Blanket Sea

Arts & Literary Magazine

Tag: mental illness

“Deforestation and Other Side Effects” by Tiffany Promise

This morning, when the Human-Shaped-Gods signed my discharge plan, I had a moment where I didn’t believe it was really happening.

“But my head used to hurt so badly that I’d contemplate taking an icepick to my occipital lobe. Now I just feel like an ice-picked ice sculpture,” I told them.

“You must suffer the darkness in order to see the stars,” they said. 

“Easier said than done done done,” I said.

“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no feet.” They nodded in unison. 

“Bullshit ouroboros cataclysm starfish.” I sighed. 

Pressure built up in my chest—I guess they call that panic—but I took a breath, grabbed the paperwork, packed my shit and ran. 

The “plan” is now taped to my refrigerator with hot pink duct tape; it reads as follows:

1. Take your medicine. (As prescribed.)

2. Take your medicine. (With as many spoonfuls of sugar as needed.)

3. Take your medicine. (Even if it kills everything inside.)

 

I used to be a one-girl-wilderness-adventure-camp with nothing but a layer of thick prickly skin keeping it all hidden. Dense with photosynthesis, I was hella sexy. But now, as the unlucky benefactor of medication-induced dehydration, I’m just like California: always on fire, infertile as ever, dry as a motherhumping bone.

Pre-Lithium, I’d sit with my forest for hours, listening to the waterfall that poured through my abdomen and feeling the fingers of ivy that slowly scaled my ribcage.

“You little honeys are my everythings. Who needs a boyfriend, when I’ve got you?” I’d whisper to the snakes that wove in and out of my ovaries, tickling me from the inside outside inside out. Talk about effing transcendentalism; I was special, never alone… lone… lone…

Now buzzards take the place of my bluejays, weeds infect my flowerbeds, and I’m pretty sure I’ve felt a tumbleweed or two do its tumble thing. I half-expect Clint Eastwood to ride through on a bronco, guns a’blazin’ all willy-nilly and shit. 

I always thought squirrels were the cockroaches of the mammal world, but no! My un-scrappy little bastards have sprouted maggots. Without enough of them left to snatch up all the acorns in my intestines, I just had to shit one out. Its jagged hat was hard on my rectum; I thought about eating a Vaseline-sandwich to lubricate the passage, but I don’t have any Vaseline or bread. I should’ve grabbed more than Fruity Pebbles when I stopped by Ralph’s on my way home from the bin.

A covey of canaries once perched in the birch to the left of my liver. Their sweet songs serenaded me during (infrequent) house-cleaning duties, letting me pretend to be all Snow Whitely. But the few canaries that are left have collapsed vocal chords, forcing their song to come out all strangled-sounding. No way I’m washing a dish to that dirge! 

Some might say that’s better than breaking all the dishes and using them to carve curse words into my forearms. Some might say a lot of things. 

“Progress,” the Human-Shaped-Gods hum from their steel-and-glass high-rise towers—so far away from anything living or breathing.

“Death,” I moan while making dirt-angels on my original-wood floorboards while the dust-bunnies wiggle their tails in applause. I keep checking my breath for the comforting stench of ivy/pollen/dew/scat, but all I smell is carrion beetles and barf.

 

(Let me tell you a story. To get the full effect, you should go to the Rainforest Cafe and order one of every single item on the menu—add extra salt to each dish—then eat really slowly without taking even one sip of water. Sit by yourself and listen to the sounds of the fake frogs and fake waterfalls around you; try to forget that you are in a strip-mall restaurant. Try to forget that all the sounds are electronic and being forced through crappy speakers. Tell yourself that this is real, that you are an explorer, that life is good. Or, if that’s too depressing, you can lock yourself in your bathroom with the shower turned on hot. Don’t get in the shower, just sit on the rug and wrap your arms around yourself in the simulacrum of a hug. When the room is nice and moist like a rainforest, remember how your mom used to do that whenever you got sick as a kid. You didn’t understand that she was trying to break up the mucus in your chest, you thought you were just having a bathroom party and even though you felt terrible and croupy and out of your mind with fever, you felt so loved. Remember how good that felt? Don’t you wish there was still someone around to take care of you like that?)

 

I’m sprawled here on a gold-hued, dumpster-salvaged couch in my living room trying to watch Sex and the City, but the sounds of dying inside are too distracting. As if manic-depression weren’t enough, now I’ve got this goddamned global warming thing to contend with. 

The couch’s upholstery is flaking off in chunks the size of fingernails; my fingernails are flaking off and mixing with the chunks. I think about sweeping, but my muscles ache. 

I force myself to walk to the kitchen for some water. I futilely chug cup after cup while standing over the sink. I could drink the whole Pacific Ocean and still want more. Through parched lips, I pray for my caseworker to call and grant me a moment of reprieve from this cornucopia of side effects. 

“Hush little baby don’t say a word, caseworker’s gonna buy you a ‘nilla shake,” my caseworker doesn’t say because she doesn’t call because no one ever really does.

“And if that kitty-cat don’t purr, Sissy’s gonna bring you a teddy bear,” my sister doesn’t say because she claims that her cell phone plan doesn’t include weeknights though everyone’s does at this point. 

“Fuck you fuck you fuck you tooooo,” I sing to all the friends/family who never send flowers or balloons or cards or any of that other Hallmark/Lifetime-movie shit that people do for people when they get sick. 

 

Back on the couch, I notice black dots—barely bigger than pepper flakes—eking their way out of the pores on my abdomen. Hungry as fudge, these bugs have given up trying to find anything fresh inside of me and think they can find something better on the outside. 

Good luck, suckers! I feel bad about killing them, but I don’t have a cat for that whole cycle of life thing to work itself out. Smoosh!

Since I’m too lazy to walk to the trash can, it doesn’t take long for the pile of bug-goo-tissues to turn into a mountain. If I squint it looks like a snow drift; I pretend to be in Switzerland.

After wishing for a full hour that I had a catheter, and then finally relenting and getting up to pee, I stop to look in the mirror over the sink. There are spiderwebs stuck in my tear ducts: sticky and gloppy, blacked with the kohl eyeliner that I always forget to wash off. The tops of my ears have a fine layer of moss etched across them. I’m not quite sure if I look animal, infantile, or anorexic; or some weird hybrid of all three.

Moving outward must be the only option for survival. It’s dustbowl math, apocalypse geography. Maybe I should run outside and down the street and just keep running until I’ve crossed a couple state lines and my feet are bleeding and the sun is shining down on me from a different angle?

The Human-Shaped-Gods promised Transformation by Medication and boy did they they deliver! No more highs so high that breathing is an afterthought, punctuated by crying jags heavy enough to flood a claw-foot tub. 

But once I started swallowing, it became impossible to stop. It didn’t matter that I quickly became the poster child for what-not-to-do-if-you-ever-wanna-get-laid-again. My cells degenerated at the speed of light, my hair fell out by the handful, my eyes even got so sensitive that I had to wear those black-plastic blind guy sunnies all the time. But the eye of the storm is a feather-pillow-peaceful place; it’s easy to get accustomed to complacence. I may have traded death for death. But which death is better? 

Sure, I could stop taking my Lithium now and ingest other things instead. I could attempt to swallow life, though I’m not quite sure what that looks like. I’m guessing it doesn’t look like a sword or a flame or a mental hospital gown or a tequila shot.

I could get out of bed tomorrow and go scavenging, collect hopeful ingredients from the cemetery down the street, the local hardware store, my neighbor’s backyard garden, fingers crossed that nobody calls the cops. 

I could eat pebbles, pits, salt, stones, nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium, corn kernels, dried beans, MiracleGro, pulp, pods, composted banana peels, soil, peat moss, sand, pine bark, vermiculite, limestone, chicken shit. I could.

But for today, I’ll just keep gulp-swallow-gulping myself into sweet sweet oblivion. As disappointing as that might sound to everyone involved—particularly the few remaining squirrels.

I’ll save up my rest like a camel saves water, while watching at least seven more episodes of Sex and the City and eating a few more handfuls of Fruity Pebbles sans milk.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper to everything that is dying. I wish that I could save the whole rainforest, but I just don’t have the energy anymore.

 

(If you don’t know what it feels like to be this exhausted, you could always run around a downtown city block forty-four times in nothing but high heels and a party dress in the middle of the night and see what chases after you. Then offer it a drink, a slice of home-made cake, maybe even a shoulder massage if it’s feeling tense. If that doesn’t work, try spending the first twelve years of your life not sleeping because you’re sure that a red-bearded monster is going to climb through your bedroom window and take you to some faraway land where bad men feast on girls like you. Imagine your little girl self served up on a platter like a roast pig with an apple in your mouth, your skin blackened with burn, parsley in place of your eyes, your pigtails singed completely off. Remember what it feels like to want nothing but to crawl in bed with your mom—into that safe place where no one could touch you—but knowing that she’s sick of your antics, wants you to be a big girl already. But finally, at 3 a.m., when you just can’t stay there another minute, you sneak into her room on tiptoe, you crawl onto the foot of her bed like a dog. Curled, blanket-less and shivering—there’s no way you can sleep like that—but at least you won’t be stolen away into some terrible place where your finger-bones will be used as dental floss, your baby teeth thrown into a giant pile of baby teeth in the corner of some horrible dungeon where the tooth fairy will never be able to find them. No fucking way.)

 

 

Tiffany Promise was awarded an MFA in creative writing from CalArts in 2010, and an MA in psychology from California Institute of Integral Studies in 2013. Her stories have appeared in Black ClockGingerbread House, and the Salt River Review, and she was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in 2015. Having attended Tin House and Sirenland, she’s had the privilege of working with both Eileen Myles and Anthony Doerr on various projects. She spent 2017 polishing her first novel with Francesca Lia Block in Los Angeles, but recently relocated to Victoria, B.C. As a mother, she is particularly interested in exploring mother-child dynamics and the feminization of madness.

The Nightstand Collective: An Art Project by Emma Jones

Emma Jones has spent much of her life navigating chronic illness, which inspired her curiosity about how others make space for their illness, create tools for resilience, and, most importantly, make meaning of their illness experiences. Through her project, The Nightstand Collective, she explores the lives of the chronically ill through the intimate space of the bedroom nightstand, and the items we keep close in times of vulnerability.

Fibromyalgia. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. (More photos, description, and list of items here.)

Artist’s Statement

When I first became sick, I took my symptoms to bed, imagining that I could treat them with rest. I had to stop the life that I had so carefully dreamed of, arranged, and created for myself. I did not bounce back to my old self and slowly realized I had to organize a different way of living. In the beginning, there was a certain novelty to being in bed; as an incredibly active person, giving in to the resting medicine was not easy.  I had no name for my symptoms. By the time that I was handed them, my life had become very small and I felt unrecognizable.

Major Depressive Disorder. Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. ADHD. Neurological Damage due to Fetal Alcohol Exposure. Head Trauma. Irritable Bowel Syndrome. (More photos, description, and list of items here.)

For a long time, I was unable to read, watch TV, or follow narratives of any kind. My world became my bedroom and the items on my bedroom nightstand. The things that I kept close were very carefully curated for specific purposes; some were medical, but most were possessions that I just enjoyed looking at, that brought me comfort. My nightstand was a way that I could strategize my energy use by keeping the things that I would need for a whole day close by. It was also practical, held some art, some magic, items from friends, items from my old life, bits of the natural world; some things were to encourage and to inspire.

Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome. Postural Orthostatic Tachycardia Syndrome. Fibromyalgia. Celiac Disease. Occipital Neuralgia. Asthma. Major Depressive Disorder. Generalized Anxiety Disorder. Insomnia. (More photos, description, and list of items here.)

My nightstand was my nest, and while it was small compared to my old life, it reflected my growing inner world. I would look at my nightstand and wonder about all the other people out there struggling with the “unnamed” disorders that had taken their life down, and I would think about their nightstands. I spent a great deal of time imagining nightstands around the world, and I was curious as to what tools people were using to help them create a bigger life. And what did a bigger life mean to them? Folks who are dancing with chronic illness are remarkably adaptable, incredibly strong, and creative, yet they are never recognized as such; and it was these misconceptions that became the seed that led to the creation of The Nightstand Collective. I wanted a quiet space where the items could speak for themselves and show the life behind them. 

Chronic Pain Syndrome. Fibromyalgia. Nerve Damage. Thoracic Bone Spurs. Cervical Bone Spurs. (More photos, description, and list of items here.)

I have been working on The Nightstand Collective for two years now and have had submissions from people from all over the world. I have had the most incredible communications with some of the most resilient and fascinating people I have ever had the pleasure to chat with. Many of us are canaries of the world, and I am curious about how they make their life, adapt to their symptoms, what tools they use to lead a nourishing life. I am still learning about how people are managing their illness and what are the things that support them. I have a yearly book list of all the nightstand books and it gives us a window into some of the inner work that people are doing; people are diving into some intense and transformative topics.

Lyme Disease and Co-Infections. (More photos, description, and list of items here.)

I have had folks tell me that my website is depressing; I don’t find it so. It is a matter of fact that we will all have to dance with illness at some point in our lives, and others can be our guides into all of the ways that a life can become full. There are many people out there creating art, leading vibrant relationships, having spiritual experiences, and finding beauty all from the small space of their bedroom nightstand. It is true that some of the nightstands reveal a frightening reality of some awful diseases; some are stark and some are taken over with medical equipment, but somewhere there will always be one little item that tells a story of that person beyond their disease. I do hope to keep collecting nightstands and at some point start compiling the data on the objects that can reveal some patterns. It has been a great honor to peak into these very intimate spaces.

 

 

 Emma has a background in theatre and film both in front of and behind the camera, and has recently started working in audio featuring narratives about healing from traumatic injuries. You can hear her work at www.sistersoftheroguewave.com. Her project, The Nightstand Collective,  has been featured in Huffington Post UK, Mashable Social Good, The Mighty, West Journal, and The Italian Endometriosis Foundation.       

 

“Delusion” by Mireya Vela

At night, I go into the backyard. I like being out there alone. The sounds of shrill, resentful voices from inside the house, as well as the loud clap of my loneliness becomes a dull din when I’m alone in the dark.

I feel the cold air on the back of my neck and hair. I turn on the workshop lamp and take out my journal. This isn’t a good time in my life. I’m twenty-three, and I can’t wait to escape into my thirties and forties. I want to speed up time.

I’ve been in therapy for about two years. I’m aware that I have a lot of work ahead of me before I begin feeling even slightly normal. Healing only happens with time.

On the other side of the wooden fence, I see a man leaning in to watch me. He reaches over the fence. He’s a stocky, leather-faced immigrant, wearing a light brown shirt. His hand, as he grasps is blunt and thick. He looks like my father’s brothers. I turn quickly to get a better look, but he isn’t there. He lives in the corner of my eye, as do all the rest of these men I see.

 

I’m twenty-five years of age. I’m walking down the hall of the school where I teach 5th grade. I feel the presence of another person coming towards me. Out of the corner of my eye I see a small statured man—hefty but diminutive—walk alongside in the opposite direction. He’s wearing bleary toned pants—grey or brown—and a red shirt. I register the shapes and colors before he passes me and disappears out of the corner of my eye.

Sometimes I see people I know aren’t there. This has been happening since I went into therapy four years ago and I unhooked the memories from their anchors.

Memories float. No matter what you do, whoever you were fifteen years ago can float to the surface to haunt you. It doesn’t matter if you are ready or if you are walking back to your classroom.

I take a deep breath and decide to ignore the man I just saw. I’m shaken. I take a deep breath and tell myself it is okay. It’s not, of course. But I’m very good at rearranging realities to match my needs. It’s a trick I learned from my tumultuous childhood.

At this school, I am working with the children from my neighborhood and it’s breaking me. I see children going through the same abuses I did. This time, it’s my responsibility to protect them and this terrifies me as much now as it did when I was a child.

 

I’m not delusional. I go through an exacting process.

Do I like what I see/feel/know?

No.

Is there anything I can do about it?

No.

Okay, let’s change our attitude to cope.

Okay, but this doesn’t feel good.

Noted.

 

I don’t talk to my psychiatrist about the people I see. I know she’ll heavily medicate me. I strongly suspect this is posttraumatic stress disorder. The problem with PTSD is that it prefers to unsettle you as you feel you are moving beyond those memories. When you feel strong, the memories appear, waiting for resolution.

Instead, I go to my therapist. The words spill out of my mouth with trepidation.

“Is it men?” she asks.

“Yes. How did you know?” I say.

“It’s out of the corner of your eye?” she says.

“Yes.”

“Do they look like the men who hurt you?”

“Yes,” I say.

“That’s common with people who have had sexual abuse. I’m sorry,” she says.

“I’m not crazy?”

“No,” she says, “You are just healing.”

“Healing feels awful. Why am I doing this to myself? I just want it to stop.”

“Because,” she says, “You want something better for your children.”

“Yes. Yes, I do.”

But for a moment, I think about quitting. Why do they call it healing when it feels like being ripped open?

 

I didn’t look it up then. The internet was newer and didn’t have the breadth of information it contains now.

At that time, I was not an adept computer user. I wouldn’t have known what to look for. Do I google “symptoms of abuse” or “visions out of peripheral vision”? Or do I just lay in emotional nudity, “Why do I see men who look like the men who abused me? Wasn’t the experience enough?”

Typing up that search on a computer would have been more than I could manage. Writing things brings a new level of reality. It’s no longer in your head. You’ve let out the thoughts to make words and that beast uncurls and begins to evolve. It becomes harder to pretend you don’t see it—that it doesn’t exist.

Writing makes things real. I like where things are. I prefer those images curled up in a tight ball inside my head, floating like all my other thoughts—bits of lint and fluff drifting in a vast tangle of deeper thoughts, beliefs, and memories.

Thoughts and memories of fear, floating amongst the clumsy words of kindness I use to talk to myself.

 

I’m twenty-six. I’m at my mom’s house in the bedroom that used to be mine. I’m changing clothes after a workout. I reach back to unlatch my bra. As I slide down the straps, I turn my body slightly. I see someone outside my window looking in on me. It’s broad daylight. I’m furious.

I put on a t-shirt and walk into the living room to make a head count. Everyone who is supposed to be there is there. But people walk in and out of my mom’s house like it’s a train station. They stop to chat or rest or use the bathroom.

I look at their faces. They seem calm.

“What’s going on? Why are you making that face?” dad says.

“Its fine,” I say, “Was anyone in the backyard just now?”

“Why?” he says, “What happened?”

“Nothing. Nothing.”

The shame of being watched silences me; shame always silences me. I don’t need the men in my family to maintain a tally of how many men have seen me naked. I don’t need them to talk amongst themselves about which of them have seen me naked. I don’t want them to talk about me. I don’t want to be a word bandied in their mouths.

There are multiple entrances into the backyard and I know I heard the clang of the kitchen door. Whoever that was knows I saw them.

I’ve never felt safe in my mom’s house.

 

My aunt committed suicide when I was twenty-five years old. Her conspiracy theories turned out to be a bit more than we expected. She left a single note to her eldest son:

“Jose, take care of my mother.”

She’s locked dead inside her one bedroom apartment till her sister finds her. All the signs were there. She was a prescription drug addict. She was heavily medicating in order to sleep and make it from one day to the next. She was telling us stories that didn’t make sense. She was missing work and her friends had started to call me to tell me they were worried about her.

In her car, she heard voices. She turned up the car radio so loud, I couldn’t hear my own thoughts. And she couldn’t hear the voices.

She was locked inside her own head, adrift in schizophrenia before anyone even thought to look for her. She must have been unbearably alone, living in this world while the rest of us lived in ours.

 

But I don’t have schizophrenia. When I gather the courage to speak to my psychiatrist, she tells me I’m fine.

“How do you know that?” I say.

“Because you are asking me. People that have schizophrenia don’t ask. They don’t ever doubt what they are seeing,” she says.

Her office is filled with stuffed animals and incense and Buddhas. I look down at her thumb.

She chews on it when she’s nervous. Today, she’s wrapped a band aid around it to prevent the chewing. Does she know what I’m going through?

I want to pass over this phase of my healing instead of through it. I rage every time I’m at her office. I’m angry. I tell her it’s unfair.

 

That dull doubt is my saving grace. I know my tía never doubted the voices she heard. They were part of her reality. No second thought. My wondering is that fine line between us—her and me.

While the doubt fills me with uncertainty, I’m grateful for it.

 

The flashbacks continue for about five more years. Those years feel like decades. Then the healing process shifts and instead of experiencing images as part of the PTSD, it becomes a lot scarier. I’m in a safe place. I’m happily married. I’m far from my family. Most of them don’t know where I live. I’ve stopped talking to most of them. Instead, those relatives become foggy memories in my mind. Once the flashbacks ease up, I begin to remember happier things. I remember gathering around my mom’s kitchen table, talking with the other women. When I remember this, I don’t remember their death pacts or their depression; instead I remember the comfort and warmth of their presence—the predicable affection that surrounded me.

At the same time this is happening, my brain has decided it’s time for the next phase of healing. I stop seeing flashbacks in the form of images. Suddenly, I’m hit with the emotions. I feel someone hovering over my bed and pressing me down, and I’m terrified.

“I’m so frightened,” I tell my husband, “Please hold me and tell me that everything is going to be okay?”

“What’s scaring you?” he says.

“I don’t know,” I say, “Please hold me.”

But I do know. The memory is non-specific and barely an image. It’s more like a sensation. But I know where it comes from. I’m a child and I’m being stalked. I’m afraid and terrified. I feel like a small animal, and I know he’s going to get me. He will devour me, and I will be gone. Erased.

One time too many as a child, I had to pretend I wasn’t scared, wasn’t anxious, wasn’t angry. I denied all the emotions. And now, all those feelings are crawling back expecting to be seen, to be noticed, to be called by name. They want to come out of hiding.

In the warmth of my husband’s arms, I talk to myself.

“You are safe. Everything is okay,” I tell myself.

I’ve gotten better at speaking to myself with kindness. When my emotions are settled, I pick them apart slowly. I honor them for what they are and hope that they forgive me.

“That is fear,” I say.

“That is anxiety. This emotion is temporary. I can feel it without being swallowed. I’m okay.”

“That is loathing. But I don’t need to hate myself. I did the best I could with what I had. I had good instincts and here I am on the other side. It’s okay,” I tell myself, “I am safe and no one is going to hurt me. I have many more resources now. I know how to take care of myself.”

I soothe the feelings till they are quiet. I rock them to sleep like babies. Feelings don’t have any logic. They are there to be accepted. Just like children. When my own children are not okay, I hold them and love them and reassure them. Here I am doing the same for myself—and hoping I can teach myself how to love myself better.

I compel the hidden men at the corner of my eye to never return. I stare at my life straight on.

 

Mireya S. Vela is a creative non-fiction writer and researcher in Los Angeles. In her work, Ms. Vela addresses the needs of immigrant Mexican families and the disparities they face every day. She tackles issues of inequity and how ingrained societal systems support the (ongoing) injustice that contributes to continuing poverty and abuse. Ms. Vela received her Bachelor’s degree in English from Whitter College—and received her Master of Fine Arts from Antioch University in 2018. She is also a visual artist.

Twitter: @mireyasvela
Instagram: mireyasvela
Visual Art website: mireyavela.com

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