A Bad Attitude about Gratitude – Part 2 – Too Mad to be Grateful

“There, there, human; you’re having a bad day.”—Critter, demonstrating the most profound, shattering, and healing grace when my soul is blistering and I can’t feel gratitude.

Morning comes. I’ve barely slept. My two-hour doze felt like a shower without soap and I feel outrageously ripped off.

I need sleep. Just one, glorious, fathoms-deep coma. A snoring, drooling, multi-cycle REM fugue. 35 hours or so should do it. I’ll be good as new, restored to human-like functioning and able to face the remaining years of parenthood and the distant decades of my life.

But I can’t have that. My six-year-old’s night-cough won’t let me sleep and I’m feeling the cold hand of dread on my chest warning that something very bad is coming on.

I sit on the side of my bed and stare at the red eyes of the alarm clock, weighing whether to get up and head straight for the shower or to smash it with a hammerfist first.

A sarcastic yawn behind me interrupts my ponder. I turn, and in the dim light I can just make out the silhouette of my imaginary raccoon, stretching theatrically.

“Or maybe the only real problem is your flair for drama,” she says. “I mean, kids get sick every day, right? Normal sick. Non-life-threatening sick. Plain old, snot-nosed, terrible hand-hygiene kind of sick.”

“Well, not so much for raccoon cubs,” she continues, “but it’s pretty much the defining experience of human childhood, would you say? Crusty shirtsleeves and nighttime coughs. That’s kids. This is not a tragedy. It’s just life.”

“But it’s killing me, Critter.” I whisper. “My brain is on fire. I can’t fucking do this much longer.”

“Sure you can,” she says and hops up on my shoulder. “You’ve just got to stop shitting the bed. Start taking care of you.”

I grind my molars. “You know I fucking hate it when you talk to me like a shit-munching know-it-all, right?”

“Yeah,” Critter yawns. “But do I care?”

Goddamn it!

She’s probably right. But I can’t say that to her now. I grab her under her armpits and drop her a little rougher-than-necessary on the floor. She lands on all fours and twists around to give me stink eye. Then she brushes off her shoulders and trots off.

I angrily tiptoe to the bathroom and sit on the toilet, her words still ringing in my ears.

“You’re shitting the bed,” she said. “Start taking care of you.”

Yes, but how? I’d love to stop shitting the bed and take care of me, but I can’t see a single thing I could change in this situation. How do I correct an error I can’t see?

It always comes back to that same question, doesn’t it? Whenever I feel like I’m drowning on dry land, the problem always turns out to be that I martyred myself. Like some kind of stupid, drama-addicted ape.

When I feel like my challenges are insurmountable, I’m usually failing to grasp perspective: distance, boundaries, realistic expectations. A small way I could ask for help that would make all the difference in the world.

I just can’t see it. Or I blind myself to the solution. Like the untouchably hopeless part of my soul won’t let my brain consider the fix, because it’s already decided nothing will ever help.

I know I’m missing something with this stupid night cough. I just don’t know what it is, and I feel like a fucking idiot. I hate feeling like this. What the bloody hell am I supposed to be doing?

I stumble through the morning. Find myself standing beside the car. The kids are already buckled up inside, thanks to my husband. I try to shake off the queasy fog of unreality as I pull our vehicle away from the snow-crusted curb. We’re basically on time. That’s good, I guess. Although I don’t even have the energy to stress about being late today. It’s all I can do to autopilot the truck to my oldest daughter’s school.

The weather is pretty warm. The streets are slushy. Gotta keep the wipers going almost non-stop.

Aw, shit!

The washer fluid’s getting low. I stare into the review mirror, giving short little squirts of smurf juice to the back window while the wiper squeaks a smeary little arc.

I’m zoned right in, trying to catch the exact moment when the glass comes clear so I can let go of the trigger and conserve every possible drop of that vital blue liquid.

My throat tightens as I imagine the next time the windshield will go opaque and I’ll press the washer button and nothing will come out. I’ll have an accident for sure. I’ll…

JESUS MARY FUCKBALLS!

I’m sliding into the exit lane, about to smash mirrors with a black SUV. It swerves onto the shoulder. I suck wind and brake hard. Behind me, headlights dip. I wring the wheel in my hands. The black truck zips past, weaves back into the lane in front of me, and speeds off.

My heart is jackhammering in my throat. Jesus Christ. I didn’t see that guy at all. Not at all. Where did he come from? Did he try to pass me while I exited? Or was he in my blind spot when I veered over? Did I even check? Oh, fuck me; I don’t remember checking. It’s usually automatic. Oh God. Is this what I do, now? Drive like a fucking drunk?!?

From the back seat, the three-year-old screams. “Noooooo!”

I flinch and start to turn around to look at her, then snap back forward. My heart bashes in my ears. Keep your eyes on the motherfucking road, dipshit!

“What’s wrong?” I ask with a high-pitched warble.

“No, no, no, NOOOOOOO!” my little one screams.

“Goddamn it! Tell me what’s wrong!”

My oldest answers for her; “Her bagel fell on the floor when you jerked the car,” she says.

Sweet titty-slapping Christ.

“I’m sorry Honey,” I moan. “Mommy’s sorry your food fell down.”

“Pick. it. UP!” the little one shrieks.

I take a breath. Eyes on the road. I’m not going to fucking swerve again. I’m not. “I can’t get it right now, Sweetheart. I’ll grab it for you it when we get stopped, okay? Mommy needs to drive right now.”

My pissed-off preschooler takes a huge breath and releases all her angst in a glass-cracking, blood-curdling gust. Then she pops her thumb into her mouth and slurps loudly as we finish the drive to her big sister’s school.

For the rest of the morning, my little one punishes me. At least, it feels that way. We go to the gym and she flops onto the floor when I ask her to take off her boots. In the bathroom, she bolts out of our stall and slams the door in another when I ask her to sit on the potty. She clings to me when I try to leave her in the daycare room, and ignores me when I come to pick her up. It takes us twenty inner-screaming minutes to get ourselves back outside to the car.

That’s where we find her bagel. Cream-cheese-down, smashed into the musty, wet carpet. Forgotten and stepped on, accusing, and righteously disgusted with me, as everything seems to be.

The day continues in that vein. By the time my Tiny Hitler goes down for her nap, we’re both ready for mutual annihilation.

I cancel a webchat with a work friend and curl up in a ball on top of my bed. My head is pounding. My eyes are burning. I just need sleep. God, I wish I could sleep.

I’m pretty sure my little bite-sized rage-a-holic feels the same way. We all need some fucking sleep. What the bleeding clusterfuck am I going to do tonight?

“You’re lucky,” Critter’s voice whispers in my ear. “Consider all you have.”

Fuck everything I have! I think. None of it can help me!

Hang on. That’s not true. One thing I have is my husband. Why the fuck don’t I enlist the deep-sleeping bastard in my nightly battle?

That night, when the coughing starts, I roll over, plant both my feet, and shove husband in the butt.

“You go help her,” I whisper.

He gets up, sleep-fogged. “Okay.” He comes back 30 seconds later. Slips back into bed and is snoring before the springs stop bouncing.

From down the hall, my daughter’s lungs continue to like a kickstart that never catches.

Motherfucker!

I kick my husband again. Hard this time. “Did you do the lemon?” I hiss.

“What lemon?”

“Nevermind! I’ll fucking do it!” I toss the blanket off me in a huff and quiet-stomp out of the room.

I go downstairs to fix the only thing that seems to slow the cough down: warm lemon water. It buys a couple of hours of mucus-thinning relief. With or without honey, doesn’t matter. I’ve learned this during the last fifteen nights of delirious trial and error.

While I squeeze a lemon wedge above the cup, squirting pulp all over my fingers and the counter and the front of my nightshirt, I grumble in my head; Why the fuck can’t my husband ever do this shit? Why can’t it ever cross his untroubled little mind???

I have no answer.

I bring the cup up to my daughter’s bedside. She’s asleep. Didn’t even wake herself up. I hesitate, then leave it on her bedstand. I slide back into bed.

Ten minutes later, she’s coughing again.

I jump to my feed and pound on the bed with both fists like a silverback who’s snapped.

My husband jumps from his enchanted sleep into the corner by the headboard, his ladder-long legs shrinking away from my insane shitfit as far as the space will allow.

I see him recoiling as I wail on our bed, denting twelve inches of cotton and foam and creaking steel springs. I smash and smash and smash like I’m trying to break it.

When I stop, my husband is still.

I can’t say I’m sorry. The cough comes again. I swallow my rage and head back to my girl’s room. This time I make her sit up. Take a sip. Try to get her to blow some of the throat-tickling stickiness out of her nose. She grunts a closed-mouth yell and flops over, turning her back to me.

I grab two fistfulls of my hair. What the fuck am I doing???

Critter’s words float back to me, “Take care of you.

I stalk back down the hall and go back to bed. I lay there on the spot I just used as an anvil and my heart drums deafeningly in my ears. My teeth clench. My breaths come hard through my nose. My legs twitch.

My husband is lying very still. Too still to be asleep. I roll over. He rolls over.

What have I done? I just broke the unbreakable sleeper. Now none of us will get any sleep. I made it worse, and worse, and worse.

A tickle in my ear startles me, and I almost jump out of my skin. It’s Critter, her whiskers poking deep into my aural canal as she takes a breath to whisper; “Oh good!” she says. “You’re up!”

“I am not up. Fuck off. I’m trying to sleep.”

“Stop living a lie,” she says. “Come downstairs. I have snacks.”

The prospect of a snack softens the barbed wire in my belly. I wonder if she has cheese. I sigh, get up, and go downstairs.

Midway down the stairs, I pick up a whiff of something rotten. I stop.

“Oh perfect!” I mutter. “The little one has shat her goddamn pants in her goddamn sleep. This is exactly what we need right now: a lights-on, baby-crying, eighteen-wiping, eye-watering, fecal horror cleanup!”

I laugh inside like a lunatic and climb back up to the second floor. I stick my face into the little one’s room. I snort deeply. No poop.

What the fuck???

I head back downstairs, and realize the smell is getting stronger as I near the main floor. On the last stair, the smell hits me like heavy bag full of diapers.

“What the fucking fuck?” I hiss and step into the kitchen where I take in the horror.

Critter has spread a buffet on the table—the week’s contents of the compost bin.

She looks up and sees me gagging in the doorway. “Yay, you came!” she says around a nasty mouthful. She claps her little hands.

I step closer, deeper into the nightmare. Critter grins, then carries on crunching her mouthful of KFC bones from last Sunday. I can hear the gristle popping between her teeth. A splash of vomit leaps into my mouth.

Critter swallows and spreads her arms like Vanna White. “Don’t you see? You’re surrounded by a bounty of good fortune! Got enough food to suffocate your whole family. Scratch that, you could feed the entire North American raccoon army.”

“Good fortune?” I whisper. “Here’s what I think of my good fortune!” I step into the table, scoop a handful of sludge in my right hand, wind up, and fling it over Critter’s shoulder at the pantry door. SPLAT. I reload and fire again. Again and again, shouting, flinging, smashing.

Apple cores and cucumber nubs bounce off the door with dull thuds. Carrot peels dangle from splattered lumps of oatmeal, then they slowly curl away in a weird swandive to splat on the floor. A handful of shredded cabbage, too dry to fly far, flutters down on Critter’s shoulders like snow.

I throw and throw and throw until there’s nothing left of her raccoon feast but putrid spackle and shrivelled confetti. She stares at me, mouth agape. I break off and bawl into my folded arms. I come up with mashed potatoes in my hair.

“I wish I could be grateful, Critter. Goddamn it, I really do. I just can’t. I can’t. I’m fucking ruined.”

I collapse into a chair, close my eyes, and sob open-mouthed for what feels like a year. After a while, Critter tiptoes over and sits on the table by my shoulder. I put my face in my hands and she gently pats my hair.

“There, there, human,” she soothes. “You’re having a bad a day.”

I lift my face and laugh so loud I’m sure it will wake the kids. But thankfully, Critter’s magic seems to wrap a cone of silence around my hysterics. I sober up with a sniff when I realize I’m truly thankful for that.

“Oh my god, Critter,” I say, wiping with the back of my wrist at the trails of tears running through the filth on my face. “I… I’m so fucking… Jesus. I needed that. You gave me… I can’t even think what. Just, thank you. Thank you so fucking much. And I’m really sorry about your buffet.”

“You’re fucking welcome,” she says, grinning. “And it’s alright. I love a good food fight.” She leans in to lick some gravy off my cheek. I jump because her whiskers tickle and it makes me want to scream.

“Stop! No. I’ll take a shower. Thanks, though.”

“Suit yourself,” she sighs. We both survey the damage.

I groan. Grab the roll of paper towels. Groan some more.

Critter laughs. “Listen,” she says. “Normally I’d say you should face the music for this tomfoolery, but I don’t think that’s what you need tonight. You go get the bacon grease out of your hair, and I’ll call in some favours to get this all cleaned up.”

“Wow. Really?” I ask.

“You bet,” she says. “Tomorrow morning, we’ll figure all of this out. For now, go sleep.”

“Ok,” I say. Then I yawn and scrub my eyes like a toddler.

We’ll figure this out tomorrow.

A Bad Attitude About Gratitude – Part 1 – First World Problems

“You’re shitting the bed. But you’re not failing them, you’re failing you.”  – Critter, trying to point out something I’m missing on my slow descent to hell.

It’s December 14 at 2:45 am. I’m in bed like I should be but I can’t make my fucking brain sleep. I roll over. Punch the pillow. Adjust my shoulders. Sigh noisily and squeeze my eyes shut and strain to press my thoughts through the membrane of consciousness. If I can just make the shift into sleep, I know I’ll be healed.

But I can’t make it happen. I’m too stiff, clenched tight from jaw to anus. My body won’t melt like it’s supposed to so I can slip into to sweet oblivion. I feel like a chunk of raw carrot in the kitchen sink. Too big for the drain holes but I keep ramming myself against them because I need that darkness and quiet on the other side.

This isn’t going to work; I can see that. But I can’t stop jabbing and jabbing. I don’t know what else to do.

Oh Jesus, I think. If I don’t get some sleep I’m gonna bite somebody’s face off oh please oh please oh please let me sleep tonight, PLEASE OH FUCKING PLEASE!

Down the hall, a wheezy cough erupts and slaps me out of my silent hysterics. It’s my six-year-old; her nightly lung-busting performance. It’s been brutal these last few weeks, a twice- or thrice-per-night torture. Turning my usual insomnia into a wobbly funhouse of rage and despair.

“I’m in hell,” I whisper to no one.

Near my head, I hear a snort. “You’re not in hell,” says a familiar, rodenty voice. It’s Critter, my imaginary raccoon. She’s come around to bust my ovaries. She calls it “reality checking” and “straight-talk” and “tough love”. I call it being a bossy asshole and am not in the mood for her smug lectures or mouldy breath.

“Fuck off,” I mutter.

From the top of my dresser, I hear Critter sigh. “You’re hunched up like a snake with the piles,” she says. “But may I point out—you have the privilege of grappling with your angst in the comfort of a warm, dry bed?”

I don’t answer. My face gets hot.

“Carry on, if you like,” Critter says. “But I consider this: there at least twenty-three billion creatures on the planet—many of them, human—who would literally bite your face off to get up in here.”

“I don’t need your fucking guilt-trip, rodent. My brain is melting out my goddamned ears.” I spit the words as quietly as I can, trying not to wake my husband.

“First world problems,” Critter whispers back.

I growl in the back of my throat. If it weren’t so dark and I wasn’t afraid to knock over the lamp, I’d reach out and choke my sanctimonious little advisor. Instead, I flip her the bird and grab my sweater. Then I shuffle off to my daughter’s room. There’s a thump on the carpet as Critter hops off the dresser to follow me.

In my six-year-old’s room, the night light illuminates the shape of my firstborn. She’s curled on her side, her back to me. Her limbs are splayed like tossed laundry, and her favourite blanket is scrunched around her waist. It’s got all the characters from Frozen on it. Olaf stares at me with an absurd grin.

“This isn’t funny, you witless coke-head,”  I mutter.

From behind me, Critter asks, “What’d the snowman to do you?”

“Come on; the guy’s a maniac! That stupid tagline? ‘Some people are worth melting for?’ What a load of martyr-breeding bullshit,” I answer.

Then I whisper to the blanket. “You can’t help anybody if you let yourself melt, asshole.”

Critter trots up to my daughter’s bed, stand on her hind legs, and peers over the side. Then she looks at me and shakes her head.  “Yet here you are, letting your brain melt all over your girl-cub’s duvet,” she says.

I clench my fists and don’t answer.

My daughter coughs again, still asleep.

My blood pressure rises eight points. Do I wake her up and try to soothe the cough? Or should I leave her be? Does she really need me, or am I standing here on the verge of a sleep-deprived psychosis because I’m the ridiculous engineer of my own burnout?

Critter pipes up again; “You spend a lot of time agonizing.”

“I told you to fuck off, Critter!” I answer under my breath. “I’m not doing this with you tonight. Go fuck a pinecone or something.”

Critter shrugs. “Fine. But you’re shitting the bed,” she says. She drops back to all fours and heads toward the door.

You think I don’t know that!” I hiss. But she’s already gone.

In the next room, my three-year old cries out. “Mooooommy! Fix it!”

I groan and tiptoe from one doorway to the other. The little one is sitting up in her converted crib-bed and whipping her covers left to right.

“Make them smooth!” she says. “I want then SMOOTH, Mommy! NOW!!!”

Critter pokes her head into the room. “Wow, that kid is getting intense. Like a little Howard Hughes in training.” Then she pops back out.

I moan. Pull my hands through my hair. Take a big breath. Then I kneel down beside the little bed and try to speak calmly. “Listen, sweetheart. I know you’re tired. Sister’s cough keeps waking you up, doesn’t it? Let me close your door so you can have some quiet.”

I can see the little one’s eyes bulge in the dim light. “No, Mummy, no! Don’t close the door. I’ll be quiet. I’ll be good! Door open! Open! Pleeeeeee-eee-eee-ease!” Her tiny fists shake and her voice cracks into a wail.

My brain feels like it’s about to burst. I take a shuddering breath. “Shhhh, shhhhh, baby. Shhh. You need to stop yelling, okay? Or Mommy will have to close your door. Please, baby. Shhh. You be quiet, now, and we’ll leave it open. Okay?”

My little one takes two big sniffs and reaches for my neck. I lean in for a hug, but she just grabs a handful of my nightshirt and wipes her nose. I wrap my arms around her anyway. She melts into my chest and pops her thumb into her mouth. I hold her to my heart for a moment, then lay her back down on her bed. “Everything’s going to be okay,” I whisper, but my throat is full of tears.

“Fix my blanket,” she whispers with her baby-soft voice. “I need it smooth.”

I bite my lip, feeling pretty sure that this is how you cultivate OCD, and smooth out the motherfucking blanket. “Goodnight,” I whisper, and kiss her head.

When I step back into the hallway, Critter is there with her arms crossed, shaking her head.

I peek back in on my big girl. Her foot twitches. She coughs again. And again. Then three in a row.

Cough-cough-cough, big inhale.

Cough-cough-cough. Whimper.

Poor fucking kid.

I step to the bed and slide one arm under her shoulders, the other under her knees. I haul her up to sitting and fluff the pillows and giant stuffies behind her to keep her propped up. My daughter moans but doesn’t open her eyes.

“Here, Sweetie. Have a sip,” I whisper, holding her sippy cup against her hand.

She doesn’t take it.

“Come on, Baby. Have some water. You’re coughing.”

She frowns and rolls her head toward my voice. Her eyelids crack open like sticky clamshells.

“Here, Sweetie,” I say again and press the cup into her hand.

My daughter looks at the cup, then at me. She’s got droopy, red-rimmed eyes like a bloodhound. She says, “Mommy, why can’t I stop?”

I wince. “I don’t know, Baby,” I whisper. She’s not sick. Right as rain during the day. No allergies. No identifiable issues causing the cough. We’re blessed, right? She’s just got this brain-crushing, soul-squeezing night cough. And it will not ease up this month.

My girl takes a sip of her water. Then she lays her head back on the pillow. Her hand falls to her lap, still holding the cup. She moans. Her eyes flutter and close, and her chest resumes the steady rise-and-fall of slumber.

I slip the cup out of her hand and set it on her night table. I kiss her hair, and snort deep  of her baby shampoo smell. Then I tiptoe out of her room.

In the middle of the hallway, Critter’s reflective eyes flash green. She’s sitting like a cat now, twitching her tail. “When I said you were shitting the bed, I didn’t mean you were failing her,” she says. “You know that, don’t you?”

I scrub my hands over my face. “I don’t know anything, Critter.”

Critter sighs. “We need to talk about YOU, dummy. You’re failing you. Can’t you feel it?”

I frown. My throat burns. “I know,” I choke. “But I can’t do better right now. I’m empty. I can’t.”

Critter’s shoulders droop. “I know,” she says. She looks at the carpet. “I just wish you’d talk to me.”

I take a big breath and push out a sigh. Tears start to gush. “Not today,” I whisper and head back to my perfectly luxurious, warm, comfy bed.

I hang up my sweater and slide under the covers as quietly as I can. I settle on my side and hold my breath, feeling for movement from my husband. Did I wake him?

He rolls over, then inhales with a soft snore. I let my breath out.

Critter leaps up onto the bed and nestles herself behind my shoulders. “We’ll talk tomorrow,” she says. The warmth of her little body soaks into me. My tears soak into the pillow. Something lets go, and the night finally ends.

A Bad Attitude About Gratitude – Get ready for a stream of posts

Hey there friends. I’ve missed you guys and have been thinking of you all a lot. Since my last post, we’ve had approximately seven hundred and sixteen conversations. In my head, that is. I’ve been talking to you while I put yogurt in my daughter’s lunch and forget to pack her spoon. I compose tweets and essays for you while I shave my belly in the shower. I take you with me everywhere.

I’m just having a hell of a time writing it all down. I keep trying, but it won’t come out. It’s like trying to blow your nose after a cat has walked into the room. Your sinuses inflate like one of those airplane lifejackets and the pressure makes you wish your eyes would pop out. And then a trickle of snot touches the edge of your nostril and it feels like lighter fluid and your nerves ignite and the tip of your nose sizzles like an M-80 fuse and you reach for a kleenex and whisper a prayer and suck in a breath and close your mouth and push it out and blow, blow, blow for the salvation of your soul!

And nothing comes out.

That’s what it’s been like writing this post.

Anyway, I’m doing it now. This is me giving one last grunt to clear my head so I can push out the one-sided conversation I’ve been having with you. Hopefully, now you can actually respond, and your voice will penetrate into the echo chamber of my self-obsession and let me be more like a real person. At least for a while.

The essay I’ve been chewing on, and which is about to come at you like a snot-rocket, is about the struggle for gratitude. If you’ve ever felt like shit when someone wrote #blessed, this series of posts is for you. Especially if it made you want to scream and throw your coffee because you love that grateful person and genuinely want them to be deeply, thoroughly, orgasmically blessed but COME ON, now I feel like I have to be #blessed, too, and I just can’t right now, okay?!?

The grateful part of me is numb and it might have fallen off. I haven’t looked at my blessings in a long time partly because I forgot and mostly because I’m only really in touch with the spider-leg hairs growing out of my navel. And with them, I’m so intimate it’s transcendent, but ultimately I guess it’s not healthy, because look at me failing at basic human empathy. And I can’t even explain why other people’s gratitude makes me think about how horrifyingly privileged I am and how I have no goddamned right to sit here sighing and sobbing and thinking violent thoughts. But I am.

The idea of gratitude can be a guilt trap. But I’m pretty sure it can also be the only way to catch our breath in a shitty, unfixable situation. Like knowing that you’re pathologically morose, and melodramatic, and self-centered, and not being able to stop being that way. I think the bad news is that we need to figure out how to do gratitude if we want to feel better.

More importantly, we need some kind of grasp on gratitude in order to do better: to be a little more functional, to contribute more and to fuck up less for the people around us. We want that, right? Even if we have serious doubts that we’ll ever actually be better. We have to try to do better on the outside. The whole point is to try.

So here comes my attempt to wrestle with Critter over my shitty attitude about gratitude. It’s a long ramble, so I’ll break it up into parts. The first one is called, “First World Problems.” Enjoy, I guess.

Thanks for Letting Me Work Through It

A letter from a depressed person to the people around me.

Dear Friends,

I just want to say thank you for letting me work through this particularly hideous season of my soul.

I know the stuff I’ve been writing lately has been worrisome, and I’m so sorry it made you feel down. On one hand, I’m deeply grateful that you care enough to worry when I am struggling so hard. But on the other, I’m totally bummed that I ever let you walk away without a smile.

I want you to know that I AM okay. Not well. Definitely struggling worse right now than I have in a long time. But not giving up.

I promise never to give up. The living, or the writing. Or the parenting, which is honestly one of the hardest things to face right now.

The writing is hard in its own way. I am pushing myself harder than I ever have before, artistically and productive-ness-ically. I am cracking my shins on my limits, and it makes me want to scream. Like walking face first into a glass door between what I can do, and what I desperately, furiously, ravenously want to create. I’ve got the most serious case of artistic blue balls the world has ever seen.

The hardest lesson I’m trying to learn is to let myself work through the process. Be patient and stop screaming at my fucking self. Just give myself time. (And find an appropriate place to rub out the fury.)

This is exactly what I need to do in parenting, too.

And it’s exactly what you’re letting me do, here. By listening without covering my mouth.

I want you to know I will never judge you if you need to take a break from me. That’s a very healthy way to handle it when someone’s personal shit is overwhelming you. I adore you for being there when it feels right, and I adore you for taking space when you need it, so we can come back together when we’re both in the right headspace.

And I want you to know, too, that it’s okay to tell me how my posts make you feel. That’s really good feedback for me. As a writer, and as a person. Trying to figure out if I’ve gone too far when my emotional radar is malfunctioning is like trying to drive blindfolded. I need to hear when I’ve bumped up against something, so I can think about it and figure out how I want to navigate it.

I can’t promise my sense of what’s funny or important will always suit your palate. But I do promise to try to make this blog as much as possible, a healthy relationship between you and I.

So that means that right now, I need to give you an enormous hug and tell you thanks. You are a thing that helps me keep swimming in the sea of garbage soup.

Laurie

 

PS – I’m going to try some different things on the blog.

One is that I want to devote more airtime to the things that help me.  Obviously, something is helping. Otherwise, I’d be drowned by now.

I haven’t figured out exactly what the formula is for talking about mental illness in a helpful way; my gut tells me that we can’t just skip past the ugly stuff, but my heart says that can’t be all there is.

So, my plan for the next couple of months is to try mixing gritty, on-the-scene reporting about the sights, sounds, and smells at the bottom of the trenches, with a bit more sharing about the things that help me catch my breath down here.

The other thing that is tugging on my sleeve is that I want to have more conversations about this mess. I get stuck sometimes trying to write, because all I have is questions, and no answers. I feel like I have nothing to offer you. But then I get a chance to actually talk with someone, and they let me lay my palm on their raw, sticky feelings, and I get something precious. We both do. I can’t articulate what that thing is, yet, because it’s not like we come up with any answers, no new thoughts we haven’t already had. But there’s something about that moment when I share sensation with someone… feel our heartbeat synch up for a moment… it’s like it makes me real.

I’d like to share that with you. Create conversations with you, opportunities for you to say things to me and to Critter, too. And I’d like to share some of the goose-pimply conversations that I have with the seriously amazing people that I know. Not just copy-pasting private texts! And not secretly webcamming either, you kinky thinker. But maybe interviews, or something.

Oh yes! And reading. I’m going to expose you to footage of me reading. I hope it gives us mutual pleasure.

Speaking of, I had a freaking blast last night at the “It’s a Weird Winter Wonderland”. The reading was super fun, but so was just hanging with some of my favourite primates on the planet. I am deeply in love with the fact that I get to fumble around and try to figure myself out as a writer and make mischief with all of you.

Until we meet again, know this: You mean a lot to me. It’s okay to take a break from me. I’m never going to stop trying to make sense of all of this. And you can give me a dingle to come sit with me and Critter anytime.

 

Bang Your Head Against the Wall More Gently

“Stop starving your heart. Put your face into the garbage soup ocean and start sniffing. Snort ’til you catch a whiff that stirs the neck hairs of your soul. Then, chase it. Swish your limbs through the muck and don’t stop until you’re dead. That’s it. That’s all that living is.” – Critter, on how to survive as a slug in the anus of a decaying universe.

“Hey! Wake up.”

Critter is leaning on me with all her weight, trying to shake my shoulder.

“Uuuuuuuuuuuuugh.” I answer. “Go away.”

“We have to talk,” she says. I roll my face into the pillow.

“It’s important!” she says. “The whole forest is freaking out.”

I raise my head. “What forest?”

Critter rolls her eyes. “The urban forest. Everybody’s talking about what you did.”

I sit up, my eyes scrunched. “What the fuck are you talking about?”

Critter hops onto my lap and puts her tiny hands on my shoulders.

“Is it true?” she asks.

“Is WHAT true?!?”

She gives me serious face. “Did you. Kick. A deer?”

“Jesus fuck, no! Where did you get that?”

Critter flops down on her haunches. “Huh. Thought so.”

I raise my eyebrow and glare at her. She shakes her head.

“Should have known,” she says. “Squirrels are dicks. Gossipy, shit-disturbing dicks.”

I grit my teeth. “You’re telling me that squirrels are spreading shit about me?”

Critter nods. “Janet Fattail is swearing up and down the river that last time you walked at the park, she saw you assault a family of deer. Says you snuck up on them. When the mother bent down to eat, you kicked in her ribs. Then you tried to climb up and ride on the fawn.”

I smack my forehead.

Critter smiles. “Of course it isn’t true. I’m so relieved.”

“I can’t believe you thought that of me.”

Critter shrugs. “You’ve been off lately. Don’t deny it.”

“Yes, I’ve been fucking off lately. I can barely stand the sound of my own breath. That doesn’t mean I’m going to break somebody’s ribs.”

Critter tilts her head.

“It’s hard to know where your lines are,” she says.

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means you’re a little self-destructive right now. Things you wouldn’t have done a few months ago are not so clearly in the no-go.”

I look away and blink tears out of my eyes.

“I don’t want to hurt anybody.”

“I know,” Critter says. “But you’re BURSTING with rage. And sadness. And want. You’re kind of in that place where people snap. Do something awful, just to feel something different. Lash out to cut through the despair.”

The tears start to pour, hot tracks down the sides of my nose.

“I don’t know what to do,” I whisper.

Critter jumps off my lap, onto my dresser. Then she leaps back and sets the kleenex box next to me. She drapes her soft belly over my heart and lays her head on my shoulder. The weight of her body presses against my chest. I sob, and sob, and blow a quart and a half of snot into tissues. They stack up in a soggy pyramid by my knee.

“I bet you wish those were masturbation rags,” she says.

I snort. “That’s a guy thing, Critter.”

She shrugs.

When I catch my breath, I stare at my hands.

“I’m a waste, Critter. I’ve got nothing. I will never have anything to give. I can’t make my brain work. Every tiny, normal sensation turns into three-and-a-half weeks of all-consuming obsession. Do you have any idea how many nights I’ve laid awake, fantasizing about scenarios that would be completely fucking awful? And how many days I have lost, writing dissertation-length, deeply heartfelt responses to people I barely know on Facebook, while my kids beg me to play with them?

I can’t play with them, Critter. Can’t even make myself want to. They feel like sand in my teeth. All the whining, arguing, fighting, refusing. Constant resistance. Constant demand. An incessant buzz of complaint. I can’t fucking handle it. I don’t fucking like them as humans right now and I can’t meet their underlying needs and guide them to behave any better because I can’t stand to be mentally in their presence long enough to get through to them.”

Critter looks at me with her eyes and mouth drooping. Like a sad dog.

“I faceplant into every puddle I pass, Critter. When I finally get my feet on the ground and try to work, it’s garbage. It’s taking me ten times as long to do every little thing, and in the meantime, the shit I was supposed to do has piled up on top of me. A mountain I can’t climb out from under, let alone summit. I can’t do this. I can’t do anything.”

Critter pats my leg.

“All I want to do is to make things better.  But I say things that make people feel worse. To my kids, to my friends. To my husband, every single fucking day. They’re all wrapped up in the whirlpool of my sick feelings. I don’t want to hurt them. I’m desperate to make it better. But I’m making it worse.”

Critter snuggles her butt beside me, and we sit there, staring into the distance together.

“You don’t have to fix it,” she says.

I shake my head. “I HAVE to fix it. I can’t stand this. I’m going to die if it doesn’t get better. ”

“No, you won’t.”

“Goddamn it!”

“You won’t die. No one will die. Nothing will break. The world will keep on turning.”

“I hate that even more. That means there is no escape. No exit button. This nightmare will never end. It will just get worse, and worse.”

“Well,” Critter says, “the world is like that. Entropy, right? The universe has been like this since the beginning. Long before you started acting like an anal-dwelling slug. The sun in the sky is in the act of burning itself out. It’s just physics. It’s not on you.”

“That fucking sucks, Critter. How am I supposed to find the will to keep on getting out of bed? To feed my kids and fight with them and drag their oppositional little asses to school? How am I going to keep fighting to work and write and face people?”

Critter looks up at me. “You stop telling yourself that if you finally get it right, the world will become good. That’s a  lie, and you know it.”

I stare at the wall in front of me. I frown. That’s the same grease-printed, scuffed up, slumlord-buff-coloured paint that’s been there since my husband bought the place. I’ve lived here for 12 years. I always hated these blank, avoidant, impotent fucking walls. But I could never gather my resolve to change them.

Critter touches my cheek to make me look at her. “Stop trying to be perfect. You’re not. This world is not. It’s a vicious, shitty, bloody mess. Just figure out what you need to survive. Stop starving your heart. Put your face into the garbage soup ocean and start sniffing. Snort ’til you catch a whiff that stirs the neck hairs of your soul. Then, chase it. Swish your limbs through the muck and don’t stop until you’re dead. That’s it. That’s all that living is.”

My face makes this demented, one nostril-dilated smile. Like Mowgli at the end of the old Jungle Book cartoon from the sixties.

“What?” Critter asks.

“I’ve got a whiff,” I say. “I want to read. To people. I wanna do voice stuff, and read my blog posts on YouTube and do audiobooks and I don’t even know what else.”

She shrugs. “Okay. Do that.”

“Okay.”

Tomorrow I’m going to read. To people. The last whiff I followed led to a short story that got published in a book called It’s a Weird Winter Wonderland. I’m one of the authors reading at the launch tomorrow night.

You can catch it on Facebook if you’re so inclined.

My contribution is a super weird story that tickled and satisfied me in ways I can’t fully articulate. All I know is that I’m hooked on this life, and I want to pull my head out of my own ass so I can read bonkers shit for people more and more and more. I have no idea how people will react, but even if all I get is blank stares and an uncomfortable cough, I want to do this thing.

With exactly the people I’ll be doing it with.

This is my whiff.

Critter and I hope you find yours, and that you give your inner bloodhound permission to chase and howl and raise everyone’s neck hairs.

“And may all your tissue wads be sticky with pleasure,” Critter adds.

Fucking EW.

 

Reflections on a Steaming Coiler

Critter sits hunched, her arms stuffed with nasty, dry, gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. She’s eating them mechanically and staring at me without blinking.

“So,” she says between mouthfuls. “That was… wow.”

“Yeah.”

Munch-munch munch. “You wrote. That’s good, right?”

“I… well, ” I frown. Shrug.

“And you published it. Without making it a story. Without even making it legible. That was… a bold choice.”

I stare at the table.

“It seemed important.”

Critter raises an eyebrow and keeps munching, her tiny paws maintaining a slow, steady feed of styrofoamy biscuits into her dainty jaws. Crunch crunch crunch.

“That’s what my great uncle Hank said when he started smearing feces in public places.”

I raise my eyes to her but can’t smile.

“He said the shit had a very important message for us and he NEEDED to share it.”

I frown harder.

“He started sneaking little shit smears into unexpected places. A little dab under a waiting room chair. A nugget in someone’s potted plant.”

I try to blink the goop out of my eyes.

“At first, no one could figure it out. We just thought he’d lost control of his bowels, and was walking around with dingleberries matted around his butt 24/7. I mean, the dude was OUT THERE. Seemed inevitable. We came to expect the soiled-diaper smell whenever he came around. But then someone noticed the stench clung after Uncle Hank had gone.”

Crunch crunch crunch. Munch munch munch.

“Then he started baking. We all thought it was a good sign. At least he wasn’t eating the poop. We’d been speculating. He was so obsessed, right? But he was making actual food. And sharing it. He brought around little plates of cookies and brownies and stopped muttering about how the truth was IN THERE.”

“The whole community was relieved. It was so nice to see Hank coming and not get punched in the face with the smell of impending senility. Plus, the “shit speaks” routine had really got old, but no one could bring themselves to say anything about it. To his face. I mean, what do you say to someone who’s clearly off their tree stump?”

I sigh loudly through my nose.

“Uncle hank was happy again. And the smell of his baking drew people to him. Man, I can still remember what it was like when he’d poke his head into our den, and the cloud of warm vanilla and cocoa rolled in with him. His brownies were insane. You could SMELL how moist and fudgey they were. We kids went ape for those things. I bet I ate fifty pounds of butter, eggs, and chocolate that winter. Doubled my weight. Best quasi-hibernation ever.” Critter smiles into the distance.

Crunch crunch crunch.

“The adults clapped Uncle Hank on the back and encouraged him to start a bakery. Said it was just the thing to keep his mind occupied so the crazies didn’t come back. Uncle Hank just grinned. He got this weird sparkle in his eye.

“At Christmas, while we all patted our pastry-thickened middles, Uncle hank announced he was going into business. He wasn’t going to see us for a while, because he’d be busy testing recipes and preparing his storefront. We were all thrilled for him. And eager to sample his new wares.

“He chose a likely hollow trunk and disappeared inside it for seven weeks. We could hear all sorts of scratching and digging, and the smells that came out of that hole could make you high. It was like hot fudge, chocolate ganache, and steaming piles of the finest cacao nibs were having melty, gooey sex in there. All of us cubs would press our faces up against the cracks in the door, which Hank had boarded up to keep us out while he perfected his products.

“Finally, at the end of February, Uncle Hank emerged. He looked like shit. His skin hung off him like a toddler in his daddy’s suit, and his fur was missing clumps. But he looked triumphant. He announced the grand opening would be in April.

“We could scarcely breathe for anticipation. Mouths watered whenever we passed Uncle Hank’s soon-to-be bakeshop. Pillows were soaked in drool from many a lip-smacking dream. Everyone laughed and rubbed their paws together.

“The day before the grand opening, the city inspectors came by to approve Uncle Hank’s business licence.”

Critter frowns.

“The next day, the bakery tree was burned to the ground. And Uncle Hank had disappeared.”

I look up at her, then close my eyes and cringe.

“Yeah.” she says. “Fecal contamination.”

“Jesus Christ.”

“I know. It was the health inspector who ordered the burn. She said it wasn’t even safe for a cleanup crew to go in there. So. Much. Caca. And he wasn’t even going to hide it. He’d named his chocolate croissants ‘boneless brown trout’. The brownies were ‘pinched loaf’ and the fudge sauce was ‘diaper gravy’. It was awful.

“The worst part was that as Uncle Hank’s insanity burned, the whole forest was blanketed in chocolatey smoke and ashes. We could feel it in our fur, taste it on our tongues. And even though we KNEW it was 37% turds, our mouths still watered.”

“What happened to your Uncle Hank?”

“No one knows. Some say he lost his brown biscuits when they declared the bakery would burn, and snuck past the guards to lay down and bake with his brownies.”

“That’s a terrible story, Critter.”

“I know.”

She reaches around on her belly shelf for another cookie, but they’re all gone. She sighs and gives the crumbs a few brushes with both hands. Then, she freezes. She slowly raises her paws to her eyes, then takes a sniff, staring at me over her little black fingers with horror.

“Those… weren’t… skid marks in the cookies. Were they?”

“Jesus fuck. No!”

She exhales.

“Oh. Good.”

“What the fuck, Critter?”

She shrugs.

“Bite me!” She says. “I’m not getting fooled again.”

I close my eyes and shake my head.

“They’re store bought, idiot.” I say. “Everything is going to be store bought for a while.”

“Because you might put poop in things?”

I glare at her.

“No.”

She raises her eyebrow.

“It’s because I can’t cook right now. I just need to survive and keep my kids fed until my brain comes back online.”

Critter nods. She seems satisfied and turns to go, but stops and asks over her shoulder.

“So, why did you publish that turd-sandwich post? Why was it important?”

My face crumples.

“I don’t know. Maybe it was like a high water mark, or something.”

Critter tilts her head.

“You gonna document the recovery, like ‘Come Hell or High Water, there WILL be a Stampede, So Help Me God, I’m the Mayor of this town and I say we are getting our shit together and we’ll look back on this and use it in our marketing later and brand ourselves all about resilience, kind of a thing?”

“Um. Kind of. Maybe just more like, ‘next time I’m back in the pit, I want to remember the way out.”

“Oh. Okay.”

We both look at the table.

“You’re going to be okay, you know,” she says.

“Yep.” I say.

“Even if that was embarrassing.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“And even if the recovery account turns into nothing, like a lot of your projects.”

“Mmm-hmm.”

“Just don’t start baking, okay? Chocolate hides a lot of evils.”

“Fuck off, Critter.”

“Love you, too.”

Next Week It’ll Make Sense

Okay. So, I know depression lies. But it also impairs. And so people who telly ou you acn think your way out of it are wrong.

My therapist says I can feel my awy out of it, but I have to stop criticising myself to let that happen. And there’s another thing that I can’t do.

The criticism isn’t verbal. It’s sonsory. My lungs say “Ihate you” by crushing themselgves. My heart says I want to die by flinging itself against the back of my throat. Constantly. Monotonously. Sickeningly. It hurts and I can’t make it stop.

And my brain isn’t whispering “I’m awful.” It’s freezing. Coming up with blank spaces and error messages when I softly sob abd beg it to please do my jobs. Take kare oc my kid. Get them out of bed. Make them breakfast. Pack their lunches. Drive them safely. Resobpond to their conversation. Look at them. Just look at them. Please, brain. Please.

And it just won’t.

And I breathe through my nose and push myself forward, and take the humblings as I wander through the house, through the community center, through the day. I forget more things than I remember. I lose the trail of conversations and the reason why I came into the room and have absolutely no sense of why I woke up today at all.

IT’s all in my head. I’m just too hard on myself. I just need to be patient and accept that some days, some weeks, some sickening slides into dark, wet pits are natural. Totally fine. If I can just embrace it, I’ll be fine.

But I can’t. Every nerve in my body is screaming for comfort, and I can’t find any. Food has no tasete. Conversations have no warmth. Hugs don’t even reach my skin. I can’t. My brain can’t process any of it. Just pain.

I don’t konw what to tell you so you won’t worry about me. I have no connection to the ground. I can usually see my way out of things, even if I don’t like the answers. But this is one of those times I ca’nt see anything. I can’t look at my kids like this. I can’t even pretend today.

They say that something like 80% of depressive episodes resolve themselves within 2 weeks. All you have to do is outlast it. And find someone to feed the kids.

My greatest fear is that one of these will happen when Devon is away. Or that one day he won’t come back. I spend a lot of time pushing away those thorughts. And trhying to push away the never-satisfied rage and dysphoria that beats him up and does it’s damndestes to fulfill th e prophecy.

Am I going to be fine tomorrow? Sometimes I am, and then it all seems so silly. I can start rebuilding and wipe my brwo and say wow, that was close. Ir huh; that wasn’t as close as it felt. I dn’t know.

I was doing all the things. Exercising. Scializing. Medicating. Therapizing. Having projects and goals and hopes. Feeding the cravings. Saying no to the really bad ones. I was trying. Really, really hard. Didn’t help. It comes on anyway.

It’s very humbling. Like shitting your pants in publisc.

And you have to keep going. Somehow. YUo have to stop crying and kepp going. Do those things so your credit card doesn’t get cancelled and your husband doesn’t leave and you don’t turn into that thing that can’t even try any more.

Yur body and brain are so tired, but you have to keep going. Don’t stop.

Don’t stop. Okay? It gets better every single time.

Self-Care: A Gross Approach to Help You Cope

“Living with mental illness is like working over an open toilet bowl; self-care is like closing the lid, so your duties don’t fall in. Plus, it helps you cope when your hand hits the poop water.” – Critter, on self-care for depression and anxiety.

Ploop!

I just dropped a spoon into the toilet.

“Mother fucker!” I hiss.

A fat droplet of water leaps straight up. It hangs above the ivory rim, then swan-dives back to the surface, where it crashes with a “Splip!” and explodes into a firework of pale fecal mist.

I’m pretty sure it has aerosoled my jeans. I might as well have kneeled in the bowl. My throat clenches with disgust.

The fallen spoon slides down the toilet wall and settles at the bottom. Soggy chunks of bloated cereal swirl above it.

“GodDAMN it!” I shout. I set down my daughter’s rejected breakfast bowl and reach up to rub my forehead.

But my hand freezes mid-reach. Suddenly, I am hyper-aware of the sensations on my hands, arms and face. It’s probably just tiny beads of sweat and oil, and air currents disturbing little hairs on my skin. But it feels like a full-body mask of coliform microbes.

I don’t want to smear MORE invisible shit onto my face

I stare at my contaminated palm.

“Aaaaaggggghhh!”

I reach toward the sink, desperate to wash the creepiness off, but then I freeze again.

Wait, I think. I shouldn’t wash yet. I should grab the spoon first. If I wash now, I’ll have to wash again after I grab the spoon. Three times, at least. And then my hands will get so dry…

Then my cuticles will crack! And that’s where necrotizing fasciitis gets in. Nothing good can come from this.

I know I need to rescue that bloody spoon and get on with my fucking day, but I can’t make myself do it. My hand hovers over the bowl where my family backs the big brown motorhome out of the garage on a daily basis.

This is ridiculous, a nasty voice hisses in my head. YOU are ridiculous! No wonder you can’t meet your deadlines and keep your kids in clean clothes. You’re absurd. Neurotic. Useless.

Tears slide down the valleys on either side of my nose, and a droplet of snot dangles at the tip. My face screams with irritation, but I don’t dare wipe it. Not with these poop water hands.

I lose time.

“Laurie… Hey! Laurie!”

A high-pitched voice hacks into the panic that has solidified around me.

There is movement near my feet. At the bottom edge of my vision, I catch a furry shape climbing onto the counter. It’s Critter, my imaginary raccoon. She’s come to save me.

I want to focus my eyes and look at her, but I can’t. My brain ping-pongs between a multitude of intentions—wash my hands—retrieve the spoon—call out to my friend—scream!

I can’t choose one. Can’t do any.

Another tear falls. So does the nose drop.

“Oh, Honey,” Critter whispers. “You’ve seized up like an open tube of toothpaste, haven’t you?”

Her voice is warm in my ears. My paralysis melts.

I take a huge, whooping inhale. My lungs feel like a sticky, shrivelled balloon. I exhale and breathe again. My chest and throat expand and burn with the stretch.

“It’s alright,” Critter whispers. “I’m right here.”

Finally, I can move. I turn my neck a few degrees and look into her furry face. She smiles.

“There you are!” she says.

I sniffle loudly and open my mouth.

“Yes?” she prompts.

I take another breath.

“I dropped my spoon,” I say.

Critter raises an eyebrow. I gesture with my head toward the toilet. She cranes her neck to look. Then she looks back at me with a chuckle.

“That’s it?” she asks.

I cross my arms and huff.

“Oh, fuck off,” I grumble. “I know it’s stupid.”

Critter looks at the spoon again and frowns.

“I get it,” she says.

“Huh?” I grunt.

“I said, ‘I get it’,” she repeats. “Sometimes, it’s really hard to pick up your spoon.”

I frown.

“This isn’t about the spoon,” I say. “It’s the filthy-disgusting toilet water! And the horror of watching a supervillain bacteria eat me alive!”

Critter chuckles.

“It is, and it isn’t,” she says. Then she smiles at me with an all-knowing expression that makes me want to shake her.

I clench my jaw and speak through my teeth.

“Can you PLEASE just tell me what the fuck you’re talking about, rodent? I’m not in the mood for riddles,” I say.

Critter looks at me and frowns again. Then she takes a big breath of her own.

“I don’t know if I can make you understand this,” she says. “You’re cranky, and your ears are closed.”

I scowl at her, but my cheeks are red. She’s not wrong.

Critter’s gaze doesn’t waver.

“But I love you, so I’ll try to get this across. It might help you get unstuck.

“First of all, you need to recognise that a spoon isn’t just a spoon. It’s a metaphor for the physical and emotional energy you need to take care of your responsibilities: your relationships, your work, and yourself. Spoon theory is a reminder that your energy is finite.”

“Oh, I KNOW my energy is finite, Critter!” I say. “I’m so fucking exhausted, I wish I could give up. All the things I have to do in the next week, month, year… I have no idea how I’ll accomplish them, or how many I’ll let fall. I just want to curl up on my bedroom floor and lock the door. How is this supposed to help me? This spoon talk is stressing me out!”

Critter rolls her eyes.

“People with chronic illness have embraced ‘Spoon Theory’ as a way to help their healthy friends understand why they have to decline invitations sometimes to come out, join in, or contribute. It’s not a rejection; it’s a concrete limit.

“But YOU,” Critter says, tapping a tiny finger on my sternum, “need to digest spoon theory to understand what is happening to you right now. You can’t even do a simple, albeit disgusting task, because your last spoon has literally fallen into the toilet. You’re out of spoons.”

My eyes widen as the realisation settles over. Critter’s right. I’m up the creek without a spoon.

It’s been a very long couple of months. While I’ve been flailing at my writing deadlines and struggling to ride my winter funk, my family has been passing around a nasty chest cold like a pestilential hot potato.

Now, colds are not earth-shattering; I know this. I’m ashamed to admit that these simple problems have overcome me. It’s all small stuff— wiping my kids’ leaky noses, scraping their crusty eyeballs, begging them and my husband to drink more fluids and use the motherfucking saline nose spray…

And clinging to the dim, desperate hope that my miserable invalids will get some relief, and I won’t have to keep getting up every SINGLE hour to rub their backs, or bring them warm drinks, or steam up the bathroom to settle their coughs and help them take a few breaths in peace.

These demands are small, but they’ve added up to something greater than the sum of their annoying parts.

And that’s not even counting the trips to the clinic, pharmacy, and emergency room…

I’m beyond burnt out. I’m cremated.

My eyebrows tent as I consider Critter’s message.

“I don’t understand,” I say. “How am I supposed to find time and energy for self-care when I’m drowning in urgencies? This feels like a no-win.”

Critter takes my hand.

“You’re trapped in a cycle of overwhelm and exhaustion,” she says. “The longer you stay here, the weaker you’ll get. Eventually, you won’t be able to handle those urgent responsibilities, or ANYTHING ELSE. If you want to come back to life, you HAVE to get more spoons.”

I look into Critter’s eyes; she’s begging me, just like I begged my family to do the things they needed to get better. Because we were all suffering.

I notice the knot of worry in her brow and realise she must be suffering, too.

Then I think back to the number of times this spring that I have lost my shit and yelled at my kids, ranted at my husband, and told them I couldn’t spend time with them because I needed every last breath to chase fruitlessly after my deadlines or the forgotten concept of sleep. It’s too many to count.

My heart aches.

“Talk about letting the shit flow downhill,” I mutter to myself.

“Ha!” Critter laughs. “And you thought a little splash of toilet water was the problem.”

I roll my eyes. Then I sigh.

“You’re obnoxious,” I say, “But you’re right. Everything rides on my ability to take care of myself. I HAVE to find a way to make this work. I just don’t know how.”

Critter smiles.

“There’s always a way, remember?” she says, winking. “You say that to your daughters all the time; now it’s time to prove it.

“And remember your friend, Sue? She got this same message in a situation that was immeasurably more dire. Remember how she found a way to save her own mind?”

I smile.

“Yeah,” I say. “Sue has a clear eye and monster-sized cojones. I’ve always admired how she sees the heart of the matter and finds the strength to do what needs doing.”

Critter tilts her head.

“I’ve never noticed her testicles,” she says. “But I’m sure they’re very nice.”

I almost slap my forehead.

“Not literal cojones, you numbskull,” I say. “She’s a woman.”

“Then she’s got señora cojones,” Critter smirks.

“Whatever, wiseass!” I say. “I’m inspired, but still confused. I’m not half as smart or strong as Sue. I’m waving the white flag at these motherfucking colds! What miracle is going to get me out of this rut?”

Critter narrows her eyes.

“We’ll just have to work with your teeny brain and tiny ovaries,” she says. “We’re going to start small.”

“Try this,” she says:

  1. Recognise that you are not in control of the outside world. You only control you.
  2. Remind yourself that There is Always a Way to make things better.
  3. Get support to lighten your load (like babysitting, house cleaning, help at work, friends who listen, counselling, or medication).
  4. Do the smallest things you can to scoop up some joy.
    1. Listen to music, audiobooks, or meditations while you rest or do chores.
    2. Go outside for however long you can manage.
    3. Use the great-smelling stuff in your shower, drinks, and cooking.
    4. Curl up with your family, pets, or favourite books.
    5. Get your body moving in any way you can.
  5. Address the bullshit voice that says you don’t deserve to get better.
  6. Consider the consequences if you keep waiting for the outside world to get better before you take care of yourself.
  7. Pick one thing that feels right and try it.
  8. If your energy rises, try something a little bigger.
  9. If your energy falls, try something a little smaller.
  10. Pick small tasks with big rewards and build momentum.
  11. Allow yourself to feel a little uncomfortable, and listen when your body says, “Stop”.
  12. Give yourself credit for your effort. It matters. It’s EVERYTHING.

    When Critter finishes, my frown softens.

    “That list makes me feel a little better,” I admit. “I forgot how much I love peppermint oil in the shower and listening to meditations on YouTube while I fall asleep.”

    Critter nods.

    “That’s the way!” she says. “Start with little things that feel good, and go from there. You will really notice a difference when you start exercising again. Keep working toward that.”

    Critter tilts her head again.

    “You look different,” she says. “Lighter, like a shadow has passed.”

    I smile. I feel different, too. Like I’ve shed a too-tight skin. It’s easier to breathe.

    “Keep thinking about that aromatic shower,” Critter winks. “You’re going to need one after you retrieve that filthy toilet spoon.”

    I grab my furry little wise guy and pretend to stuff her into the bowl. Her eyes bulge, and she clings to my arm. I laugh, give her a hug, and set her down on the floor.

    Then I stare at the sunken spoon. The waterlogged corn flakes have drifted to the edges, leaving a clear path for my nauseating act of determination.

    I slip off my watch, suck in a breath, and take the plunge.

    Before I know it, it’s over. Cool water drips off my arm with fat, crystalline notes. My fist grips the lost utensil.

    “You gonna throw it in the dishwasher?” Critter asks.

    I reach beside the toilet with my foot and press the pedal to open the garbage can. The spoon clangs as I drop it in.

    “Nope!” I answer. “Gonna get some new spoons.”

    Here’s what this little adventure taught me:

    As a person with mental health issues, I can’t let myself get too depleted. Even though I have friends who aren’t active, get minimal sleep, or go long stretches without breaks from their work or kids, that’s not me. I need to remember that coping is taxing, and stay on top of my spoon budget.

    To function with ADHD, depression, and anxiety, I NEED to take care of my body. That is how I get more “spoons” to handle the work I need to do. This can be empowering knowledge; I can build up my resilience, even if I can’t cure my unstable constitution. When things are going badly, I know I need to come back to self-care.

    When my energy falls in the toilet, I need to take action. I can’t wait for a period of craziness with my family or work to let up before I do something that nourishes me. There are no rules about shitty times; a cold can last two months, and a butterfingers moment can devour a whole day. It’s up to me to learn little ways to catch my breath and ask for help to make things doable.

    It’s okay to start small. If I stop telling myself that only a marathon will do, and just allow myself to take a five-minute walk to grab a tea, I’ll feel better. And then I can decide whether I want to get back into running or just start a new, pleasant snack routine.

    Critter grins.

    “Living with mental illness is like working over an open toilet bowl,” she says. “Self-care is like closing the lid, so your duties don’t fall in. Plus, it helps you cope when your hand hits the poop water.”

    “Haha! Doodies,” I snicker.

    Critter chuckles and trots away.

    How do YOU keep your spoons out of the bowl? Connect with Critter and me on Facebook or Twitter, and let us know. We’d love to chat and share your solutions.

How to Be Barely-Functional Without Hating Yourself

“When raccoons are too tired to make our nests livable, we don’t beat ourselves up. We get creative. You’d be amazed how much your husband will get done for the promise of sexual favours.” – Critter, on alternative home economics for depressed wives.

“I’m too tired to chat today, Critter;” I say to my imaginary raccoon.

She looks at me and nods.

“I understand,” she says. “Your eyebags have eyebags.”

“Can I just ramble a bit,” I ask; “and stroke your back while I try to untangle my thoughts?”

“Sure,” Critter says, then she smiles and leaps onto my lap. She turns in a circle and nestles herself into cosy ball like a cat, then closes her eyes and says,

“Proceed.”

I chuckle and bury my fingers in her dust-coloured coat, making little windrow trails along her back. Then I take a breath and begin putting my ache into words.

“I want to comfort myself about being depressed in the springtime,” I explain. “and encourage anyone else who is struggling with the fact that they’re struggling.”

“Mmm-hmm…” Critter hums, as she relaxes into listening mode. I scratch around her ears and let my thoughts trickle out.

“I’m beat-down right now,” I say; “and it hurts because I was counting on spring to perk me up. I had held my breath through the drear of winter and budgeted my blood oxygen to last exactly this long.

“I desperately need to inhale again, but I can’t, because spring didn’t bring relief.

“I’m still emotionally underwater, and to my intense frustration, I’ve sunk deeper than I was a month ago. My kids and I have been sick, my work has ground to a halt, and all of the goals that prop up my self-esteem have fallen into an overwhelming heap of pressure and failure.

“I just need some sleep. And a break. And a week of free nannying, housekeeping, and meal delivery. I just need the universe to line up in the most perfect way so I can write again, and move, and do all of the things that charge me up.

“I feel like the liquefied kiwis at the bottom of our fruit bowl. I watch myself from the outside as I yell at my kids, get stuck on my work, and smother in the filthy avalanche of dishes, laundry, and toys. I am disgusted. And deeply disappointed.

“My ears and brain are filled with my silent screams of rage, and everything seems more maddening than it can possibly be.

“I hate myself right now, and I know that I shouldn’t, but I can’t hold off the voice in my head that says that I’m the laziest, weakest, least competent human being on the planet.”

Critter cracks an eye and appraises me.

“What would you say if someone told you they felt that way?” she asks.

I frown as I think about it.

“I would tell them I understand, ” I answer; “But honestly, I don’t know anyone who is this far behind the eight-ball. Everyone I know is a functional adult. It would be easy to point out how well they are doing and how strong they are.”

“Would it?” Critter asks. “I’m not so sure. I mean, a raccoon would have no trouble accepting your empathy and comfort. We’re practical and sage like that,” she says with a wink. “We don’t waste time on false modesty.”

“But humans are weird,” she continues. “You people seem to be magnetically drawn to extreme opinions of yourself; you either think you’re the best, or the worst, and you have trouble tolerating the states in between when you have to struggle without validation.”

I scratch the back of my head as I digest the observations of my guiding rodent.

“I think you’re right,” I say finally. “Other people probably do feel this way. And my shitty self-esteem is just another side of my insecure ego.

“I can picture that, but I’m not sure how to get around it. I’m choking on dismay about all the things I can’t win at right now. I want to let it go, but I can’t! I’m stuck. I don’t know what to do.” I sigh look away from Critter’s olive-green eyes to wipe a hopeless tear from mine.

Critter pats my hand with her dainty black paw.

“You don’t have to perform a feat of strength,” she says warmly. “But you DO need to do something. It can be anything, but it has to nourish the part of you that is starving.”

I smile and shake my head.

“Are you going to say I should eat some garbage?” I chuckle. “Or is this another talk about masturbation?”

Critter shrugs.

“That’s up to you,” she says. “What do you need right now? Why are you so miserable?”

I breathe deep and sigh slowly as I try to feel the answer to Critter’s question.

What do I need right now?

I put my hand over my heart, where the depression aches like a slab of lead, and I listen.

After a minute or two, I look up at my furry friend.

“I need more time,” I state. “Somehow, I need to manufacture an easier schedule so I can do the jobs that make me feel good, and get help with the jobs that I hate.”

“Like what?” Critter asks.

“Well, for one thing, I need to push back my timelines for writing. My sick kids have thrown me so far off-schedule that I’m paralysed with shame.

“I need to chat with my editors and see if I can loosen the noose a bit. It would feel amazing to relax and pump out some sensical lines.”

“Good,” Critter says. “What else?”

“The other two things that are giving me heartburn are the filthy house and the landslide of clutter in every square foot. I desperately want to hire a housekeeper and a professional organiser.”

Critter tilts her head.

“That sounds fun,” she says, “but expensive.”

I nod.

“Yeah, it’s not in the budget right now. I have to get working first. And I can’t scale up my work until I get a steady run with healthy kids so I can pawn them off at school and daycare.”

Critter frowns.

“If hiring a cleaner and organiser isn’t realistic, then how does it help you?” she asks.

I run my fingers through my hair.

“I guess it just feels good to know what I want,” I say. “There’s something about acknowledging my end-game that helps me feel more patient about working up to it.”

“And it helps me let go of the fact that I can’t do it all right now,” I add. “Until I come up with a few energetic hours, we’re going to have cope with the filth. We can cover the sticky spots on the floor with paper towels so our socks don’t get ripped off when we walk past.”

Critter crinkles her nose.

“Wow,” she says. “You really do need help with the housework.”

I chuckle.

“I’m not even kidding,” I say. “But until I have the energy or the money to deal with it, I’m going to have to tolerate it.”

Critter nods.

“You definitely need to practice living with the grubby stuff,” she says. “Don’t let it stick to your fur so bad.”

I shrug.

“Patience is not my strength,” I admit. “But I’m working on it.”

Critter looks at me and rests her cheek on her fist.

“You’re going to be okay,” she pronounces. “You just need to get through this part of your story when everything is going wrong. Take a few baby steps and hang onto faith that things will get better.”

Then she adds with a wicked grin;

“And it never hurts to offer your husband sexual favours for helping out around the house. That’s what raccoons call win-win home economics.”

Getting There with Wet Underwear – How to Persist Through Anxiety

“It’s not the inherent danger of the stunt that makes you freeze,” Critter says. “You just forgot why you climbed onto the trapeze. Stop and listen; if your whole body says you want to do this, get out there and do your Ringling thing.” – Critter, on how to persist through anxiety.

I am sitting on my bed with my laptop on my knees. There’s a cup of vanilla rooibos tea steaming on my dresser, and it’s making the place smell like raisin bread. It’s peaceful, quiet, and perfect for writing. But I’m stuck.

I blink at my screen, squinting and trying to focus. But the bright backlight is taunting me through the smudgy display surface. There’s also a fine spray of toothpaste dried on my glasses, and an aqua-musical of floaters doing pinwheels in my corneal jelly. I might as well be peering through a frosted glass brick. I can’t see shit. I sigh loudly through my nose.

“Fuck,” I mutter. “Maybe I should just roll over and go to sleep.”

“No way in hell you’re napping,” comes a voice from below the far side of the bed. “You’ve got shit to do.”

With less grace than a cat (but more than a dog), my imaginary raccoon pokes her face above the edge of the mattress and clambers up beside me.

“Hey, Critter,” I sigh.

“What’s up?” she asks, leaning over to peek at my screen. “Why aren’t you tappety-tapping your way through another thrilling tale of low self-esteem?”

I look at my made-up muse, then look back at my laptop, and frown.

“I’m stuck,” I say.

“What’s got you in its jaws?” Critter asks.

“Muck,” I say. “Some serious gloop. My brain feels like it’s been tarred and filled with that heinous fluff that poplars crap out in May.”

Critter nods her head knowingly.

“Ah,” she says. “A classic case of gunk-head, or as we call it, the cerebral piles. Raccoons get that sometimes.”

I raise a curious eyebrow.

“Sure!” Critter continues. “We get mentally constipated, too. But it doesn’t get us down. We just stick a finger in there and dig it out.” She makes a circular motion with one of her dainty black digits.

“Jesus Christ, Critter!” I groan, covering my eyes. “I’m never going to get that image out of my head.”

My raccoon chuckles.

“It all comes out in the end,” she says with a smirk. “You just need to get those cognitive bowels moving,” she says. “Now tell me, why can’t you work?”

I open my eyes to scowl at my disgusting guide. Then I dig both hands into the short mop of hair at the back of my head and scrub my scalp with my fingers. Finally, I drop my hands onto my thighs and sigh.

“I don’t know, Critter,” I mumble. “I’m just super foggy. I can’t concentrate on what I want to say.”

Critter tilts her head.

“What DO you want to say?” she asks.

I reach back up to my hair and bury my right hand, pulling and twisting sections as though it will stimulate thought.

What AM I trying to say? I ask myself I can hardly remember.

I look down at my notebook beside me, where I’ve sketched a rat’s nest of braindumps for three pieces that need writing. The first is a letter to my daughter’s school, the second is my blog post for the week, and the third is a short story that has me equal parts delighted and terrified.

These pieces are straining against the inside of my skull with thoughts and intentions that need to come out. But I can’t put them into words.

All I can think about is what a crappy job I’m going to do of them. I kind of liked my last post about anxiety and artistic nudity. I’m 100% sure the next thing I write won’t be as good. I’m fighting hard against the urge just to leave these next three failures unwritten.

I’m useless right now, I think. If I try to force it, the pieces will be god-awful.

I look down again at my two pages of scrawled planning. It’s broken up into chunks with circles, underlines, and arrows darting this way and that. The whole thing is a bloody mess, and it’s failing to ignite any inspiration or confidence. I do NOT want to do this right now.

But, deadlines.

I shake my head and frown.

Critter reaches over and rotates the notebook so she can have a look. I watch her eyes track the bumble-bee’s path from one thought to another, wondering what she makes of it. When she’s done, she turns the notebook back to me and looks me in the eye.

“You’re scared.” she states.

“Huh?” I say. “I’m not scared today. Just fogged-up” I lift an elbow and pinch the fabric near my armpit to test for moisture.

“See?” I report. “All dry.”

Critter shakes her head and looks at me kindly.

“Fear doesn’t always look like sweating and shaking and chattering your teeth,” she says. “When it goes underground, fear can look like anything.”

I frown.

“Then how do you know it’s fear?” I ask.

“Because it shows up as a compelling reason to hold yourself back from what you want,” she answers.

I look across the room to the curtained window and consider this.

Is that what’s happening here? I wonder. Am I lost in this brainfog because I’m afraid to get working? 

Then for no obvious reason, a memory from last summer materializes in front of me.

I am standing in line at an adult gymnastics gym, waiting for my turn to try an exercise. I’m in a class called Ninja Warrior (after a TV gameshow, I’m told, though I haven’t seen it). The workout is designed to prepare you for an obstacle course race like Tough Mudder.

I’m not a member at this gym, and I’m definitely not registered for Tough Mudder. As a struggling writer with two little ones at home, I don’t have the time, money, or focus right now to commit to Ninja Toughening.

What I am is an out-of-shape mom who snatched up a Groupon to sample this weird workout, because it reminds me of the fun I used to have before kids.

That’s why I’m standing in line a dozen-or-so people much fitter than me, with my face stretched taut in a smile I can’t control.

This is going to be fun! I squeak inwardly. Look at me having fun!

My classmates and I are arrayed in front of a long trampoline. Above it is a set of gigantic monkey bars. They are about ten feet or so above the bouncing surface, and the rungs are about four feet apart.

Our challenge is to start bouncing, and get enough height to reach a bar. Then, the coach demonstrates how we will take a few swings and fling ourselves through the air to catch the next rung.

I watch the others; some skip the exercise altogether, citing bad shoulders; some get partway there (able to bounce up to the first rung, but not catching the second). Some master the whole maneuver with the effortless grace of a circus-trained primate.

I watch those who make it through the stunt, and I want to do it, too.

But I’m scared. There is a film playing in the back of my head where I see myself miss the second rung and fall backwards. I whiplash my neck into the trampoline, or land with my neck horrifically bent, my head crushed beneath my own shoulder. It’s not a pretty scene. My stomach twists.

In front of my real eyes, my classmates are doing fine. No one else is falling backward. The coach is letting people who seem vertically or athletically challenged climb up onto a boxhorse to reach the first rung.

One after another, the students either shake their heads and step out of line, or climb onto the trampoline and take a crack at the outrageous move.

Everyone who tries either catches that next rung, or misses and lands on their feet. I see that no one is getting hurt. This could be doable.

That’s when I realize how BADLY I want to do this. The part of my mind that is not screaming, “Danger, Will Robinson!” is projecting what success will feel like. And it’s delicous.

I imagine myself nailing the stunt: I feel my legs swing, my hands release the first bar, and my belly swoop with a great tug of gravity.

Just as my flight begins to arc downward, I catch the next bar, and swing through smoothly. I can feel success sing in my shoulders, hips and spine… a delicious lengthening that opens physical space and unimagined possibilities between each vertebra.

 

I stand there in line, watching this imagined scene and feeling a grounding surge of awareness centred on in my belly button. I feel miraculously alive.

I want it. I want to grab that fucking bar. I want it so bad.

I rub my hands together, gathering heat. They are cold and damp. I look down at them and see a sparkle of salt crystals in the whorls and creases of my palm. I shake my head. The fearful vision returns of the back of my skull whip-cracking onto the trampoline. I close my eyes and push it away.

“This won’t do,” I mutter to myself, frowning. I wipe my soggy paws on my useless, non-absorbent lycra tights and scan the room for a bucket of chalk.

Success! There it is behind me, a 5-gallon pail pushed against the wall at the next station. I whisper my thanks to the gods of grip enhancement and dart out of line to partake of the protective mineral.

There is a whole brick of it sitting atop a mass of loose white powder. I grab the hunk between my hands and work it vigorously like a bar of soap.

It’s overkill. I open my palms to check the effect, and they look like doughnuts caked in powdered sugar. I rub them together to release the excess back into the bucket. It clumps like soggy sand.

Hope that dries before the next sucker reaches in, I think scrunching my face at their imagined disgust.

Then I look up to check the progress of the line, and see that I’ve missed my turn. My classmates are going for a second round on the ape bars.

“Shit!” I squeak, and bound over the thickly matted floor to rejoin the back of the lineup.

The line moves much more quickly this time, and before I know it, it’s my turn. The instructor looks at me and tilts his head.

“You’ve done this before?” he asks in Russian-tinted English.

I shake my head, my eyes big like baseball.

“You start on boxhorse,” he decides. I nod gratefully, and climb up onto it.

The nearest bar is right over my head. I can reach it without jumping.

“Grab bar and hang,” he says. “I move the boxhorse.”

So I reach up and hang, lifting my feet while the coach slides the boxhorse out from under me.

“Swing now,” the coach says. “You swing legs up, then fly to next bar.”

I swing. Back and forth, once, then twice. This part is easy – it feels like fifteen years of playing at the park, and junior high gymnastics, and all of the playful thrill I have ever enjoyed in my body.

My legs are kicking plenty high. I know I have enough momentum to fly to the second rung. I can feel the rest of the class watching me, their arms crossed, chests heaving, catching their breath and preparing for another round.

They’re waiting, I think. I’m ready. GO!

On my third swing, I kick my legs forward, feel them swing up, then snap them down and whip my upper body into the empty space. I rush weightlessly between what I know I can do, and what I hope, and fear, and crave in my guts.

I feel myself flying forward. I know I released at the right moment, and my trajectory is true. I can feel my position in the emptiness; my head is ahead of my spine, my arms are ahead of my head, and everything is going to be fine.

It’s not until I feel the mallet-blow on my left wrist that I realize my eyes are closed. I had no idea that I overshot, and instead of reaching the next rung with the meat of my palms, I crash into that steel bar with the veins and tendons at the base of my hand.

My left arm hits first. The impact reverberates like a gong strike, booming into my elbow and the back of my teeth. The hand curls into a useless claw.

My right arm is slightly behind, and that wrist doesn’t hit as hard. The hand is still usable, and it swipes reflexively to grasp the bar as I start to drop. But only the tips of my fingers catch. It’s just enough of a snag to pull me off-center, my left side plunging faster than my right.

I spread my limbs like a star in an effort to right myself, but as I am in midair, it doesn’t accomplish much. I crash onto the trampoline, not with the back of my head, but with the side of my left foot and curled left claw.

The rest of my body follows in a heap. The gym falls silent. I look up and see a dozen faces frozen in concern.

“I’m okay!” I croak, as I push up to my knees. Then I shuffle to the edge of the trampoline and climb down.

The room breathes a sigh of relief. My heart hammers in my ears. Everyone turns back toward the front of the line. I take my place at the back.

I’m going to do this! I think. I stand in the line and watch the others take their third turn. They are accumulating confidence. I clench and release my fists at my sides, then press my hand into my sternum to slow the galloping beast in my chest.

It’s my turn again. I look up at the coach, and he considers me a moment.

“Boxhorse?” he asks.

“Yes, please,” I answer.

The scene repeats.

I reach up and hang. My stomach drops. I glue my eyes to the bar ahead of me, and begin to swing.

One, two, three times I pump my legs. On the third, I snap them back and fling myself forward. I am flying through the air, waiting for the slap of steel in my palm…

And am surprised by another resonant whack across my tender wrist.

My right hand catches, and then slips. Just like before.

I look down and prepare to meet the trampoline as it rushes up at me. I get my left forearm and knee under me. My body follows in a plop onto the stretchy black fabric, with slightly more control than the first time.

No one stops breathing this time. My face glows red as I climb off the matted edge of the bouncer and shuffle humbly back into the lineup.

“You cannot see the bar?” the coach asks.

“I think I’m closing my eyes,” I mumble, looking at the floor. My face feels so hot I’m sure it’s purple.

The coach shrugs and leaps effortlessly onto the trampoline like someone whose natural habitat is made of mats and springs and bars.

“Now,” he says to the athletic fellow next in line. “We bounce to each bar. You jump, you catch. You drop, you bounce to next bar. Bounce-catch, bounce-catch. Yes?”

He demonstrates, and the class murmurs understanding. One by one, everyone takes a turn. About half of the students are able to jump high enough to reach the bars. I am among those whose fingers strain into empty air on every bounce.

After my first time through, I watch my classmates more closely. The ones who make it up to grasp those bars are mostly men, but there are two women who can do it.

So, it’s not just a guy thing, I tell myself.

I compare the body size of the people who hit the mark. The women are both several inches taller than me, but two of the men are near my size.

So, it’s not just a height thing, I conclude.

My second round goes much like my first. Bounce, streeee-tch… miss. I experiment, holding my gaze and arms up just a second longer before I look down and coil up for the next bounce. It doesn’t give me any more height.

But as I pass the apex of my jump and begin to fall with my head still tilted upwards, a sickening spasm jolts through my stomach. I feel my center start to fall backwards.

With a horrified jerk, I snap my arms and head forwards, and manage to throw my body out of the perilous backward lean. I land folded, squatting with my hands on my knees and my ass in the air. I waver awkwardly as I still the bounce of black cloth and squeaky springs.

“Hehehe… almost had it,” I mutter, smiling sheepishly to no one as I climb off the trampoline.

I am still chuckling nervously as I step into line for the last round.

The next person to approach the apparatus is a tallish guy in his late twenties. He looks like he hasn’t been inside a gymnasium since it was required for graduation credits. He presses his lips together as he bounds heavily through his failed attempt: bounce-miss, bounce-miss, bounce-miss.

The coach watches him, frowning. Then he addresses the class.

“It is not knees bending,” he explains. “Knees locked. The feet are springing.” Then he demonstrates.

The coach is barely taller than my 5’2”. And probably several pounds lighter than my overburdened frame. But this little man launches himself off the trampoline again and again, his rebounds peaking at eye-level with the bars. His legs are straight, toes pointed. Face relaxed. Like it was the easiest thing in the world.

If he can do it, so can I, I tell myself. It’s technique, not brawn. Just gotta make it click.

On my third turn, I climb onto the trampoline and glare at it’s woven surface with determination. I swing my arms and begin to bounce.

I look up at the first rung and count my bounces: one, two…

I prepare to explode on bounce number three. I lock my knees and push downward with every muscle in my body. I’m going to MAKE that trampoline launch me to my mark.

But all I produce with this fierce blast of effort is a jet of hot urine in my underwear.

Time slows. I feel my eyes bulge and my jaw drop in surprise. My explosive spring collapses into a stunned float, and I arrest my bounce midway down the trampoline. For a heartbeat, I am frozen.

When I start to breathe again, I turn to look at the coach. But he’s not there. He has already led the rest of the class over to the next station.

I slither off the trampoline and skulk quietly off the floor. I find the bathroom and lock myself inside without turning on the lights. I’m surprised my hot cheeks aren’t producing a pink glow.

When I finally flick the lights on, they hesitate with the unmotivated flicker of old flourescent tubes. I look in the mirror and see myself in flashes. I am breathing hard. I am bent over, my hands gripping the sides of the sink. My mouth is open, expressionless.

As the flickering light finally snaps decisively on, I look into my own eyes and start to grin.

“Ho-lee shit,” I whisper. “I just pissed myself!” My eyes get wider and wider, and I swear they look slightly misaligned. I am wracked by competing urges to laugh and cry.

“I look like a lunatic,” I cackle quietly. “Dear fuck, I feel like one!”

I hear a murmur of voices from outside, and realize I’m talking to myself with my outside voice. I press my lips together and breathe hard through my nose, eyes still locked on their own reflection. My heart begins to slow.

I watch my body change as the adrenaline begins to fade. My shoulders start to ease away from my ears. My hunched neck begins to straighten. My death-gripping hands release the sink.

I stand up straight and take a deep breath. I feel it fill my belly. My weight settles into my hips, through my knees, and onto my feet. I become aware of the floor beneath me. I breathe again.

I sit on the toilet and pull down my pants to assess the damage.

Yup, those are some wet undies, I think. But then a thought occurs to me. Did it leak through my tights?

A quick check is inconclusive; the anemic bathroom light and strong dye on the black lycra conspire to hide what I’m sure is a large splotch of shame.

Note to self, I chuckle inwardly. Add incontinence pads to the gym bag.

It occurs to me that there are probably a lot of moms who have added bladder-control products to their athletic routine. Childbirth isn’t kind, y’all.

Then I remember that serious athletes probably do a shitload of kegel exercises after they have their babies so they can run and jump again without wetting their pants.

Finally, I realize it’s been a long time since I was anything close to a serious athlete. I don’t have time to rebuild my pelvic floor muscles before my Groupon runs out. And I don’t want my wimpy bladder to keep me from embracing this sweet slice of fun.

I AM having fun, right? I silently ask my reflection.

I look carefully into the mirror; the crinkles around my eyes and leftover flush on my cheeks whisper, “Fuck yes!”

Alright, I say to the mirror. We’ll be back, then. But for now, it’s time to go home and grab clean pants.

But I don’t go home. Like a total lunatic, when I exit the bathroom, I hang a right and head back out onto the floor.

The rest of the class is a margarita mix of lime-bright fear and smooth tequila satisfaction. We take running leaps to catch a trapeze, and time our release to go sailing over a thigh-high crash mat and land on the other side. I’m not half-bad at that one. It gives me the delicious flying sensation I was craving on the monkey bars.

Then we use cupped palms, straight arms, and straight legs to run up a sticky pole. My feet slip on that one about seven feet off the ground. It makes me gasp and I nearly pee some more, but I don’t fall.

My least favourite exercise is running up the curved wall. I have trouble moving my feet fast enough, and take a tumble on my way down.

Through all of this, no one says a word about my grade-school “accident.” No one splashes water on the front of their pants in solidarity, either, a la Billy Madison.

I’ll never know if my classmates noticed my wet pants, or what they thought about them. And I’m good with that.

Finally, the workout is almost over. The coach leads us off the main gym floor and points up a wooden staircase.

“The stunt tower,” he said. “Now, we practice falls.”

My heart flutters.

This is what brought me to this gym. The ad for the Groupon featured a picture of a dude summersaulting off this two-storey tower onto the exact same red and white crash bag I see below.

My face stretches back into that cheek-straining grin I wore an hour ago, when I was contemplating the monkey bars.

This is it, I think. I get to fly!

One by one, my classmates make their choice: they either descend the stairs to sit out this last feat, duck below the platform to jump off the lower level, or proceed straight ahead to leap off the top platform.

“You jump legs forward, land on back, arms to sides,” the coach shouts up at us from beside the crash bag. “Body like a cross.”

Wha?!? I think. Won’t we hit our heads on the platform?

I had been expecting something else; if not the front-flip from the ad photo, then maybe a forward leap and roll to our backs.

“Or,” the coach adds; “You face backwards and just fall back.”

Fucking NOPE! I say in my head. I need to see what’s happening.

Legs-forward it is.

My fearful movie screen flickers on again, showing a vision of me leaping out… but not far enough. I begin to lay back in the air, and hear a meaty thwack as my occipital bone cracks against lumber. A shiver runs from the arches of my feet up to the back of my scalp.

“No fucking way,” I mutter to myself. “That is NOT going to happen.”

“Huh?” asks the guy behind me.

“Uh, nothing,” I mutter. My cheeks get hot.

“Next!” shouts the coach, and I realize it’s me.

I gasp a breath in and step forward to the edge of the platform. I’m at the top of the tower. I am very relieved to see they’ve built a short railing on the side. I grab it with my right hand and squeeze it a few times.

“When you are ready,” the coach says. His face is neutral. “Take big breath. Straighten body in the air. Spread your arms when you land.”

I look down. The surface of the crash bag is shimmery… I briefly wonder if it’s made of silk, or nylon. And then suddenly, I jump.

I push hard. I hear wind in my ears as I lean back and tense my whole body as I wait to strike the bag. There isn’t even time for a full heartbeat.

Thwap! My stretched form punches into the bag. My butt has landed ahead of my shoulders, and the uneven momentum whips my head into the bag. It rings a little in my ears, but I’m fine.

I blink and stare at the ceiling while I catch my breath.

Holy fuck! I think. I did it! I FLEW!

“You’re alright?” the coach asks. I roll over, rise onto all fours, and turn to him with a thumbs up and a gigantic grin.

The coach nods.

“Stretch arms more,” he says. “Land evenly.”

“Got it,” I say, and slide off the edge of the enormous air pillow to take two more turns to sail off the tower before it’s officially time to go home.

Back in my bedroom, with my computer on my lap and Critter at my side, the gym scene fades in my mind. My cheeks are warm from remembered excitement.

Critter is sitting beside me, gaping at me. She has followed along with my thoughts.

“Wow,” she says. “You seriously peed yourself at the gym?”

I smile sheepishly and nod.

“That’s impressive,” she says.

I chuckle.

“It was worth it,” I say.

Critter nods and grins.

“Honestly,” I admit, “I can’t figure out why that memory is sticking to me right now.”

Critter eyes me with her head slanted.

“I think you want to make a point to yourself about being scared,” she says.

“Like what?” I snigger. “If your bladder is weak then you gotta wear Depends?”

Critter smiles.

“You already learned that one,” she says, winking. “What have you not figured out yet?”

I breathe deeply and think about it.

“I guess what I remember most about that class was how scared I was, but how that uncontrollable craving to feel weightless kept me going,” I say.

Critter nods and strokes her chin.

“I think that day at the gym taught you the secret to conquering fear,” Critter says. “It’s desire.”

I consider this.

“It’s not the inherent danger of the stunt that makes you freeze,” Critter continues. “You just forgot why you climbed onto the trapeze. Stop and listen; if your whole body says you want this, get out there and do your Ringling thing. There’s a net, you’ll be fine.”

I raise my eyebrows.

“That’s weirdly apt,” I say. “As usual, you freaky little genius.”

Critter grins and I scratch the top of her head.

“You humans are unique in the way you cling to your fears,” she says lazily. “You really suck at predicting the future, but keep stubbornly trying.”

I nod and keep scratching her scruffy scalp.

“Amen, sister,” I mutter.

I smile as Critter’s eyes start to close, lulled by the comfort of my touch.

Then she cracks one eye open at me.

“So, you going to climb back on that boxhorse?” she asks. “Get back at your writing?”

I take a deep breath and close my eyes. I search inwardly for the desire to do these pieces.

“For the letter to my daughter’s school,” I say, “the desire comes from a problem that needs to be addressed. It’s going to be uncomfortable to bring it up, but there’s a chance it will make things better for everyone involved. I have no idea what kind of response I will get, but I’ve got to speak up.

For the blog post, the desire comes from my need be useful – to produce something for my readers that rewards them for sticking around.

For the short story – whew, that’s the one with the biggest fog of fear wrapped around it. But in the cold spaghetti of my guts, I can still make out the desire: I want to take a crack at telling another kind of story that is rattling its chains in my head.”

Critter raises an eyebrow.

“You’ve become my comfort zone,” I admit to my imaginary friend. “I am dying to step outside this situation where you always save the day and see what happens when I go wandering through my ideas on my own,”

Critter nods.

“You can handle it,” she grins. “But you’d better come back and tell me all about it,”

“Promise,” I reply.

“There you go,” she says. “You found your reason for doing these terrifying things. Now, it doesn’t matter how scary or hard it gets. Just remember: your need is your north star. Keep it in view, and it will guide you home.”

I smile at Critter. She steps away from my stroke, then leans down and pats my hand.

“Just keep showing up on the trapeze platform,” she says. “With your pants as wet as necessary.”

Critter chuckles. Then, she gives me a smile that warms me head-to-toe and leaps off my bed to leave me to my tappety-tappings.

Both of us wish you a lifetime of “Holy fuck I just flew,” and “I peed myself and don’t even care,” kind of moments.

Depression, Anxiety, Rage and Raccoons

%d bloggers like this: