Tuesday, April 24, 2012


For some time now, we've been sharing our home with two new siblings. Well, they're not new siblings to each other, of course. They're new to us.

They are a sister and a brother who face the extinction of their family. The dismantling of what they have come to know as their family, anyway: a fractured thing, broken to pieces by the carelessness of those who call themselves parents.

I won't be judgmental, though. It's not my place. I'm sure - in fact I know - that this is painful for everyone and that they are fully aware of what they've done. I need not go on about it.

We're not sure where this is headed. We're not sure where we've come from, either. We've endured six months of disorienting confusion as if being led around a carnival fun house with blindfolds. If this were a staged drama, it would resemble Six Characters In Search of an Author.

The expurgated synopsis (sorry theater folks for having to do this) goes something like this: six strangers show up at the rehearsal of a play in search of an author to finish their stories after having been abandoned by their previous author and left incomplete. In a nutshell, it's a wonky story about abandonment, the ego and the nature of reality. The kind of play they'd have you dissect in high school English that would force you to hate theater forever.

The story of our current sibling visitors is precisely that: a wonky story about abandonment, the ego and the nature of reality. The stage being the Maine courts, our house, DHHS offices. The characters being innocent children, well-meaning bureaucrats, duplicitous biological family members, and a couple of crazy folks. You can guess which roles Corrine and I landed.

It's almost a tragicomedy. It would be a full-out farce if children's lives weren't the center of the plot.

So we're waiting. In a week or so a judge will decided how this stage of the children's lives will end, and in which direction their new story will take. Will he decide to send them back to their original author, or to someone else?

We don't know. We have no read on this at all. And no say.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Biggest Bitch I Know

I'm not really one you'll find expounding on the problems in my life. Not without a heavy dose of exaggeration and humor and self-effacing wit. To be honest, I'd rather not have everyone know about the true nature of how I'm feeling at a given moment. I'd much prefer that everyone know I'm doing great.

I am doing great, to be sure. I have a multitude of blessings, in fact: starting with a partner who is just the right combination of June "Ward, I'm very worried about the Beaver" Cleaver and Gunnery Sergeant "You had best un-fuck yourself!" Hartman. She coddles me and dotes on me when I don't deserve it; she will grab me by the balls and kick my ass when I need it. She takes in stray horses and abandoned children and somehow makes it all work.

There are my younger children, who are a bundle of high-octane joy; and there are my older children who have somehow managed to thrive despite being asked to live with some not-so-great situations.

Both of my parents, and my in-laws, are alive and healthy, something I cannot say for my two best friends, who have seen their mothers pass away within the last few years. I can't imagine the grief and emptiness they had to confront in order to soldier on the way they have.

My siblings are alive, and happy, and living their lives - like me - vicariously through their children.

And just this weekend I reconnected with friends I've had for the past 15 years.

Life really, truthfully, is good for me. I can't complain. And I won't.

But I'll be damned if I'm not having to deal with something that scares the hell out of me.

Here's the set up: A year ago I woke up in the middle of the night with your garden-variety winter cold: congestion with a little bit of a rattle in my chest. Nothing anyone hasn't experienced a hundred times in their life, right? Except, as it turns out, the blocked sinuses triggered a dream in which I was suffocating. I woke up with a racing heart, sweaty palms, and this overwhelming fear that I could not catch my breath.

I sat up immediately, which woke up Corrine. I mumbled something about being okay when she asked, and I hurriedly put on clothes while trying to catch my breath. Breathing in deeply - I was filling my lungs with air, I could tell - but still feeling like that wasn't enough.

If you've ever had an anxiety attack, you know what comes next, don't you? Feelings of terror. Of dying. Of your heart exploding or your lungs collapsing. Each bad image followed by something worse, yet in the back of your mind you know you're in the grips of something irrational.

Wait. I'm healthy. I don't have a heart condition.

Yet, you can't possibly countermand the overwhelming power of fear, not when it's the first time you've ever experienced something like this.

Well, no, you don't have a heart condition...THAT YOU KNOW OF.

I couldn't get my heart rate down, I couldn't catch my breath. I couldn't stop from shaking or pacing or feeling like I was about to pass out.

Corrine knew what was happening, and her voice helped to settle me a little. Just enough.

I won't enumerate the various steps I went through that night - including an embarrassing  trip to the emergency room where they told me I was fine. I was fine, just experiencing an anxiety attack (a first for me) brought on by asthma (another first).

What anxiety did to me was nearly crippling. It adversely affected my college class work (I missed two finals, a final paper, and lots of class time); I couldn't eat; I slept in a recliner fretfully for two weeks, waking up every hour or so to drink hot tea; and I slipped into probably the worst bout of depression I've ever experienced. I thought of the end of my life, of death, of despair. I couldn't watch sad movies, or movies with death in them. I was short with Corrine and the kids.

I went to the doctor, who knew right away what was happening, of course, and prescribed some medicine to help cope with the anxiety, inhalers for the asthma, etc. It helped, and after a month or so I can say I was back to "normal."

Until this past week.

I experienced another near-crippling anxiety attack during yet another average winter cold. All over again. Well, to a degree. Having lived through it once, this time I knew what to expect. There was no heart-racing, palm-sweating episode this time. Just the gut-punch of terror, and now the depression.

The added twist this time is jaw-clenching at night, which seems to have triggered a bout of TMJ. TMJ being when you overwork the muscle that connects your lower jaw to your skull so much that it feels like you've been chewing on a shoe for a week. It feels tight and I'm incapable of opening my mouth as wide as normal without feeling pain. And of course, someone who has a fear of suffocation will naturally hit the panic button if he can't open his mouth to breathe. Hey, like I said, fear is irrational. When does anyone need to open their mouth that wide to breathe??

But it's there. The fear. Regardless. And the accompanying anxiety, which has finally, mercifully, subsided. Now the depression has hit, like the tsunami that it is: wiping out everything in its path, sucking the debris of goodness and joy out to some mental sea.

I put on a brave face, of course. I bet this weekend our friends in Vermont didn't notice how I had to basically puree my food because chewing kills me. Or that I was not my usually jovial self. How, at one moment, while watching their extremely lovely young daughter read to my wife, the bottom fell out and the blood drained from my face. Suddenly all I could focus on was what my own daughter's life would be if I was gone. How would she cope. That's depression for you, folks.

It is the biggest bitch I know.

I did have a great time, getting out with Corrine, alone, to see some great people. Actually, it was great therapy. Enormously therapeutic. That's what you do when you deal with depression. You have these wicked swings, you breathe through them, and try to even your emotional keel.

And I will work back to normalcy like I did a year ago, after some time. I know it. I have way too much goodness in my life to be throttled like this, to be captured and held down. That's what I bring my mind back to when I feel desperation.

Anxiety is a funny thing. Funny in a "queer" sort of way, of course. It's a lesson in the power of the mind, in the mysterious way the brain works - or doesn't work, I suppose. But also, a lesson in the value of the blessings in one's life. I shudder to think what my life would be like having to face this without them.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Fruit for Thought

As I was perusing my old philosophy notebooks recently (as I'm often found to be doing, now that I'm on a mini college hiatus and yearning to go back) one particular quote attributed to Aristotle popped out at me. It vibrated in the margins of my notes  the same way a solitary birch can shimmer in a forest of firs and elms.

Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow ripening fruit

There are countless platitudinous throw-aways to friendship out there. You see them all over Facebook. Those infernal placards posted by your friends dripping with Leo Buscaglia, and as trite as a Hallmark movie featuring a child sitting in a field of dandelions on a sunny day in August while drinking lemonade with her grandmother.


I like Aristotle's take on it. A very simple statement. Uncluttered. Unadorned by sickly sweetness. He puts it right out there: getting friends is a hell of a lot easier than keeping them.

Like you, I count many people in my life as "friends", when applying a very broad definition. But I can truthfully say that really only a few fall into Aristotle's ripe variety. A friend that has been around for awhile, whose friendship has lasted on the vine, so to speak without falling away.

I think the Big A was suggesting that it's natural that we humans desire the closeness of a companion, but that we hazard failure if we don't make the time and effort to let it mature. And really, how many friendships can you recall that have been long lost to inattention? To "life" sweeping us away from them? When the graduations and the marriages and the births and the promotions far outweigh (so we believe) the diligence necessary to maintain friends.

Like the viticulturist who nurses his vineyard, the work is daunting and time-consuming, in a world where slamming down 30 bucks for a bottle of wine is a hell of a lot more convenient than doing the work itself. The implicit attitude here being "Why would I work so hard at something that I can get so easily at my local grocery store?"

I've certainly made quick work of my share of friendships, so understand that I'm not throwing green apples at glass houses here.

I do have a couple of good, ripe friendships to my credit. Friends I've known now for many years and whose company - regardless of the distance between us - I savor. So naturally I've wondered why they've stood the test of time and not all those others, and the answer actually just now came to me as I write this.

In those few instances they - like me - worked to cultivate the friendship, not the friend. It's a subtle difference, but it's an important one. They didn't want me to ripen ("get better with change") they wanted the friendship to.