Onion tribute: Woman kicked out of therapy

I grew up reading the Onion (hipster chorus: I read it before it was cool!)  In the Midwest, in a time when the internet was something only basement-dwelling computer geeks knew about, the Onion’s brilliant wit and pithy analysis on everything from the lunch lady to international politics was up for grabs in newspaper boxes and coffee shops around the city.  So this came to me today, during yoga (yes, actually, it did).  It’s a mildly fictionalized, Onion-esque take on my life.  (I have not been kicked out of therapy, and I know therapists deal with cases far more tragic than mine.)

Woman kicked out of therapy: her life really did suck, said dejected counselor

Amelia Smith, 33, was recently kicked out of therapy.  Citing complex diagnoses, interpersonal incompatibilities, and continuing depression, Nathan Bronner, MSW, terminated Smith’s sessions after two months.  “Look,” Bronner said, cleaning his glasses in his shirt, “her life really did suck.”  Bronner continued, “I mean, I’m trained to help people cope with their problems, but I can’t keep telling a patient things will get better when they keep getting worse. She’s depressed, she’s not delusional.”  Bronner’s two decades of assisting people with everything from “mommy issues” to “general angst” were reportedly worthless on Smith, who in rapid succession moved to a new community, lost her younger sibling, was divorced, became homeless for a period, had her mother diagnosed with cancer, and lost her job.  

In her second to last session, Smith asked Bronner what he would do if he was in her situation.  Bronner reportedly broke into nervous laughter.  “Um, kill myself? Ha, wait, no, I’m just kidding . . .” he trailed off as he gazed at his degree.

Smith, upon leaving her last session with Bronner, looked at the sky and mused, “I guess I can quit my job and go on an epic road trip to sort myself out, maybe do some more yoga and reconnect with old friends on the way. Sit around a campfire, grieve in the fresh air.”  Bronner allegedly could no longer contain his laughter, snorting, “Good luck, sucker.”    






11 months

Lately, the tears have been unpredictable and unquenchable; I feel like a hemophiliac, terrified to break my thin skin because once it’s cut the liquid doesn’t stop flowing.  Four rough days in a row: another 13th, marking 11 months; a Friday, like every Friday since the Friday Alex died horrible; a 15th, month marker of Alex’s birthday; Father’s Day, another normally innocuous and commercialized holiday turned deadly by the marked absence of a necessary participant.  

11 months gone.  Next marker a year.  Things must’ve changed in those 11 months but it’s hard to say what.  I recently noticed that the taller, broader, big-haired void next to me of my brother is no longer the first thing people see about me, although they still see the shadow his void casts.  I have a new friend who I hung out with a record 3-4 times before mentioning that my brother was dead; I was both proud of myself and ashamed that I had acted like a normal person until then.  But even though I can now talk to people for several hours in a social setting without telling them of my void, I must still wear it.  Several times over the past few weeks people on the street have called out to me to cheer up, including, once, a homeless man on the sidewalk who told me, “Whatever’s troubling you, beautiful, it’s gonna be all right.  The man upstairs never takes a vacation.”  Apparently I look so piteous that someone literally on the ground feels the need to give me a hand up.  

The aforementioned friend, when I said how long Alex had been dead, said “Oh.  That’s not very long.”  I don’t know if it is long or not.  It’s probably been the longest 11 months of my life.  That Friday the 13th does have a surreal quality of place and sense memory that belong to another era, or another person’s story; I think I couldn’t cope with being in the same town and driving the same streets otherwise.  But, whether or not it’s the first thing I tell people, it also still feels like the most important fact of my existence.

In a month we will dedicate his grave in Jewish tradition.  I have been to the unmarked grave 3 times since he died, around Dia de los Muertos, around Valentine’s day, and on Mother’s Day.  This time it will be only Alex’s day.  I’m terrified for it to hit the year marker, I want to pull on the breaks and lean backwards hard.  Just like when the minutes slid into hours, and days, and weeks, and then a month, the transition into larger units seems to eclipse any chance I had for this to be reversible, for someone to pop out from behind a door and explain that the whole thing is a horrible joke, or for Marty McFly to appear with a souped-up Delorean offering to fly me back to 7am CDT on that Friday, where we will call an ambulance with enough time to make a difference and my brother will be put on a strict diet of relaxation and whatever miracle medicine can prevent healthy 29 year olds from dropping dead.  

But Back to the Future is less the movie of our childhood that I think of than Flight of the Navigator, beloved by Alex and hated by me.  Alex is now in orbit, forever 29, while the Earth spins on at a more rapid pace below him and we are forced to move with it, no matter how we try not to.  I can still hear his voice and anticipate his thoughts, and when I talk to others who knew him well I feel like we create him in our conversational spaces.  I hope that remains as the months become years, although I wish he could age and grow with us, even in my head.

Sobbing on the train

I haven’t written much in the past few months.  My life has spiralled so far out of control that recording it in writing seems pathetic, indulgent, or a commitment of everything to reality in the written word.  So I haven’t made that commitment.  Since January I’ve had the relationship I relocated for shortly before Alex’s death end, not by my choice, and as I was about to pick myself up in a new place, had the new job I excel at reveal itself to be hanging on a precarious thread.  So I’ve lived in a state of limbo for 3 full months now.

During those 3 months, Alex’s 30th birthday also passed.  I dreaded its arrival, then didn’t note its passing, until several weeks later finally recognized that I spent a full two weeks after it as near suicidal as I’ve ever been in a lifetime struggling with depression.  Rather than just wish I couldn’t wake up in the morning, I actually thought about how easy it would be to direct my bike off the overpass, before rejecting the notion because of all the implications, all the burdens, all the responsibilities to other people I bear that I just can’t bear that led me to think it in the first place. 

I marked the Book of Job in my ecumenical study bible, since I thought perhaps I was headed for a Jobian course of life, and I should know what happens next.  Apparently I lose my camels and develop boils.  But I’m not alone in the series of insults to maiming I’ve suffered after Alex’s death.  Many people’s marriages, jobs, mental health, physical health, collapse in the wake of a tragic loss.  Although the collapse of my relationship and job are not causally related to Alex’s death (I don’t think), they are, nevertheless, part of a package that many people find delivered to their doorsteps, as though death were not enough.

Recently I’ve become sick of feeling like a victim of a horrible turn of fate.  But it’s hard when your entire foundation has been ruined to rebuild.  As I find myself continuing to thrive in a field my brother excelled in, I want more and more to share my successes and wry observations with him, only to conclude that they mean little without him here.  And sometimes, at the end of a day on which I am on top of the world, I find myself riding the train back, looking sharp, collapsing into unstaunchable tears in front of a carload of strangers who pretend not to notice that put-together stranger unraveling in front of them.


In defense of Brad Paisley and LL Cool J

Brad Paisley, a pop country musician, is stirring up more press on progressive newsites and blogs than probably ever before with his and LL Cool J’s collaborative “Accidental Racist.”  As a country music fan and a student of critical race theory, I’m pretty disappointed in the reception the song is getting.

Here are the lyrics to the song: lyrics and you can listen here.  

It’s not a great song, musically.  And it is not a dissertation for a critical race theory phD.  But anyone who is judging it on those grounds completely and willfully fails to understand the climate in which this song is being introduced.  Country music has become so increasingly nativist that you could listen to an uninterrupted hour on your local station in which song after song would proclaim messages of pride for the singer’s small backwoods, the certainty that cities are inferior, that all you need to know is in your Bible, that anyone different is not wanted, that their kids aren’t like our kids, and that we will “stick a boot in your ass because it’s the American way.”  There is one Black artist in all of pop country-land (Hootie now without the Blowfish), and you can bet he does not sing about race.  Into this context comes popular singer Brad Paisley’s earlier songs like “American Saturday Night,” boldly subversive because he dared subtly state that we are a nation of immigrant influences, and even crazier his “Welcome to the Future,” which references the KKK and with awe welcomes our first Black president.  He now dares go further and start a conversation — that’s it, a starting conversation — to actually acknowledge race, racism, slavery, and racial conflict and tension, with the collaboration with respected if slightly out of date Black rapper LL Cool J. In explaining this song to Ellen DeGeneres, Paisley said “I don’t know if y’all have noticed, but there’s some racial tension,” a simple statement that our own first Black president has had to backtrack from, because acknowledging racism refutes the compromise with the right that we pretend to be a “post-racial” society.

It’s not just that people are criticizing this for not doing a great job at what it sets out to do.  It’s that the condemnation is so swift from those of us who should want these issues addressed that we are essentially chilling the conversation.  Anyone who thinks that Eric Church and Talib Kweli are now going to do a country duet about reparations lives on another planet.  Meanwhile, what’s drifting back to the (probably irate and certainly ruffled) white country base is the message that they shouldn’t even bother to try to approach the issues because we’ll just attack them, and that’s why they should just stick to what they know, which is cornbread and chicken, blonde-haired blue-eyed girls, church on Sundays.  No more trying to talk to those Black baristas, as Paisley’s song imagines; you don’t get it, so don’t try.

I get that people are interpreting LL Cool J’s line “If you forgive my gold chains I’ll forgive your iron chains” as creating a ridiculous equivalent, and if that’s what it’s meant to do I agree.  But this song doesn’t strike me as a “I’m black, you’re white, that’s history, let’s forget it, kumbaya” type of song, and I think anyone rushing to judgment on that should listen more carefully.  I hear Paisley acknowledging that he’s coming across as racist and that he’s uncomfortable with the racist legacy associated with the South.  Yankees tend to react with horror to the Confederate flag, and I’m no exception, but we also learned the victor’s version of the Civil War which, frankly, was not all about good intentioned Northerners trying to end the evils of slavery.  Southern revisionist historians do have some good points to make.  But I digress.  I also hear LL Cool J saying that his automatic reaction to the cowboy hat is fear, and I don’t then hear any indication that either singer believes that’s stupid and he should get over it.  This song is not pretending it’s all good and we should move on.  As Paisley sings, “We’re still picking up the pieces, walking on eggshells.”

The critics aren’t demanding, as some claim, that this “come from a place of honesty.”  They’re demanding that Brad Paisley not talk about race at all until he’s fully immersed in critical race theory, and maybe not even then.  And demanding silence from people beginning to learn and question and speak is not a good way to bring them along further.  We are telling Brad Paisley, “You don’t get it, so shut up.”  

So I’d ask everyone who is now skewering Brad Paisley and LL Cool J because their 5 minute pop song doesn’t fully and completely discuss the racist legacy of this country and how that affects us today, how is your condemnation moving the conversation forward?  (And also, I’d ask you to listen to a pop country station for a few hours.  Seriously.)


Directions to the grave

My brother’s 30th birthday was this weekend.  I was too far away to visit his grave, and everyone closer couldn’t handle going, so I gave directions to an aunt who said she’d go on our behalf and bring flowers.  Here are the directions:

If you’re going north, take the first entrance into the cemetery (it’s the only entrance from that side).  Make the first right, and drive around just west of the big building you see.  Stay on that road as it curves around to the left (pointing you due east), and stay straight on that road for about 1/8 of a mile, to a garbage can on the right side of the road.  Alex is buried to the right of that road, just beyond the garbage can, in a plot that is stuck between that road and a high fence that marks off the entrance to the ill-placed hopefully-named Resurrection Medical Center.  It is just before another road that would allow you to turn left.  You have gone too far if there are no grave stones to your right; Alex’s grave is among the newer dug ones in that area.  His grave is the second in from the road, and it’s marked by a plastic placard facing south and missing one of its two metal spokes; there should also be a plant hanger stuck in by the placard, with either a pot of dead chilies or no pot at all.


The disappearance of the white rabbit

I cling to strange signs.

There is a white rabbit that hangs out about a block from my house.  The first few times I saw it I did a double-take: wild bunnies, dumb though Ed Abbey proved they are, never sit so stoically, and I’ve never seen a white wild rabbit.  I finally encountered the owner and learned that the white rabbit is a pet, it lives outside, and has survived a year in this neighborhood filled with feral cats and half-trained pit bulls.  I came to expect to see the white rabbit on my way home from work every day, hanging out under the same parked car around dusk.  Jokingly, I referred to the white rabbit as an allegory for my own survival, connecting its unfathomable daily presence to my own continued existence.

I tempt my own fate.

Around the beginning of the month, I noticed that the car the white rabbit usually hid under, and indeed the white rabbit itself, were not there.  Hadn’t been there since then.  I looked around the yard to see if it were elsewhere, and under other parked cars, but there were no signs.  The food and water bowl that were normally left out on the steps were also gone.

About a week after the disappearance of the white rabbit, and before I’d really processed its absence, my partner ended our relationship.  I may have seen it coming had I been looking farther forward or back, but since my brother’s death I have only been looking at each day, so I was blindsided.  It was not, he says, related to my temper or sadness, but rather to long-term and undefined incompatibilities.  I don’t wish to press the point or blame him; I’ve ended relationships on those grounds or excuses before.  But this action did toss me back out to sea with no anchor.  I thought I was beginning to own my own life again, and now I find myself homeless, in a strange city where I have no community, nothing but a job and a cat to cling to, nowhere for solace but the mountains.  Even the mountains failed me yesterday, and I found myself flinging myself onto a snowbank and crying out that I was in pain to perfect strangers.  For days the heavy sodden woolen blanket of depression has been draped over me, shutting out light and human warmth, occasionally getting a corner stuck down my throat and choking me.  I finally went to see a therapist, who assured me that I’m doing everything correctly; my worst fear, that this is normal and there is nothing I can do to take away the pain.

I am continuing to plod through the steps, although there are more now that I am homeless and without a partner to confide my grief in or help me with my daily tasks.  I look forward to dark every day so I can sleep and be done with being conscious, and in the morning I lay in bed awake long before I need to be and wait for the light and more often my bladder to finally pull me out of my restlessness.  I have given in to self-pity, which is worse even than the pity of others, and let myself feel totally abandoned by everyone.

I pulled it together enough at work to do a great job, and then as I was leaving the office at the end of a long and horrid but productive work week I said goodbye to my brother’s picture and completely broke down again.  No matter how hard I work, no matter what I produce, no matter how amused Alex would be by it, I can’t bring him back.

A few days ago I saw the owner of the white rabbit again.  I had been staying with acquaintances around town but was coming back to my old house to stay with my cat while my ex was out of town, and happened to be biking past while the man was out for a smoke.  What happened to the white rabbit?  I asked him, terrified of the answer.  The confusion and lack of recognition on his face quickly gave way to the unworried answer: the rabbit’s fine, he assured me.  He’d built a hutch for it in his cousin’s yard across the street, to keep it safe from the dogs.  He’d also bought two more rabbits as companions for the white rabbit.

I swear when I get out of this hole I am climbing mountains and not looking down again.

The shock is over and that’s not a good thing

A while ago someone suggested that 2013 might be easier than the second half of 2012.  What could be harder than the initial months after my brother died, after all?  Even then, though, I feared that as the initial months passed, it would actually get worse.

I think 6 months marked the end of the shock period for me.  The shock is over, and this is not necessarily a good thing.  Shock, or ptsd, must have some attendant ability to wrap its victim in a cocoon.  My pain was, and remains, very real.  My disbelief remains, and was, very real.  But for 6 months after Alex died, I functioned very well in my tunnel-visioned plodding way.  I also slept well.  I am a lifelong insomniac and perpetual existential-worrier (something Alex also excelled at), and when he died I thought I would never sleep again.  Instead, I passed out hard most nights and slept solid and dreamless, in a way I would’ve bargained my soul for in anxiety-filled teen years.  I have spent my life in high stress, low pay causes, always wondering if I have chosen the place where I can be most effective.  I question, and usually destroy, all of my romantic relationships.  But for 6 months after Alex died, I was on a narrow path, hemmed in by shock, body shutting down at night and mind shutting down all peripheral visions.  

About a week ago I started not being able to sleep again.  I now worry about work at night, and toss and turn.  I wonder again what I’m doing with my life, and lose my temper to a degree I have never before, screaming for the first time in my life at someone I love.  The existential questionings and insomnia are old acquaintances and I could view this as a return to normal, but they are harder to cope with than usual and more extreme.  This return to sharper feelings on other sides does not come with a dulling of the pain of Alex’s death; it just makes it seem that much crueler that not only did I lose my brother, but I can still lose my sanity, my control, my job, and my relationship in my grief.  If I can still cry so hard I can lose my voice and get a stomach ache, it seems only fair that I should get that cocoon of dullness back so I can sleep at night.  2013 is scaring me like no year before.