first time, I took an airplane to Seattle while Puzzle waited for me in Massachusetts. There would be many, many such trips, and each time, I knitted a new sweater for Puzzle on the plane. I have now knitted some 17 or 18 dog sweaters, all for Puzzle.
I have a dog sweater in progress, called the Cover Girl Sweater. It is made of very difficult yarn, called Shakespeare yarn. I say difficult because it breaks easily, very easily. All I have to do is to tug it the wrong way, and it pulls apart.
I may not be Shakespeare, but perhaps I’m a little like this yarn. Perhaps I break apart a little too easily. Perhaps I need to be stronger, more resilient, sturdier. Maybe I let little things bother me too much. You know, even Shakespeare yarn can deal with the bobble stitch, in which six stitches are created within one stitch on the needle, worked over and over, and then stitched together back into one. That’s a lot of stretching. Maybe I need to bend and stretch a little, fragile as I am, to accommodate a few extra stitches. Even Shakespeare yarn can be made into a dog sweater–for my wonderful dog, Puzzle.
And you know something? Shakespeare yarn is beautiful. You wouldn’t believe how lovely it is.
In my therapy session with my new therapist, I hugged myself and cried. I hugged my body. I held my body and wept for all the hurt I have caused it. I wanted to hold it and never let anything bad happen to it again.
I came home and cursed my body. Denied it. Beat upon it. Stepped on it. Kicked it. Wished it gone.
Does this make any sense?
No, eating disorders make no sense. Puzzle does. And I love my four-year-old-today dog. So somehow, I will hold onto that love, be with her, and survive.
My wonderful new book, This Hunger Is Secret: My Journeys Through Mental Illness and Wellness is now available from Chipmunkapublishing–click here to access. To read more about it at my home site, click here.
Tonight, Puzzle and I walked around Watertown with our costumes on. We were dressed as prom queen and date. That is, Puzzle was the prom queen and I was her date! Here’s a photo of Puzzle in her prom gown, designed and crafted by Debby Donovan of Sew Special Design:
I’m sure many people saw us parading around, and probably some even took photos of us! We had a blast!
Here’s the dog sweater I was working on in Ohio:
I call it the “Cover Girl Sweater” because the colors remind me of eye shadow. The yarn is so delicate that if I tug on it ever so slightly, it breaks. Maybe it’s not the greatest yarn for a dog sweater. Tough. I’m making it anyway. This one is going to be sleeveless.