May 23, 2008
You can’t intimidate me,
O porcelain throne of triumph and shame!
HIS EYES WERE FILLED WITH A SHY, QUIET PRIDE,
as he told the doctor, after a pause to savor the moment,
“Yes I can.”
The question was, “You can sit on toilet seats now?”
The occasion was obsessive-compulsive disorder group therapy with Dr. Oz and a specialist, Dr. Grayson, on the Oprah show. This fellow had been so afraid of the germs on his toilet that he routinely relieved himself on the grounds outside his house for several years.
Perhaps it would not occur to most people that anyone could consider such a thing, using a toilet, to be a challenge. And if so, how modest a victory, one might think. Something the majority of the world wouldn’t give as second thought to. But I actually know where the poor guy’s coming from.
I spontaneously exclaim with an enthusiasm no less than that of Archimedes himself, when after opening only three boxes marked “Bedroom Books,” I spot the yellow and red graphics of Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon, An Atlas of Depression peeking out from the pile. In it, the author describes his own terror of taking showers. Yes, terror. Of taking showers.
In all my years, of all the passages in all the books I have underlined as an English major and just plain obsessive reader, this one resonates most poignantly and amusingly to me—the plaintive yearning with which he pleads:“All over the world people were taking showers. Why, oh why, could I not be one of them?”
Forsooth, why not?
HOW WELL I KNOW
the horror of the alarm going off, the first thought springing into my mind, I can’t do it, I can’t do it, I can’t get up, I can’t take that shower, I can’t leave the house, get on the bus, somehow make it to the office, spend my day doing someone else’s work. I can’t, I can’t, I can’t, but I would, and I did, until I couldn’t any more. I had to protect myself from the abyss. I had to quit or lose it, lose it carry-me-out-of-here-on-a-stretcher style. I now consider myself to be completely unemployable in the usual sense of the word—appearing in a place, fulfilling a function, completing my duties, being gracious and cheerful and productive and responsible and coming back the next day at a time certain to repeat the routine. No, I won’t do it again. I love myself too much. I’m the only one who knows what it would cost me.I still sometimes can’t bring myself to take a shower first thing in the morning, and soak in the tub instead. A bath is far easier to handle—almost like going back to (a water)bed. Amniotic hydrotherapy for the soul. I can spend hours in the tub. Hours. I read an entire book in there once.
“WHY OH WHY CAN I NOT BE ONE OF THEM?”
Doesn’t that just cut to the heart of the matter. Whosoever “they” may be, you are not one of them.
How many times have I thought that—at a party, at h’s Salon at La Reina’s, at some event; why can’t I be “one of those” coming home from some worthwhile job with hangers-full of drycleaning slung over my shoulder, preparing for dinner with my similarly gainfully employed and utterly sane boyfriend?
The bottom line is, I don’t care. I am simply not. One of those. I am who I am. Take it from there. In fact, why can’t they be like me? For every one of those who traffic in the real world, there is one who doesn’t fit in. For my part it suits me. There are not too many masses of people I want to fit into. Back in Berkeley I used to serve on the Board of Governors for the Junior Bach Festival, a non-profit “dedicated to touching young lives by promoting the study and performance of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.” Now there is one group of people I was glad to fit into like a custom dovetail.
CERTAIN KIND-HEARTED READERS
expressed concern over my state of mind in my last column. “In case you’re just joining us,” in 2006 I sold a house I owned in Oregon so I could quit my job and live as a writer, and am now selling my Lower Haight flat so I can continue to do so, and am in the throes of tearing my life apart in an effort to downsize and rebuild it, into what I am not sure, nor where it will take place. It got to me over the past few days. As a friend wrote, “dismantling the metaphorical House is disturbing at the very least…easily depressing and/or terrifying.”
I don’t know who wouldn’t be tearing their hair out over dividing and distributing thirty years’ worth of accumulations, but considering my career as a manic-depressive, I am handling it quite well. First of all, I have wrought these changes in my life. Though I have surrendered traditional notions of security in both the present and future, that is not a source of anxiety; it is in pursuit of a goal—living as a writer, not a wage slave. I am blessed that I have had the assets to support myself in this pursuit.
OH MY SWEET,
wrote my friend, “A soul can be a heavy thing to feel fettered to.”Even though I am a born depressive (the “melancholic humor” they used to call it), I was not suffering, in “One is Never Alone,” from miasma of the soul; I was just plain depressed. Normally depressed. Depressed like people get now and then when their life is in flux. Just a weekend malaise.I do and don’t identify as bipolar. When I was describing who I am, discussing the film “Unknown White Male,” it never occurred to me to mention my manic depression. It’s like the “I have cancer. It doesn’t have me” commercial. Bipolar disorder used to have me, firmly in its grip. I do think of it as an “it.” It’s like a malevolent twin who won’t get out of your life and no matter how disruptive to your life you still feel blood ties to, like a cipher in your head, as Solomon put it. One time it barged in on me while I was taking a bath getting ready for work. Suddenly the world turned white and I was gasping for breath. I nearly passed out trying to get myself out of the tub and onto my bed. I called my coworker, barely getting the words out, to ask if she could cover for me. It’s OK, I told her, it sounds worse than it is, it’s just a panic attack—but actually it was as bad as it sounded. I spent the next two days sobbing and hyperventilating. I was “over the edge,” as Solomon says depressives like to say “to delineate the passage from pain to madness.”You know about the edge, yes? The one bordering the abyss.
Well, damned if the guy hadn’t fallen into the very same abyss I did! The one I fell into while buying a washer/dryer at Sears, like the floor of the world fell out. It happened that the saleswoman’s daughter had a problem with panic attacks as well and she made me sit down till I caught my breath, and brought me water. I had just bought my flat, and suddenly the implications of being a San Francisco homeowner with a private laundry room seemed like the most frightening circumstance I could find myself in. I couldn’t deal with it!I plan to stay out of the damn abyss from now on, keeping myself sane doing work I love and getting the rest I need just from being a human being in the 21st century.
WHY WRESTLE WITH WORDS?
I also asked myself last time in a rare fit of disillusionment with the written word, perhaps from bearing the weight of my thousand books in cardboard boxes. I think it was Anne Lamott, in Bird by Bird, who comes to the conclusion that she writes because she can, and because she wants to. Me too. And because every now and then someone writes to me with something like: “I thank you and the aching cosmos that you keep your laptopatopyourlap and keep wrestling…agonizingly, bloodandguts, toothandnail, ya’akov and the angel, wrestling with the tools of your vocation.”You’re welcome, my fourth B.
Polk and Grove, Abraham Lincoln with a crow on his head
My brain tells my body what to do
The Milk unveiling at City Hall, then the Brahms German Requiem at Davies Hall; another fabulous balmy San Francisco night
copyright Alexandra Jones 2008