Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Autographical Essay You Don't Publish as a Bragsheet Bio But Might Really Want To

Late in June 1989, a year after graduating from college, I took an MTC bus to the hospital in downtown St. Paul at the strong urging of a medical doctor with whom I had recently spoken (not that he recommended taking the bus - that was just me being thrifty and practical). I weighed about a hundred pounds (down from a hundred and thirty-five) and didn't have a job.

Sixteen months prior to that point, I had taken the initiative to start treatments at a holistic chiropractic clinic, even though my family was not the kind that would support doing such things. In December of 1987, the folks from the clinic presented at the college I would graduate from in May. Having had some kind of muscular back seizure earlier that fall, and being interested in alternative kinds of health care, I thought it must, for sure, be a diligent and rational choice to take them up on their introductory offers. Plus, they would educate me about food and cooking methods and I could get a massage and take other classes. For most people, this probably would have been a very sensible thing to do, but for me, it was the first of many intractable, confusing lessons about self-responsibility, which have not been clear cut in any particular black and white kind of way.

Suffice it to say that, although the treatments had the expected positive results at first, I wasn't exactly getting healthier when I went to talk to the medical doctor about my weight loss and depression the following year. On the positive end of the spectrum, I was being exposed to some mind-expanding ideas and information about health and healing. On the negative end, it became one more source of stressful conversations with my family.

Astrologically, learning new things can be related to one's North Node, among other things. Mine is in Gemini, which is definitely about learning. Very close to the Node - about two degrees of arc past it, at 4 degrees and 56 minutes of Gemini - is Nessus. Nessus is a Centaur, which is to say, a comet-like body with a fairly stable, but somewhat eccentric orbit, in the neighborhood of Saturn and Uranus - the very edge of our visible solar system, or just past it. Except for Chiron and perhaps Pholus, the Centaurs were an ugly lot of louts - downright unsavory in most every way. How they were portrayed in one of the Harry Potter films is pretty accurate, mythologically speaking. In astrology, Nessus has been found to relate to victim behaviors that won't budge no matter what. They may reflect generations of suffering from some long dead misdeed or betrayal perpetrated by the family, whose descendant is now carrying the brunt of the burden. So, all that - and rashes. For instance, the creator of the first great urban parks, Frederick Law Olmstead, was born when Nessus and the Sun were in the same bit of sky. He suffered from a terrible poison sumac rash as a youth, and it prevented him from entering Yale University, so he took jobs as a merchant marine and journalist, among other things, which led to a vigorous, active life and opportunities that culminated in his taking over as designer of Central Park. The victim mentality or the profound suffering that is associated with Nessus has been found to remain in place until there is a significant transit (like a conjunction, square, or opposition) by a powerful planet, and then things rapidly take a turn for the better as the person claims his own power and becomes effective in life. I guess what this might mean for me is that substantive growth and victim-like wallowing have walked hand in hand for many years in my life.

It had, in fact, been a stressful senior year in college: In February, when I started treatments, I was moving off campus and buying things like groceries and a futon for the first time in my life, finishing a senior project, and speeding toward the end of the only script for living that I had ever known - being a competitive, grade-earning student who collected his rewards while missing out on more than a few of life's pleasures.

What else was going on? I was trying to decipher the demands and concerns of a stressed parent who was having anxiety about changes in his "faculties" and in his career job as well as my taxes (which were nothing out of the ordinary). And at the same time, I was holding onto the deeper, forbidden knowledge that in fact I felt afraid and unprepared for life after college - in a way that maybe was like most everyone else, but perhaps actually wasn't.

A couple years ago, I re-read a letter from that time and realized that the relationship with my father pretty much remained stuck at that point, mostly around the subject of finances, for the next twenty-some years. Temporarily I would do something about earning money to please my parents and help myself, and it would be a little nicer for a while, but its only very recently that I've really understood something about what was going on below the surface of things to help make me profoundly anxious and unhappy. My sister resolved that issue twenty years ago, but we all have a different path, and I wouldn't trade mine.

What else? I was experiencing the demise of my first sexual relationship, which I think was what had led to the back problem, along with the fears associated with wrapping up my college career. I'm not sure I could call what we had a relationship, in the real sense of the word, but whatever it was had been with another student who was gentle and kind and sarcastic and a bit odd. Not a bad match, although, with my ridiculous Capricorn standards, I felt, at the time, that I was "settling." (Not a very pretty side of my personality, but I won't understand it better or let go of it if all I do is beat myself up over it.)

She idealized compassion, could decorate a dorm room in a way that felt warm and nurturing, and had strange sounding reasons for not taking another English class (or was it just Shakespeare?). She was comfortably skilled at giving and receiving physical pleasures in a way that was sensitive toward others. This carried over to anything else that she introduced to me and was her stated guiding principal in life - to simply try not to harm. It was a quality that I proved to lack at that stage of my life - or at least would not share openly. And she talked about depression and her late father and why her study abroad was a terrible experience and all kinds of other "scary things" with a startling amount of emotional fire. (We certainly didn't do that in our family.)

I never did learn her birthday, but I'm thinking either Aquarius or Cancer, and there's definitely some Pisces and Aries involved, or some planetary equivalents. We were "together" from the spring of 87 into that fall, and I spent the summer in Europe, so it was probably Aquarius Sun. My next gf was an Aquarius, too, but that's getting years ahead of this story.

I'm pretty sure I was harder on her than she on me, and that my behavior was the cause of her pulling away, but I would guess that of the two of us, she was more resilient, because I took several years to feel okay about myself again, and it wasn't just my lack of success in the employment arena. We recovered a friendship for a little while after I graduated, exchanged letters when she was abroad, met up a few times, and eventually I convinced her to get treatments from the chiropractor. She did, it helped, the money ran out, she stopped. It's taken me twenty years to learn how to do things that way, but I've started to. Later, when I actually did feel better about life, I wrote a poem about all this, which would be a little different if I wrote it now, but wasn't too bad then.

What else? I didn't have a car and couldn't figure out a way to explain to my chiropractor that my dad was not the kind of person you could ask to help with something like chiropractor, whom I pretty much looked to as my post-graduate advisor. Not that he really wanted that role, but he did the best he could. I went to their house a few times for dinners, and tried my hardest to corral him into as many conversations as I could. He had high standards and many patients. It wasn't the best kind of situation for a person who pressures themselves to please those whom they admire while also feeling rebellious and a tad needy. Like I said, I learned some mind-stretching things and stretched a few of them too far.

After a year of trying to make it on my own with just a bicycle for transportation, I got my first car, sublet a cute little stall in a restored carriage house behind a mansion on Summit Avenue (first time not living with other college friends), and then talked to the concerned medical doctor and took that bus to the hospital. I went through admissions with a cold, detached woman who typed my information into a computer while I clutched a luxuriously oversized pillow and a travel bag of clothes and books. Got a room, requested a dinner, and spent the next few days on the phone, walking the halls (nice view from the top floor windows) and talking to my chiropractor, someone from the ACA group where I had attended a couple meetings, the nurses (some of whom were about my age and also getting on their own after graduating), and eventually, a psychiatrist, who cajoled me into taking my first antidepressant (prozac, new at the time) and transferring downstairs into the mental health unit where I was visited by anxious parents who had ran out and got an airline ticket, etc., cousins, a college friend or two, and the therapist I had just started with and his wife.

After three weeks I was up to a hundred fifty pounds (also perhaps rather stressful), switched to their outpatient program, and took a part time job bagging groceries at Kowalski's Red Owl on Grand Avenue. It was across the street from Taste of Vietnam where I had bused tables and taken orders for a month before moving into the carriage house and going into the hospital. I would be back in hospital for another three weeks the following January and again for a weekend in March.

About the grocery job....I'm still an accomplished bagger, but I wasn't the most motivated employee. I wasn't proud of having a job so much as relieved to be part of the world again and doing something my parents would feel comfortable about. Something to check off of the list of foreign things I suddenly "had" to do. My emotional stress became an issue at work, and it didn't help that I had an odd way of practicing verbal assertiveness. It was more defensively aggressive than assertive, I suppose, but I was going to try and use the information I had gotten in the hospital program to the best of my ability, and I thought I was doing that....even when I kind of knew otherwise. This is the kind of maladaptive behavior I think my parents would often support as being positive, which makes trusting intuitive truth more difficult.

Come to think of it, this is the same kind of self-sabotaging energy that caused my college friend to pull back, though, at that time, a couple short years prior but a lifetime in experiences, my aggression had been mutely physical. I had not yet been subjected to the shocks to my sense of security that came after graduation. These would prompt learning on a whole different level. It was, I can see now, done out of anxiety, out of fear of asking to talk about something I wasn't sure of and hesitancy to respect myself when learning or doing new things. Not so difficult a thing, really.

I left the grocery store after eight months and worked short stints at many other businesses - the Como Zoo popcorn and corn dog stand next to Sparky the Seal's performing pool, Napolean's Bakery, Uncle Matt's deli, and Pizza Man pizza delivery, before giving up once again. I took a creativity seminar in Duluth - my first real road trip as a driver, became part of a therapy group, went on two Apostle Island sailing workshops with my therapist and other clients. I took a trip to the Black Hills (where I first connected with my college friend) before my insurance was revoked for the many tickets and accidents I had been in - I switched to very costly high risk insurance....I also switched chiropractors, before the next one gave up on me, too. She had been a partner to a massage therapist who was bagging groceries at Kowalski's with me, and he was one of the new friends I made during this time. My college friend had introduced me to Unitarians, so when I needed something closer to home, I connected with the local Friends Meeting just across the street from my garden level apartment. I took a few continuing education art classes and one at MCAD - like my first chiropractor's wife has said, it's amazing what we do even when we aren't well....

Eventually, in the spring of 1993, my cousin called social services and the social workers came to scare me. In time, they provided a really needed buffer between myself and my concerned but not very helpful parents. We always want that easy kind of feeling with family, and steer our lives in directions that we think might create it, whether it's finding a girlfriend with a great family to replace ours or taking a job to mollify parental concerns. It can be the hardest thing in the world to see the subtle undercurrents of these dynamics clearly and act out of this knowledge rather than becoming hurtfully angry and acting out of this emotion instead. Its okay to be dramatic and emotional sometimes. It's a right that comes with being human. I tend to think that fear of emotion and subverted drama is a lot more destructive in the context of family relationships.

Parents who understand that their children need to rebel - and sometimes even need to do and say outlandish things - go farther to ensure their children's well-being than parents who protect them from every perceived danger or harshness in life, particularly when those dangers reside primarily in the parents' perspectives. And children given the space to rebel while still feeling supported will go farther than those who are controlled and manipulated by their parents, even when the pressure comes in the form of encouragement and positive feedback for doing things the parents think are safe or wise. I have a friend whose had some soap opera dramas in her life, much like my own in some ways, and I think this is one of the things I have been getting from our interactions. Even getting out of your own way when you need to rebel is likely to be better for your future well-being than forcing yourself to play it safe for someone else's sake, although this can be a strategic tool if you know what you're doing. Hence, the problem with acting out of anger and rebellion when it doesn't serve your purpose. Sometimes I just let some batshit crazy thoughts out when the pressures build to a crescendo, and I have to say, I feel more sane during those times than when I'm holding it in, trying to forge ahead and manage everything. I know what I'm saying at those times - I can just it be what it is. Kind of like having a good cry, it is very cleansing. 

Back in the mid90s, the social workers provided access to and encouragement for using resources that helped plan out ways to get on with my life. I kind of did that more enthusiastically than even they wanted me too, since within a few months, I found a job working at Brother Hogan's sandwich shop in the St. Paul Skyways, finished a geography major at Macalester, got into a photography class and a poetry writing group, played softball and used the new computers on campus, started drinking coffee at coffeehouses, moved out of my basement apartment, tried asking out the lesbian cashier at the coop where I once again became a regular volunteer, got fired from my job at Brother Hogan's, did temporary work for a year and a half, and then, at age 29, right on my Saturn return, accepted a teaching assistantship in a graduate geography program at Nebraska. 

All of this might sound like wow, what a success, except that I was back in counseling after one semester. I stressed over a required statistics class, questioned my whole graduate school adventure, and for the first time ever in my life thought I might have to consider suicide. Astrology friends might recognize a difficult twelfth house Sagittarian south node at work here - giving myself up to an institution rather than providing my own structures for learning and finding my own path - and jobs. Nessus, a centaur that is often associated with victim patterns and, on the physical level, rashes, is close to my North Node in Gemini, which could explain the difficulties I encountered while trying to get on in the everyday world. I think Saturn, which, in Pisces, works better without overbearing dictates, was also trying to teach me lessons, but I didn't trust its process. 

Actually I had been hard at work getting some Gemini type everyday experiences, as the north node in that sign would require - there was the temporary light industrial jobs, some of which I liked, even for reasons besides the fact that they were temporary....and as a grad student I started going out to bars for the first time in my life. I suppose expressing my freedom to subscribe to Penthouse might have been one of the less productive attempts to learn about being a regular guy, but that honestly was part of the motive for doing so. The other part, well, you know....

At least you're going through this now instead of waiting until you're forty and having a mid-life crisis, the psychiatrist had offered during my first week under his care. No, I would be going through then until my mid-life crisis, plus a year or two. When was that? Last year, this year, next year? Things would get deeper, worse, more intense...and better, even in the years since getting that PhD in 2005.

But what I just now realized...what I sat down to write about six hours ago, when this blog was going to be a mere facebook status post, is that going to the hospital on that late June afternoon in 1989 was a responsible, adult thing to do. What I also just now realized is that I did not believe that until now. I still believed I was different from the other patients and from the staff and that I couldn't just let myself be there and benefit from the program. I was, for instance, superior to them intellectually and much less than them emotionally (and very lonely for it). I clung to these beliefs even when I knew they weren't true, because it was what I had learned to do - and I thought I needed to do something right then. In fact, I had a plan that was going to work and the extreme ways that I applied the information I got at the holistic health clinic were going to help me succeed. (I haven't given up on it, by the way).

I didn't want to be at the hospital, except to rebel and express my hurt and let someone know I needed to take the pressure off for a while. And in truth, that might have been the only way I could have gotten it across to my parents - aside from having a truly honest conversation with them, which probably wasn't going to happen since I didn't have very honest conversations with myself or with other people. At the time, I was only there to get back up and keep running. For all these years, I have run around in my head like a chicken without his (head), dressing up the windows of my life to make them look presentable when there was no need (though there may be a use for such things). What was it that Winona Ryder's character said at the end of Girl, Interrupted? "Crazy is just you or me amplified"...

Just to get into the hospital, I put myself through tortured rationalizations and there was my dad's anxious "he'll be up and out of here soon" to the Macalester chaplain whom we ran into in the hospital lobby. It was a lot like what he assured the insurance agent when I finally did get a car: "Oh HE won't have any accidents"...We know how that turned out....

I am very grateful and a bit amazed by this drive to learn and create and express myself, even when all this other stuff is going on. Even with my subsequent hurrying up to find a job, then more jobs, then another major, then a graduate school program, then a career job....and always more counselors, therapists, healers, and an occasional doctor when nothing else worked...I've managed to learn many different perspectives and put together useful information that has helped me get by in life and feel intellectually satisfied.

But I want something a little different, a little more....that feeling of belonging, of feeling normal, connected, and so I guess I was also there at the hospital to begin educating myself emotionally and begin learning how to connect with other regular people, not just the pretty ones that succeed. Begin learning how to connect with the less acceptable parts of myself. And the fact that I just realized something new about my experience there, says that I keep learning.

These emotional minefields that get in the way have opened up considerable new talents, obsessions, and goofy behaviors, but I think I am finally getting it - as Chiron completes its last pass of an opposition to my natal moon and Jupiter chimes in halfway between them - I think I am finally starting to get it on a personal level, within me, that I am not different in some flawed way, from anyone else. Quite the opposite. I am as normally flawed as my most wonderful friends, acquaintances, and family members. Finding the flaws is what finding one's humanity is all about, and I don't mean finding flaws in a critical way. Flaws are proof of our humanity, and it is in human bodies and minds that our souls take residence and do their work.

So the only thing that separated me from the responsible, goal-oriented anorexic girl whose attention I wanted to get at the hospital, or the angry, self-destructive teenager who was going to live on the street and whose energy excited me, or the psychiatrist who threw up his hands and said, with mock exasperation, okay, we'll try eastern - contemplate your navel for ten minutes every day...maybe that will help! - the only thing that separated me from them and the nurses I tried to help so I didn't feel like a patient, was the fear of being normal, of being human, of being flawed. Bit of a paradox really.

From the Heron Dance daily inspiration: "Though he (Chuang-tzu) did not follow other men in their follies, he did not judge them severely—he knew that he had follies of his own, and had the good sense to accept the fact and enjoy it. In fact he saw that one basic characteristic of the sage is that he recognizes himself to be as other men are. He does not set himself apart from others and above them. And yet there is a difference; he differs “in his heart” from other men, since he is centered on Tao and not on himself. But “he does not know in what way he is different.” He is also aware of his relatedness to others, his union with them, but he does not “understand” this either. He merely lives it.
     - Thomas Merton, The Way of Chuang Tzu

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