Tag Archives: parenting

Bad Mom – Spoken Word for Tha.Speakeasy

Old post, but always relevant for those of us who parent while human.

Kitt O'Malley

Prompted by an invite to Tha.Speakeasy Facebook event on April 17th & 18th, I read my poem, Bad Mom, which I’m posting here.

Bad Mom

Bad mom
Selfish mom
Ineffective mom
Permissive mom
Bipolar mom
At times, abusive mom
At times, out of control mom
At times, rageful mom
She’s even hit her kid
She’s even slapped her kid
No excuse
No excuse to hit a child
No excuse to slap a child

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Filed under: Bipolar Disorder, Bipolar Parenting, Mental Health, Motherhood, Parenting Tagged: child abuse, rage

Ogallala Afternoon

You might be wondering where, or what, Ogallala is. 

Ogallala is a smallish city in Nebraska, USA.  It’s named for the Ogallala band of Lakota (Sioux) Indians, who once roamed freely in the Plains, but like all Native Americans were rounded up and planted on reservations during the Westward expansion of white Americans.  Ogallala, Nebraska, is now a corn town.

I’ve been on the road or off the grid now for weeks.  Lots of thoughts, some jotted down, some evaporated, and some that maddeningly recirculate, playing themselves over and over until they are drowned out by the urge to drag my malfunctioning brain out of its bone box and fry it on the sizzling pavement of I-80.

In particular: the thoughts that forced me to bivouac early in bucolic Ogallala, as I was pelting down the blazing Interstate, trying to get to Michigan to meet a deadline.

I am haunted by the spectre of losing my son.  I believe I have lost him.  I believe I never had him.

This adult child of mine has never been happy with much, for long, particularly if it had anything to do with me.

He was miserable as a baby, except when eating or preparing food.  He learned to cook by watching over my shoulder from his vantage point in the backpack.  Since he screamed for whatever chunk of time he was put down, hours at a time, and I mean hours and hours, of necessity for my health and his life, I put him in the backpack and wore him.  If he screamed in the backpack, I put him to bed (clean, dry, and fed, of course) and turned on the vacuum cleaner and put in ear plugs and turned up the stereo and went outside and walked around in the yard and wished I still smoked, until his father came home. 

“Clap hands, clap hands
Till Daddy comes home
Daddy has money and Mommy has none…”

But his father objected to being handed a screaming baby even before he was properly through the door.  In retrospect I don’t blame him. 

As a pediatrician, having a “difficult child” proved helpful.  It increased my Compassion Quotient.

I’m sure you’ve heard of awful cases where someone shook the baby, or threw it, or did some other act of violence because the baby wouldn’t stop crying.  Most of us recoil in horror from these news items, and frequently judge the mother harshly.  How could she?  How could she?

Thankfully, I never did violence to my perpetually screaming baby.  I took him to the doctor every week, sometimes more.  My pediatrician patiently explained that he had “colic” (rubbish! colic is what they say when they don’t know why the baby cries) and that it would go away when he grew up (it hasn’t).

I remember even at the time, walking around the back yard in the middle of the night, thinking how grateful I was that I had the emotional resources not to simply throw him into somebody else’s trash bin.  Later on, when I turned into the Director of several Pediatric Emergency Departments, I would draw upon that experience when the babies of other, less resourceful parents came in with grievous injuries or worse.  As much as I hurt for those babies, I hurt for the parent who loved their child, yet in an instant of just-too-much-over-the-top screaming, snapped, and hurt their own flesh and blood.

Apart from myself, I think no one pities a parent who has hurt, or even killed, their child, in a moment of unpremeditated rage.  In fact, I don’t even think it’s rage.  I think it’s more simply end of the rope, no more self control, just shut up!  Type of thing.

Maybe they didn’t have a back yard, vacuum cleaner, stereo, teeth to grind, nerves of steel.  Maybe they didn’t have those resources.

I was grateful for mine.

Looking back, I’m also grateful that it wasn’t just me.  Who couldn’t pacify this child, I mean.  I feel vindicated.

When I went back to work and school after five months at home, I left the backpack with the babysitter, who muttered something about knowing how to take care of spoiled babies.

When I picked him up at the end of the day, she had that backpack on!  She muttered something about weaning him off it by the end of the week.

She wore it, and him, for about two more years.  Then we moved.

As far as I can tell, that’s when our troubles first began.

This person to whom I gave birth and did not kill, resents me with a passion.  I resent my own mother, for far different reasons, yet I have compassion for her because I am a hated mother.  I will not tell her I love her, because I don’t.  I don’t confide in her, because whatever I say can and will be used against me.

I have tried to be a good listener to my son.  I know I have been, because he has always come to me with his troubles, and I have felt a bit of guilty pleasure in listening: guilty for being pleased that he came to me in his time of trouble, wishing he didn’t have the troubles that brought him to me, yet pleased that he felt comfortable in coming to me for help.

I did my best to help him to become self-sufficient, since that, in my experience, is the best gift one can give a child, second only to unconditional love.

When he got into trouble, I let him flounder a good long while before I bailed him out.  And I didn’t just let him off the hook.  I got him out of mortal danger, and after that, he had a lot of meaningful work to do. 

I feel now as though I’m explaining, justifying, trying to talk myself into believing that I wasn’t a horrible harpy mother like mine was.  I’m picking through my brain, finding reasons to believe I did OK.

But more often, I’m picking through my brain, finding every little particle of doubt, possibility of abusive behavior, coldness, emotional distance, unavailability, what?

What happened?  Or, more probably, what didn’t happen?

Through the decade of his twenties, it seemed we got along fine.  Then came last Thanksgiving.  I got gobsmacked, blindsided. 

He invited me for dinner.  No one else, just me.  I thought that was strange, suggested we invite somebody else, or go to someone else’s dinner.  No, he didn’t want to.

And he didn’t want help cooking, because he gets impatient with someone else in the kitchen.  So I sat on the couch and smoked his weed. 

He presented the meal.  It looked lovely.  He asked me to take a picture of him with his beautiful dishes all arranged on the table.  I did.

After dinner I went out and slept in my camper in his parking lot.  The next morning I came in and showered while he went to work for a while.  When he returned, he made it clear he expected me to leave: immediately.

There was the old threatening feeling I knew so well, the feeling of dark clouds, anger, intimidation, that he had used to get his way as a young adolescent.  I hadn’t seen that in twenty years. 

I didn’t want to leave just then.  I was nursing a migraine, was exhausted from the many hour drive to his place, and I didn’t want to be bullied.  I wanted to curl up on the couch and drink coffee and smoke weed and watch cartoons in my pajamas.  But it was, after all, his place.  Not mine.

He showed me the door. 

“I really need my space back, Mom,” was how he put it, and opened the door for me, so I could go through it.

We’ve spoken four times since then.  They haven’t been pleasant times.  When I ask what happened, what changed, I get a tirade about how I dragged him around when he was a kid, how I wasn’t available emotionally or physically, and I apologize.  And he is angry, and doesn’t want to hear how I feel. 

And I get all confused.  Here is my son, angry at me.  I didn’t kill him when he was an angry, inconsolable baby.  Why isn’t he grateful?  Isn’t he happy that he’s now a successful adult, with a promising career, lots of nice friends, no lack of women friends, enough money for his needs?

My own mother used to tell me I was “shit,” burn me with match heads, just to see me cry.  Then she’d laugh and tell me I should grow a thicker skin.  And she wonders why I avoid her.

I tried my best to be another kind of mother, the mother I would have chosen if I could have had my choice.

I guess it doesn’t work that way.

Writing on a Plane

Travel Journal from Las Vegas to Portland

On my way, our way, to Oregon to visit family. Tonight driving out to the coast to stay at the Adobe. Tomorrow Jennifer is visiting from Australia. BBQ at in-laws to celebrate and to meet her new boyfriend. Will then have to stay in Newport at the Shilo Inn. Because we waited until the last minute, we were unable to get reservations for lodging in Waldport. 4th of July, or in this case, the 3rd of July, when they do their fireworks, is a big deal in Waldport.

Do not look forward to it, actually. Being around that many people can be overwhelming, overstimulating. Plus, Matthew is likely to get a migraine. We will have nowhere to go for respite aside from the car (and the beach itself).

Tomorrow night and Monday night, when we stay in Newport, we may rent a second car so that Nick can go to and from and Matthew and I can stay at the hotel and order room service or go shopping, as there is no sales tax.
This is boring. Writing this. Who cares


What am I thinking? I’m thinking that I DO NOT want to be a caregiver. I DO NOT want to be blogging about being a caregiver. I was looking forward to having free time to develop my blog, my writing, start speaking. NOT taking care of mom and dad.

So, here I must decide to back off. For my own good. They are being taken care of. I know I will get phone calls. Hopefully less so as mom settles in to her latest placement. She’s been a challenge to accommodate.

She’s doing better now that we’ve separated her and dad.

So, I will leave her be. Let her adjust. Allow her caregivers, her memory care to do their job. I will back off. I will not go above and beyond the call of duty.


What do I do to help Matthew? Fuck it. Fuck taking care of Matthew. I brought meds. Just let him deal. I must figure out how to take care of myself. I’ve noticed recently how sensitive I am to external stimulation. I’m raw. Jangly. All nerves. I’m spent. Burned out. Need another spa weekend. Need to recuperate.

Deep breath. Relax.

Perhaps… Perhaps I could turn off my phone more often, or let it go into voicemail when I get calls regarding my mom…

Got to make Matthew get a driver’s license. Need him to be able to drive. Realize he’s young, but it would really help. Too much to drive him to class for just one hour. Ridiculous, in fact. Perhaps his class schedule could change. How would it best accommodate me, my needs?

Matthew keeps on bringing up issues with equipment. We buy him the best, then he complains and asks for more and more and more.

Like mom, a sponge. I must say NO.

NO. You figure it out. You call for technical support. I will not continually buy you new devices. NO. If I can use my computer for over a year and just send it in when it needs repairs (which is a pain in the ass, granted, I admit that it is and that I’ve had problems with my laptop screen on more than one occasion).

He and I both use our computers more than most. For most of our waking hours.

Here I am on Southwest flying from Las Vegas to Portland. Direct flights were too expensive when you wait until the week before 4th of July to buy tickets. We flew Orange County to Las Vegas, so we vacationed for a little over an hour in Vegas. Had lunch in the airport. Vegas is a trip with all the slot machines in their airport.

Last time I saw slot machines in an airport is when Nick and I married. We flew in and out of Reno, marrying at the Cal Neva on Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is gorgeous. Our wedding photo has it as our backdrop.

I am fatigued. Deeply fatigued. I could just sleep and sleep and sleep. 

Lots of parents bringing their infants to the bathroom for diaper changes. Now we have a line. Downside of sitting in last row of an airplane.

Here I free-write, as I did at the last OC Writer’s write-in. Wonder what I will use. What I will post. Whether I will do a data drop and just publish this and other writing that I’ve done. Wonder whether anyone would enjoy reading this.

I prefer to craft my writing. Edit. Rewrite. Who knows. Maybe I can do a dump every once in a while to show people what I do at times.

This is, perhaps, how I think. Perhaps it provides some insight into how I think. Why anyone would care, I don’t know.

I was tempted to go back and read and edit what I’d written, then thought better of it. Free-writing is free-writing. Just let it flow. Just go with the flow.

How often do I write like this? Not often enough. But I do have bits and pieces of unused writing on my computer and in journals.

Years ago threw out a chest full of my writing. Mistake. Will not do again.

Just finished my seltzer water. Refreshing. Have a headache. Maybe the ice made it too cold. Maybe I’m anxious. Maybe both.

Shallow deep breath, kind of deepish breath, okay it wasn’t deep at all, but I do need to relax. Instead, I shall work myself up into a… I don’t want to type work myself up into a lather – just too lame. Work myself up into a tizzy – also lame. Is it okay to say lame? Politically incorrect.

Not what you want to do when you free-write. Don’t want to let word choice or political correctness get in the way of writing. Just write.

My eyes
My eyes struggle
They hurt
Can’t wait to land
Then long drive to coast
Three and a half hours
Will take forever
The day of endless travel
Plus I can smell shit
Oh, the joy of sitting next to the toilet
Feel like throwing up
Feel like it
Can smell it
Feel like it
Smell it
Thank God for flight attendants and air freshener
Much better now
Though still exhausted
Still spent
Need rejuvenation
Need Matthew to start taking better care of himself
Maybe I can pay him to…
I’ve offered to pay him to take driver’s ed
He drags his feet

Want to sell minivan
Nick taking forever to “fix” it, to ready it for market or for donation to charity
Want to sell my parents’ car, too, though I like driving it, actually
Prefer driving it to the Honda Civic
Makes sense to wait until Matthew is driving to buy new car
Only need two cars
Mistyped only need two cares
Two cares
What two cares do I need?
What two cares can I limit myself to?
Must care for myself
Must care for my marriage
Must care for…
Yes, I must care for Matthew, but less so than before
He’ll be 16 in a couple of weeks
Time to be more independent
Time to push him out of the nest
So, is he afraid of driving because he gets migraines?
His school is close…
I think he’ll feel safer driving himself than having me drive him
I’m not the best driver in the world
Spacey driver
In my head too much
Do not pay enough attention
Getting ready to descend
Time to pack up
They haven’t told us to lock our trays yet
Guess I can type a few more lines of words
Whether or not I have anything of substance to say
Looking forward to being out of airplanes and airports
Looking forward to driving out to the Central Oregon Coast
Beautiful drive
Nick will drive
I will sleep
This time I reserved a mid-size car
No more “Speck”
We always get the cheapest car
Cars so tiny that we can barely fit
Not this time
I insist on being comfortable on this trip
When we arrive
When we are in Newport on Monday morning
We’ll have to look into renting an Enterprise car for Nick
Turbulent no
Fasten seat belts
Put tray table back
Not sure if it’s about time to pack up my iPad
Anker keyboard works well with Apple Pages app
Many apps it does not work so well with

This stream I typed after having read the in-flight magazine
After playing Solitaire
On my phone
1450 words so far

Not sure I have any more words to share, any more words in me right now, but since it’s not yet time to pack up my iPad, I’ll continue.

Must care for myself. Must distance myself from my mom. For my own good. She drains me. I’ve always had to protect myself from her, yet I remain enmeshed. Must separate. Feel guilty. Like I’m a bad girl, a bad daughter, a bad person. Like I can never give enough. Yet, the more I give, the less I have left. I cannot give when I end up drained, spent.

This I’m not so sure I can share, but here it is. The thought, the wish, that my mother die to spare me. Extreme. Felt it as a much younger woman. Hatred, anger toward my mother. Love her, too. Complicated. When my mother once stormed out one afternoon when my sister and I were adolescents, saying she was leaving, moving out. We said goodbye (and thought good riddance). She, our mother, soon called back home and asked us if we wanted to go to a movie. We said sure, and the three of us went to see Airplane. Ambivalent, for sure. I haven’t shared in detail the complicated relationship I have with my mother. I am heir to her illness. She never admitted to having a mental illness. She never admitted to ever making a mistake or being wrong. I can’t believe that I am still dealing with this shit. That I haven’t yet worked through it. My psychiatrist keeps asking me how my sister managed to not get so entrapped and enmeshed. I think it is that she let herself see and feel her anger at our mother, at our parents, early on. I did not. I internalized it. Took it upon myself. Martyred myself.

Filed under: Acceptance, Dementia, Family, Marriage, Mental Health, Motherhood, Parenting, Poetry, Writing Tagged: Free-writing, Southwest Airlines, Travel

Thoughts Intrude

Originally posted May 3, 2015. Now a year older. Not hypomanic or irritable. Just exhausted, for good reason (too much responsibility on my shoulders weighing me down).

Did a good bit of free-writing at OC Writers write-in yesterday. Plan to salvage some of it, to edit and post here, to edit and submit elsewhere. Primary content of my free-writing was intense.

Kitt O'Malley

Leave Me Alone!

Thoughts intrude
Throw plate in sink
Let it shatter loudly
I see myself doing it
The image, the impulse is there
There – in my mind
No! I respond
Turn left NOW in front of oncoming traffic
No! No! No! Don’t do it
Wait for the green arrow
Yell at, argue with, my son, my husband
Pick a fight with them
No! Do not do it

Must fight the thoughts
Must fight the impulses
They make no sense
I’m irritable
In a mixed state
Somewhat hypomanic
Not suicidal
There is no intent behind them
Just intrusive thoughts
Unwelcome images and impulses
Without reason
Without cause

Except this pain
These insistent hormones
Nasty cramps
Super irritable
It’s been months
I think
Since last I bled
I’m 51, 52 this August
Give it up already
Stop menstruating
It’s not going to happen
No more babies
From this empty fibrous womb

So, stop it

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Filed under: Bipolar Disorder, Hypomania, Marriage, Parenting, Poetry, Triggers to Mood Cycling, Writing Tagged: impulsive, intrusive thoughts, irritable, menopause, poor impulse control

Self love and motherhood musings

Since my last little episode, I’ve recovered quite nicely. Relatively speaking of course.  I’ve taken a few showers. Yesterday I even made myself breakfast. Boom.     Caring for myself is so much effort when I’m depressed. Sometimes loving myself is one of the most difficult things to manage to do. I think it’s rooted […]

Open Heart Living

I live with an open heart. A difficult vulnerability as my heart is mostly scar tissue, and just like the tender scars underneath a chin — from a reckless childhood fall into the edge of a coffee table or drunken stumble into the corner of a bathroom sink — one small bump and I bleed all over again.
My body reveals my reckless, yearning, despairing history. Gravel in the knee after speeding down a potholed hill and tumbling from my bright yellow, banana seat Huffy bike. A thumb-shaped indent in my calf after a German shepherd attack left me scrambling onto the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle so the dog’s jaws wouldn’t catch my neck. A tiny pit near my temple from a chicken pox scab that I picked off when sequestered in bed, blissfully, with a stack of Nancy Drew books and glasses of ginger ale. Rivers of stretch marks on the insides of my thighs from growing four inches in eight months when I was twelve and felt ugly and ungainly and towered over all the boys who called me Olive Oil. A long snake running up my foot from college when I was drunk and then inexplicably bleeding and my boyfriend accused me of doing it to myself while the doctor sewed me back together with twenty-three stitches. Dozens of crisscrossed scars on my arms that I did do to myself with razors and knives and glass, trying to overwrite the chaotic and overwhelming psychic pain with the controlled and deliberate pain of an Xacto blade.
I’ve had to explain all of the scars on my arms to boyfriends, lovers, old friends, new friends, doctors, phlebotomists, even strangers, writhing in shame and panic: They can see and now they know and will leave.
When my daughter was seven, she grabbed my forearm and with her tiny fingers traced the raised, white scars. “How do you think you got these?” she asked. My daughter studied the world around her with focused intensity. She spent hours watching the slow progress of her Chinese Water Dragon molt its skin. Could I really have assumed that she wouldn’t see the dozens of white scars that etched my arms in their sad pattern?
I panicked. How could I answer that question? I was supposed to be the safe harbor against a painful, violent world. What would it mean for me then to be the source of such violence? So I lied.
“The cat,” I said, and pulled my arm away. “With its razor claws.”
When I was at the bottom of the well, cutting my arms in an almost daily assault, my therapist wanted me to write words over the scars and around the new wounds with a black Sharpie: Beloved Holy Forgiven. Words meant to remind me of who I was in spite — despite — my surety that I didn’t matter and hence, should die. Inscribe those words, words of softness and kindness, of redemption and love, onto my skin for everyone to see? How could these words be mine? I blew him off.
At our next appointment, he had me push back my sleeves, revealing a new ladder of scabs.
“What do you see?” he asked.
“Scars and damage,” I said.
“What’s missing?” he asked.
I looked away. More, deeper, dead, I thought.
“What’s missing?” he asked again.
“Oh,” I said. “Words. But I can’t write on my arms. I don’t want anyone to notice.” Somehow, even though “anyone” noticing my scars flooded me with shame, I believed it might be more shameful for “anyone” to see that I might mark myself with hope. Wasn’t that overreaching? Why risk imagining any possibilities that offered joy and grace and connection with “anyone.”
He was persistent so I relented and started wearing the words on my skin, trying not to care about the sideways glances from strangers. When I went for a manicure, the nail technician, Tommy, a chatty, breezy Vietnamese immigrant who liked to watch The Price is Right in between filing each nail, turned my arms over and read the words aloud: Beloved Holy Forgiven. My shame storm rose up: chest tightened, mouth watered, the need to run and dive back into the well. Tommy was saying the words again and again in his broken English in a room full of “anyones.” He smiled, a wide, white-toothed smile, picked up the nail file, and said, “Those good words.”
A few months ago, I was sitting in a booth at a diner with my first post-divorce, supersonic “fling,” T. He had read my blog before ever kissing me, and so knew all about my tangled, painful, shameful past and chose to come back (and has unexpectedly become a longer-term friend). Sex with T. was revelatory: for the first time in decades, my body was a source of unmitigated pleasure and joy. As is so often the case post-tumble, we were starving and though it was past midnight, found a twenty-four hour diner. We were sharing a black and white milkshake and a plate of bacon, when T. asked me to explain my scars, why I felt it necessary to hurt myself in that way.
“It felt like pain’s answer,” I said. “Like having a toothache and grinding down into the throbbing tooth. Somehow, secondary pain obliterates primary pain.”
He ran a finger down my forearm, a tender benediction. Usually I would have pulled away, and tucked my arm behind my back, but the small weight of him on my skin held me in place.
“You don’t do that anymore,” he said, “right? You don’t need to do that to yourself.”
T.’s gaze offered compassion and empathy, the necessary forces of the heart that obliterate shame. For a long time, we just looked into each other, each risking both seeing and being seen. The waitress must have thought we were high, like the giggly table of teenagers scarfing french fries behind us, or practicing some form of introverted tantric sex. But we’d been talking all night about who we were and who we were becoming, and we just rested in the quiet.
This is why I live my heart as openly as possible now, risking vulnerability for joy and grace and connection, understanding that most of the time, or at least in equal time, the return will likely be pain and humiliation and rejection. But that is acceptable, necessary risk because when it pays off? Transcendence. Starfish are creatures of transcendence, like their other name suggests: Sea Stars. Their powers are fittingly celestial. When a Starfish’s limb is cut off, the wound must first heal, but then cells proliferate, reaching for an imagined future. Regeneration of a new limb can take years. In our bodies? Scarring is, after all, healing, and is believed to be our form of regeneration. The scars that crisscross my arms, the scars that were once a source of shame, are now evidence of my celestial regeneration — years in the making — into a life filled with the transcendent possibilities of joy and grace and connection, and a body beloved and holy and forgiven.
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After Divorce: Wanderlust

Wanderlust: giving the soul wild range. In German, fernweh, or farsickness: feeling unsettled at home but grounded on the move as your edges expand and you become permeable to the world in its strangeness and incompleteness.
WanderlustFernweh. For years, I gratefully followed my husband’s itinerary, one that fed his imagination and desires, as well as professional ambitions. Sometimes they matched my own and we adventured in happy agreement. I tagged along with him, like I did every August as a kid with my parents, sprawled in the back of the station wagon en route to Cape Cod. Nancy Drew books, Nauset beach, and lobster dinners. After the sixth visit, it felt like home. After the twentieth? Nothing surprised me. It was just another place, albeit beautiful, to go to the beach.
My husband had traveled all over the world, and, as part of his early seductive conversation, regaled me with his stories of debauched adventure: dancing in nightclubs with female soldiers armed with AK-47’s in Tel Aviv, smoking hash with Italians in Sharm el Sheikh and with carpet dealers in Istanbul, motorcycling across Greek islands, and talking to the dead through a ouija board in Thessaloniki. Of course, I deferred. It was like having my own personal guide, translator, and raconteur. So, we traveled to Greece over and over because it was what he called his real home. Romania for six exhausting months, living in Communist block housing because he received a Fulbright. Italy crisscrossed without any itinerary except one dedicated to the slow-food delicacies on his menu. Tulum, Mexico where, one night, the Mexican military broke in and stole cameras and cash while my daughter slept in her porta-crib. And Jamaica, again and again, my husband nostalgic for his dissolute college years and the Rastafarians who smoked weed with him. He navigated the persistent hawkers in Istanbul, the heroin addicts in Bucharest, the more malevolent coke dealers in Negril, while I, happy and carefree, sunbathed, pushed the stroller, and drank wine
That sort of travel, just as safe as returning to Cape Cod, might have continued except that I got sick. I’m Bipolar, and for several years, my moods were chaotic: I was chronically suicidal, anorexic, and secretly (or not so secretly) purged everything I ate. So what should have been shared, easeful wanderlust, became more akin to each of us retreating into our own separate, cordoned off journeys. My madness and his corresponding disaffection meant a retreat from joy and spontaneity, necessities of wanderlust. We relied on an itinerary to keep us tied together and moving forward from one place to the next.
In our yearly trips to Greece (always, in the last years, Aliki, the same little beautiful bay on the island of Thasos), he shook off the mundane responsibilities of home and of being my watchman, and disappeared into gregariousness, booze, Rebetiko music, and late night conversations with anyone other than me, namely, the woman with whom he eventually had the affair. I was unaware, for years, and thought nothing when she tagged along on our family outings to tavernas and secret beaches and archaeological sites. In hindsight, in contrast to my austere misery unmitigated by the deep, blue sea and the grilled octopus tentacles crisp and charcoal-blackened, and the air redolent with wild thyme and oregano, she dove for octopus with him, and they danced the syrtos late into the night, and drank ouzo and raki in garrulous affection.
Me? My soul had folded itself into a tiny, tight packet of hopelessness, the antithesis to wanderlust. I saw every sheer cliff on that island as a place to jump off. After our lazy, cicada buzzing, afternoon meals at the taverna, I threw the beautiful food up behind the tamarisk tree or in a little hole I dug in the sand while my husband swam with the kids. One night, after an argument (he was staying out late and I returning to the room alone), I ran to the beach and swam into the bay, into deep and deeper water, hoping exhaustion would pull me to the bottom. I didn’t bother to look up at the cascade of stars. The landscape was contaminated. Instead of fernweh, farsickness, I was emptied out. The final year of our marriage, he went to Greece by himself for two months and I stayed in Pennsylvania with the kids: for me, that well-traveled landscape was marked by my suffering and shame; for him, the landscape offered liberation from me.
Travel is complicated. You still bring along your fears and mortifications. In Bucharest, I remember pushing my then two-year old son in his stroller for eight miles a day at a furious pace because I didn’t want to stop and rest inside myself. Consequently, I saw nothing and when I look back through photographs, I remember nothing except the night I got so drunk and felt so hopeless that I stood in our narrow apartment kitchen and took a flimsy butcher knife bought at the Romanian equivalent of Big Lots, and cut into my arms.
Those scars remain, but I’m now stable, in recovery for five years, and divorced. I no longer want an intermediary between me and the world. No husband driving the rental car around mountain passes. No husband in charge of the bargaining. No husband policing my meals, my exercise, my moods. No husband disappearing into the arms of another, happier woman. Just me.
Wanderlust. The skin between me and the world has dissolved. Instead of retreating from pain and joy and vulnerability, I’m consumed with farsickness. Why wait for a traveling companion? Do I fear the loneliness inherent to my soul ranging the universe on its own? Yes, of course. In two weeks, I’ll be going solo to Morocco. Not a condo on Cape Cod, not Aliki beach on Thasos, but an utterly unfamiliar landscape. My fears and insecurities will travel with me: bargaining in the souks, trekking into the Sahara, negotiating harassment (I’m tall, a woman, and American), and eating on my own. This last, maybe, is the most challenging. Can I sustain a hopeful, clever, and fulfilling conversation with myself? Plenty of women have adventured before me and done just that. In 1776, Jeanne Baret, dressed as a man, was the first woman to circumnavigate the globe. In 1889, Nellie Bly did it in twenty two days. In 1975, Junko Takei was the first woman to summit Everest. In 1994, Liv Arnesen skied solo to the South Pole. All I have to do is get on a plane, get off, and meet my driver in Marrakech.
Amelia Earhart once said this of flying: “After midnight, the moon set, and I was alone with the stars. I have often said that the lure of flying is the lure of beauty.” This beauty comes precisely because you fly alone with the stars, because you have the courage to sit with the silence and tumult of the world without and the world within. When I was sick and no longer in love nor loved by my husband, I was estranged from the world’s clamor and longed only for my own final silence. Now my stomach tumbles with fernweh and I swoon with wanderlust, and my itinerary follows the stars that I now see when I look up into my night sky.
Follow me on Twitter @mommamaybemad1

Mother’s Day: A Bipolar Love Letter to My Children

When I was pregnant with my first child, Sophia, I felt invincible, like an all-powerful fertility goddess full of unfettered anticipation. I’m bipolar, so maybe I was a little manic, but it felt soooo good. Pregnant on the first try, breathing smoothly and holding steady in warrior pose in anticipation of labor. I even led a month-long student trip to Greece eight and a half months into the pregnancy, convincing my midwife I would be careful, would take it easy, and would rest at night. Instead, I trekked up mountains and across dusty goat paths, brushing my hands through wild oregano; on the beach, after snorkeling, I massaged olive oil into my stretch marks, and into the wee hours of the night, danced the kalamatiano. In one photograph, I float on my back in the blue, buoyant Aegean, my round belly rising from the water like the moon.
Sophia was a dream. Can I say that labor was easy, that she slid from me as if down a water slide, and immediately nursed in soporific contentment? She slept for long, quiet stretches, which meant I did, too, and giggled, first, at the dog’s long, swinging tongue brushing her cheek. She traveled in front carriers and strollers across Greece, Italy, and Mexico. If there were tantrums, I don’t remember any. We called her our “trick baby”: her easiness convinced us to have a second.
My pregnancy with Alexander was difficult. I was tired, full of self-loathing about my failing ambitions, and often dragged down into the mire of depression since I stopped my meds. No fallout the first time, but this time? I was convinced my depression would damage my growing son who was so intimately linked to my chemistry. Irrational, like a belief in medieval humors and black bile running through the umbilical cord into him. But not so irrational. Wasn’t he suspended in a body flooded with cortisol and deficient in serotonin and dopamine? Wasn’t this amniotic bath contaminating him?
In a first photo: I sit in the hospital bed holding my newborn son, swaddled tight, against my chest with one arm, the other arm bare, visible. The scars that run up and down my arm are visible, evidence of what I believed deep down was my maternal unfitness. It should have been a beautiful photograph, but I couldn’t look at it. Shame and despair beside beauty and hope. I had my husband delete it.
I fell deeply in love with my son, Alexander. His enormous brown eyes gazed up at me in unblinking forgiveness: love, love, love you. He nursed for hours at a stretch, as if reluctant to give me up, as if expecting already I might leave him. He was not an easy baby — rarely sleeping that first year for more than two hours; I staggered to his room and rocked him and nursed him and sang every lullaby I knew — My Bonnie lies over the ocean, my Bonnie lies over the sea.... In those dark, sleepless hours, when I felt like a failed mother, when my bipolar disorder was wildly uncontrolled, I thought: Surely my family would be better off without me. Then I would look down at my son, who was looking up at me, and I thought: Just hold on a little longer, let him need you a little less.
From my journal, four months after my son’s birth: I am running, looking at the world flying past me, unable to see it, to feel how beautiful it is, and it is beautiful, it is April, austere tulips and dopey daffodils and crab apples blooming and I see them and I see through them, and all I do is occupy empty space. I am via negativa.
When he was nine months, I was admitted to the psych ward for the first time. My husband had to hold me down in bed because I threatened to run outside in front of any oncoming car. Depleted. Sleepless. Not eating. Manic. Depressed. What is called a Mixed State. I stopped nursing cold turkey. The hospital didn’t get me a breast pump for two days, so milk spilled down my stomach, soaking my pajamas and the sheets. How could my son ever understand my sudden and utter absence? How would I ever make it up to him? How would he ever trust me again?
For several years, that was the pattern: I was in and out of the hospital, trying to find stability, trying to find the right cocktail of medications that would allow me to slow down, trying to teach my classes, trying to make chocolate cake, trying to keep up with baths and lunches and field trips, trying to breathe and to breathe in my children. When I would come home from the hospital, Sophia and Alexander would insist on sleeping in my bed, each on one side of me, holding my hand or touching my leg for assurance that I was still there and not going anywhere, not leaving again, not trying to leave for good. They held me in place with their tiny, warm bodies with their insistent and unrelenting love: You are ours, they seemed to say, not yours, not anymore.
Their relentless love is why I am still here. They needed me in their world, so I returned to stability, self-compassion, and most days, even self-love. My children and I talk about the scars on my arms, and those years of my itinerant, unstable motherhood, and their fears for me — that the bipolar dragon might return and carry me back to its cave.
But it’s been years now, and I feel sound and steadfast, and truly, they don’t worry that I’ll be gone in the morning. Sophia is independent and bold, born of intrepid travel and buoyancy. She tells me her own fears, about boys and puberty, and about her dream to move to California and be an animator. Though he’s now ten, Alexander still crawls into bed with me. A sweet intimacy which I know is likely to disappear when he hits adolescence. But for now, I swoon over his long, skinny legs that bump against mine, and his head which sometimes settles close to mine on the pillow, and his deep, untroubled breath as he slips into sleep. And I understand that my children will never need me any less, and I will always secretly need them more.

A Love Letter to My Future Lover

Dear T. (Spaceholder):
Most of what I used to write was fiction. Inventing, stealing, and playing pretend. I read three novels a week, sinking into other worlds, other possible lives not my own. It was a way to escape myself, my life, all that I had failed to do. I could be anyone in my stories, anyone but me: a Ukrainian prostitute, a Polish home health aide, a sideshow freak. Those lives could be written as more meaningful than mine. I was sick—bipolar and aonorexia taking me down—and trying to die for so many years, that I had no hope for my story. Words brought clarity, meaning, and shape to my disintegration.
But then I began to get well, to surface from the black swamp of despair, and to imagine my own possibilities again and make meaning out of my life. It didn’t have to be about ending, but about redemption. And writing fiction no longer seemed as important as writing my truth, writing about vulnerability and pain, about rising up from the ash heap of the self and gaining altitude again with wings that were in tatters but still beating, still lifting me into the trade winds.
So I write what I feel and know about my experience in the world. This is me. I offer myself to you, Dear World. Be gentle or fierce, it’s worth the risk because the days have sharp edges now, and the hair on my arms stands on end, and my vision is acute, and I can hear my heart beating in my ears. I am permeable and the world rushes through me.
I used to ride horses at a stable that rescued abused horses. One afternoon, a new horse was alone in the paddock, galloping across the field and skidding to a stop at the fence line. Over and over. I thought it was playing. What’s the word? Frolicking. My instructor, Lee, corrected me.
“He’s wicky wacky,” she said. “After all the abuse, he’s terrified of being out there alone. He’s going to hurt himself rushing the fences like that. Watch this.”
She disappeared into the barn and returned with Chandi, a horse who had arrived skittish, but after long hard work, was now calm and reliable. She released Chandi into the paddock. The new, wild horse trotted over and immediately settled, nickering softly to Chandi as if in gratitude. No more wicky wackies.
Do you know that if you take one single heart cell, a myocyte, and place it in a petri dish by itself, it will go into arrhythmia, lose its steady rhythm and beat wildly? Wicky wacky. But if you take another heart cell from any other person’s heart in the world, and put it into the petri dish, the cells will immediately start to beat in rhythm together? As long as the beating cells do not touch each other, they beat at separate speeds. But when they touch? The side-by-side cells form interconnected sheets of cells, and beat as one.
That’s what it is like for me. I get wicky wacky when I’m rushing fences alone. It’s why, when I feel an intuitive connection with someone, a shared rhythm, I leap into that relationship. It’s how all my close friendships are: steadying, transparent, defenses lowered. Just seeing and knowing and accepting and hoping for each other. It’s why my marriage was a spectacular failure—we fell apart, cells in separate petri dishes, no interconnection, no shared rhythm.
You said, as if in astonishment, “You don’t wear your heart on your sleeve. Your heart is your sleeve.” A few years ago, though, I was guarded, defended, remote, and inaccessible. My ex-husband once said (granted in the middle of my bipolar collapse), “Your misery exhausts me.” Death seemed better than failure, seemed better than life inside death. But coming through all that? The worst that life could throw at me?
Risk, real daring is not jumping off the bridge but walking across the bridge to the unknown shore on the other side. Allowing myself to be seen—stripping all the way down to truth and longing and fear and tender, terrifying hope. In The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje writes, “The heart is an organ of fire.” And it’s true, isn’t it? The heart is not just there to help oxygenate and circulate the blood, but to quicken a thrilling rhythm, to throb in our ears, to push against our ribcages, burning us from inside with all that we feel and want. It reminds us that we are alive, yet, that we respire and are inspired, circulating ideas and words and sounds throughout our bodies, asking us to take necessary breath, to swallow language and love. And to be a little less alone in the petri dish, and a little more in syncopation, and yes, in love with each other.
Love, with love, in love,

I’m a Blessing Not a Burden: Mental Illness and Hope

I'm alive and that’s a blessing.
In the essay, “My Friend’s Death Was a Blessing,” recently published at an online site and since taken down, the author states that her friend's death is a blessing since she suffered from what, in her limited opinion, was unremitting mental illness. Hence, her dead friend would have been a lifelong burden on her loved ones (among whom I don’t believe the author was counted). The response, the backlash, has been swift and generally supportive of this fact: as someone suffering from a lifelong mental illness, I shouldn’t kill myself in order to alleviate the burden on my family and friends, among whom are my children (whom I do count as loved ones).
I have Bipolar Disorder. I have often been an immense burden on my family and friends in times of deep suffering. Over five years, I was in and out of the psych ward and inpatient eating disorder treatment programs twenty times. Some might say I was locked up longer than I was free. My children sent me crayoned drawings and visited me in barren community rooms where they tried to get me to smile, tickling my side with their tiny fingers or kissing my cheek. I have been on almost every medication—anti-depressants, antipsychotics, atypical antipsychotics—and none of them worked. I went through twenty-five rounds of electroconvulsive treatment (“electric shock”) that failed to diminish my empty, black depression, but did wipe out ten years of memories, some terrible (waking up in the ER, strapped down, after a deliberate overdose) and some cherished (my children singing, drawing, dancing, whispering to me, growing inside all those years). A priest even performed an exorcism in my little locked room. How hopeless can you get to believe in the power of hokey pokey-demon-be-gone-claptrap?
Most days, I knew exactly how much of a burden I was on family and friends. My ex-husband once told me, “Your misery is exhausting.” Even my long-term therapist dropped me due to my suicidal instability. At the very end, my psychiatrist sat me down in a small, narrow office. Between us on the desk was my file, thick with charts and admissions and diagnoses and medication lists and my failures. “You are too extreme a case,” he said. “You are a hopeless case.”
He didn’t have to tell me this because I already believed in my hopelessness. My arms were covered in scars from decades of self-injury. I’d been trying to die in one way or another—jumping in a frozen lake, overdosing on alcohol and medications, swimming out to sea in the middle of the night, starving myself to the point of heart problems, having to be locked inside of a car while my ex-husband drove around Manhattan for two hours until I fell asleep because I was determined to jump off a bridge, any bridge, and the only way off the island is over a bridge. And passively: hoping to be slammed by a car, to skid off icy roads into trees, and researching how to poison myself via carbon monoxide and a hose and plastic bags over my head.
How could anyone love me like that?
And yet, my family and friends continued to love me through all of the misery and pain. Not all of them because I was a burden and difficult to love having no love to give back, and that’s okay. We meet each other where we are in this life, with our best capacities for love and forgiveness and acceptance at that moment.

I am a blessing. I have come out on the other side because I learned to hope again, to feel joy, to accept the necessary pain that leads to joy. I don’t have to die to be well. I will never, technically, be well: bipolar disorder is maintained but not cured. And the maintenance? Interrogating despair and knowing when I need to be reminded, over and over, by those who see and know me that it will pass. Falling into bliss and rolling around in its ecstasy but knowing when it might be mania, and stepping back. With the love and support of family and friends and my own kick-ass will to live, I am HERE, ALIVE, still have BIPOLAR DISORDER, but I am THRIVING.
I am a blessing, a benediction of grace and hope and impossible possibility. As are you.