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Breath & Shadow

Spring 2018 - Vol. 15, Issue 2

"It Is What It Is"

written by

Lindsey Morrison Grant

I lay in the dim quiet of the calculatingly sterile room, alone with my breath and thoughts, awash with discouragement, wrapped in the icy cloak of depression. My head jerked to the side repeatedly, unpredictably and uncontrollably to my chagrin and dismay. This was the onset of the “tic” that would haunt me for years as a foreboding precursor to “events.”


Whether its genesis was a reaction to one of the prescriptive magic bullet-esque capsules I obligingly swallowed every morning and evening or had some more organic cause, I never learned. I just knew in that moment, in that mental-ward room alone, IT was in control and I was out of it. A frosty chill had settled in my bones: a hybrid sensation of both fear and humiliation.


I was spent, but each time my thoughts would calm and I would begin to drift … the tic would prevail and snatch my serenity away and with it, my hope to escape the horrific reality of being locked in the “nuthouse” known as 2West. The scuffling whispers echoing in the hall and in my brain halted, followed by a brief, but sacred silence. It was broken in a breath by the obnoxiously loud latch and a shadowy figure entering the room. The voice was familiar and a comfort.


Dr. Hayes pulled up a chair to my bedside. I'd been drugged by my well-meaning captors and incapacitated by my depressive symptoms. The illness had attacked my cognition and ability to speak. I now had a stammer. Choking on my words, I gasped for air and grasped for hope. The tic manifested again and again. She sat there and watched. “What is it?” my eyes begged and wept.


Her reply was sincere and insightful (I now realize), but in that moment, it was simply an added frustration and offered no solace. Her response, “It is what it is,” was abstract. I needed concrete answers. I thought I would find them here in a house of science; get them from a woman of medicine. I was wrong and hope was fading. The universal truths of “Acceptance” and “Mindfulness” were light-years away from this black-hole of melancholy I was gravitating toward. My mind was a sieve and my chest felt as if every ounce of energy was being sucked out of it. All I could muster was a vague semblance and facade of normalcy. But the tears and terror betrayed me, at least in front of Dr. Hayes. “Be patient,“ she said with no appreciation for the pun. “It will get better.” She patted my hand and brushed my hair from my face. For a moment, I felt a tinge of comfort, but it quickly faded.


“It's a freight train,“ I whispered. “My foot's caught on the track.”


“I'll check back in with you,“ she said, as she turned to leave. In that moment, I felt we were both over our heads; her, beyond her expertise and me, out of my mind. And so, I was left alone in the dark, amid reminiscence and wonder... how I got here and if there was anything, at all, beyond the shadowy veil that obscured my future.


I was the “middle-child,” the “lost child” of four, only 10 ½ months younger than my older sister, and just 2 ½ years between my older and younger brothers. We weren't just “sandwiched” together, our house was a sardine can! Hindsight being as perfect as it is forgiving, I saw myself as an imposition from the get-go. My mother made that abundantly clear when she referred to me as “an accident.” Had I gone to my doctor six weeks after giving birth and learned that I was pregnant, again, I know I'd have struggled, too. However, that empathetic revelation came to me only after having four children of my own in quick succession. To my child's mind, “an accident” felt like “less wanted,” and “less wanted” was merely a gnat's breath from “unwanted” and “disposable.”


A preemie adrift in a sea of secondhand smoke with callow navigators parenting made for the perfect storm. A castaway in the hospital with pneumonia five times from age three-months to five-years, my only “rescue” was as an infant (presumed to be at Death's Door). A zealous trio of nuns scooped me up, whisking me off to the chapel for a “quickie” baptism. All was well after they sprinkled me, (to assuredly avert adding this one to the rolls of innocent uncovered souls in Limbo). My parents were livid, but I was “saved.”


Imprinted on my psyche, just like a hatch-ling, the images of people in white coats permanently became those of predators and perpetrators of pain. Mid-century for me was not a “vintage,” but rather a reoccurring nightmare muddled with separation anxiety, guilt, and abandonment. The logic of my child's mind turned the reoccurring trauma into a Life-lesson:


Never be sick, for when you are sick, you are less than perfect. When you are less than perfect, you disappoint people and they will, in turn, abandon you.


It was upon this ethos I operated for the next forty years. Always putting the health and welfare of my family before my own, I'd become a human sponge, absorbing responsibility for everyone's happiness while the weariness within turned to desperation. I became hollow, echoing affirmations to keep the darkness at bay. The tempest that was my conscious mind was swallowed in exhaustion and cradled in despair. My ethos, however, urged me to go on. Constantly fortifying my walls of normalcy with regimen and regulation; against the overwhelming fear of abandonment, my imagination was suppressed and soul dismissed.


In reflection, marrying a relative stranger at 19 was ill-advised. But like so many adolescent girls (especially those in love with love and saddled with abandonment issues), I would have rebuked Christ, Himself, had He warned me not to go there. I was the proverbial imbecile in the horror flick who just has to check-out that mysterious noise in the basement, and, yes, it was stormy and the lights had gone out.

Reasoning with an adolescent is like talking to a drunk. They nod in reluctant compliance, go ahead and do the most idiotic things, then in the light of the new day comes denial that a warning ever came their way. Like both the drunk and typical teenager, I looked for a scapegoat, someone to blame for my unhappiness. I didn't have to look far. And Jim had served well as that perfect scapegoat for nearly 21 years. His penchant for raging, berating, and blaming became legendary. His choice of substances with which to self-medicate and mitigate his woes varied, but, at the end of the day, it didn't matter. I was left without a banner of blame to march under. The weight of personal accountability for my own grief toppled the facade of “perfect wife and mother,” and collapsed the assumed-identity of Martyr Mom I'd constructed.


So, as the sunlight sliced through frosted stale windows, the shadows of their bars danced a Tarantella of mockery on my morning. The medicated fog was lifting and the realization of my life in shambles felt like a millstone. The ear-piercing decibel-reach of the PA system announced the arrival of the morning gravy-train. My ambition and appetite were well into the deficit range as I emerged from my room. A technician was standing at the nurses' station with tool belt awkwardly sagging. The nurse pointed in my direction. I stepped aside and together they entered the room. As the door latched behind them, a wave of vindication waft across my funny bone as I remembered indignantly placing a bed pillow over the single-eye surveillance camera near the ceiling before retiring the night before.


As I chuckled aloud in the day-room across the hall, I was approached by a young man. He had the swarthy good looks and swagger of Luke Perry's “Dylan,” of “90210.” Plopping down beside me, he introduced himself as Andrew. He was in the company of a gaunt, care-worn young woman with long, stringy hair and pressured half-smile. He asked what was going on in my room and I offered him the Readers' Digest condensed version. Just as I finished, the technician and nurse exited my room. His tool-belt still sagging. The bed pillow tucked beneath her arm, she threw an icy stare in my direction.


“So totally naughty, “Andrew said with vicarious pride.


Unintentionally and unceremoniously I had two compatriots. The young woman, Crystal, had been living in a Pinto with her boyfriend. They'd had a falling out. She went to her mother's, who turned her away. Out of frustration and rejection, Crystal began shouting suicidal threats. Her mother called the police. Now her life was “ruined,” thanks to Mom. This sentiment didn't endear her to me.


Andrew had been living with Patty and her two kids. He insisted their relationship was platonic. He was obsessed with “Buffy” and her autistic son. Buffy's rebuffing of him, was the catalyst for the emotional spiral that brought him to 2NW.


Throughout the day and into the evening I found the crazies' camaraderie kept at bay symptoms exacerbated by isolation and ruminations.  Playful banter proved insular. Humor, however dark, was grounding and provided a welcome respite. . . the ready release of endorphins so long hidden.


It was Super Bowl weekend and our caretakers felt popcorn in the day-room was appropriate. Even with my wits halved, I thought such a spectacle was less than appropriate, and most definitely not therapeutic. The celebrated screaming and viral violence; competition concentrate with hormone-heightened rage; the nature of a nation bent on victory and oblivious to the cloud encompassing 2NW.


Andrew, Crystal and I chatted for hours, the team of crazies against the tag-team of Steelers, Cowboys, and White Coats. As the television droned on its intermittent cheers and whistles, in that moment I was struck by the thought of how safe I was, given the increase of domestic violence on this NFL-conjured holiday. I chuckled at the irony of getting locked up to be secure from such an attack, kind of a “Protective Custody.”

However, in this case, there was some credence in the paternal accusation that the problem was, “all in your head”.


Having someone else on whom to heap the responsibility and blame for all my ills and misfortune had been my go-to and convenient truth. Unfortunately, Jim had been gone for a year and I was left with the fallout and responsibility for cleaning up the mess, now MY mess. Financial, emotional and mental stability was mine to discover and maintain.


Although there was glorious serenity in not having to jump to alert at the sound of his truck pulling into the driveway, and an equally splendid satisfaction in gleaning out his toys and trophies, cleaning up the carnage of two decades was a challenge I had yet to face. It was like the fine volcanic ash following the eruption of Mt. St. Helens. Shoveling and sweeping away the bulk of it allowed for an appearance of normalcy, but it was insidious and found its way into every crevice imaginable. Whether under a carpet or in the folds of innocence, it would reappear countless times and have to be dealt with.


After exhausting hours of three-way table-top popcorn hockey and intermissions of admissions of missteps and more, a night-nurse (we dubbed “Helga”) demanded we break up our “little party” and Andrew, Crystal and that I go to our rooms. Feeling more like a rebellious teen than a troubled adult, I complied, leaving the other two to duel and deal with Helga's Gestapo posturing. The laughter had been therapeutic, a refreshment to my weary soul, but I was done-in and knew that I had spent my energy allowance for the day.


The night flew furious and loud, with ward newbies on suicide-watch, the heavy doors creaked and slammed on the hour. The tic kept me company, if not grounded in the reality of this surreal happenstance.


Daybreak brought the ear-piercing blare of good-eats on plastic trays with plastic spoons and plastic faces steeped in feigned concern. It was the day of dismissal for Andrew, Crystal, and I. Each of us was individually interviewed. I felt none of us was prepared to be set out upon the wide-wide world. Crystal had no home to return to, had expressed no remorse for her attempt, and seemed predisposed to choose the same chaotic path again.

While she was in her “exit interview” I sat in the day-room with Andrew. He opened his day-planner. Inside was a single-edged razor. He put his finger to his lips, but that was a needless gesture. I had my own secrets, my own back-doors toward what I felt were exits to safety.


The previous day and evening had exhausted me. In this place of so much agony, all I felt from professionals was condescension. What I yearned for was some validation and some valid explanations. Dr. Lueong had pronounced me as “bipolar,” but that only raised more questions than it answered. Communication, I've always felt, was a sign of respect. There was so little direct communication and interaction (other than with my peers) I felt justified in keeping my secrets, my thoughts and feelings hidden beneath the pretentious masque of normalcy and obedience. That was what was expected and that was what was deemed “perfect,” at least “perfect” enough for my “Get Out of 2NW Free” card.


I interviewed from behind the shield of fabrication and was disappointed when it was not even questioned. I chose to feel safe in my exit strategy and the professionals appeared to feel safe choosing not to question the quality, texture or durability of my fabric.


They sent me home, on my own that Super Bowl Monday morning with a ticket to ride mass transit and no assurance as to where my path would lead; no Thomas Guide; no “Get Out of Jail Free” card. I felt bankrupt in this medical Monopoly, while they engorged to their own self-serving and self-justified delight … on the patient pain. I was as “stable” as either Crystal or Andrew, but none of us were really “safe.” Safety and security abide in trust and in knowledge. I was ignorant about mental health and filled that void with all experience had taught me:


The Fearful Ethos: Never be sick, for when you are sick, you are less than perfect. When you are less than perfect, you disappoint people and they will, in turn, abandon you.


My new compatriots saw me as perfect in my imperfection. We shared the same flaws. Our human frailties bound us together, united in our not-knowing we held back the fear for a time. A very short time.


Although Crystal separated from the boyfriend in the Pinto, it was not long before there was another one of the same ilk who she would sacrifice her dignity and hope to. I saw her once, with Andrew, after we were all released. She was still on a rant about how her mother had ruined her life. I knew I could be no help. I had my own maternal struggles but knew that leaving my feelings on my mother's doorstep was pointless. She neither deserved this nor would she have even acknowledged them.


Andrew and I had beers one night at The Jubitz Truck-stop. We shot pool and he confessed to me that he'd been intimate with Crystal. My reaction was to predict her subsequent dependency and feelings of rejection. They came in waves, (as did her relationships) with a vicious and insidious undertow that would eventually take her down and well over her head.


Andrew was caviler about his relationships, but not his passion. It was Buffy, in the end, who rebuffed him one too many times. Though he was dearly loved by the woman and two children with whom he was living and by his wife with the two children he had fathered, both mentioned at his funeral that he was a whirling dervish, whose 27 years had been lived fast and furiously, if not fully.


My path was straighter though more hectic. It would include many more hospitalizations, interventions, stern looks and reprimands. To Death's Door and back numerous times over. Prescriptive talk and tablets, conversation and caplets would be the stuff I'd build safe boundaries out of for nearly two decades.


Recovery allows me to observe the past and emerge unscathed. Not dwelling or immersing myself in the mire of guilt and shame, but rather celebrating the successful, strengths-based life I'm now living, moment by moment, and breath by breath. The Past is a universal reference library which warehouses wisdom, our own and the vicarious victories of others. It's a marvelously rich place to visit, but it was never intended to be a place to abide a lifetime.


It is what it is.

A self-proclaimed “Creative,” Lindsey Morrison Grant is an award-winning poet, screenwriter, journalist, photographer, ceramic and mixed-media artist from Portland, Oregon. She has been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, PTSD, ADD with various and sundry ills. She is an ordained minister and State Certified Peer Support Specialist. While working to obtain her degree in Social Work from Concordia University-Portland, she was hospitalized twice a year. Nevertheless, she persisted and graduated cum laud. Twenty years after her initial diagnosis at age 40, she attributes her current stability/wellness to her invaluable support network, personal accountability, mindfulness practice.….. and, of course, practicing creative expression in words, sounds, and images.

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