Monday, June 17, 2013

Looking back, almost twenty-five years later...

On an unseasonably cool evening in the latter part of June 1989 I boarded a #3 MTC bus on Grand Avenue and paid my seventy-five cent fare. I rode down the big hill to the edge of downtown St. Paul, where United hospital was situated next to the new I-35E interstate highway construction. It had been a little over a year since I graduated with honors from Macalester College, also on Grand Avenue. When the bus stopped in front of the unassuming plaza fronting the low, brick-colored wing and tinted glass doors, I stepped off and walked into the comfortable, carpeted lobby with its tropical plants and sofas. I asked where to check in and proceeded to a desk behind the seating area. Seated by the desk with the impersonal secretary and the computer she never took her eyes from as she entered my answers to her questions, I wondered what she was thinking. I clutched an oversized patterned pillow in one arm and with the other kept my dark gray EMS backpack from tipping over as it rested against the brown metal legs of the chair. If she were thinking anything, it wasn't revealed, and my attempts to good-naturedly elicit a personal response of any kind went unheeded.

In the backpack were a change of clothes, some inspirational books, like “Be Good to Yourself Therapy” and “the Herb Book,” and an assortment of other things that were meant to create a feeling of comfort (I think there might have been a small stuffed animal) or remind me of academic achievements (a gold Cross pen and pencil set in a green leather case that my dad's boss gave to me for graduation). I had brought these things to the hospital as defensive talismans against the threats I thought likely to encounter – challenges to the values I was investing my identity in, like holistic health and a college degree...even though my presence at the check-in desk seemed to indicate some pretty significant limits to their usefulness at that moment.

When I began college four years earlier, my weight had been a hundred and forty-seven pounds. During the fall semester, it quickly dropped to a hundred thirty-five and my eyes sank back in their sockets a bit. That was less extreme than what followed the loss of the supportive, completely financed structure of residential academia. When I checked in at United hospital, I weighed around a hundred pounds, the result of trying to become “healthy” - well, actually I just wanted to figure out how to feel good - on a diet that consisted mostly of brown rice, and things like broccoli, almond butter, and the occasional egg. Food wasn't the real issue, and I didn't have a conventional eating disorder, but it had become the most visible stage on which my post-college drama was being acted out. That drama, like that of many others, was set somewhere on a sea of vague expectations bothered with storms of anxiety. Like the rest of us, I was suddenly expected to learn the rules of games I had not yet played and customs that I had never encountered before. For me personally, it brought out my lack of experience when it came to knowing how to care for myself emotionally, and it highlighted my neglect of social connections and nurturing relationships, which made it hard to feel secure and comforted as I fearfully ventured out into this new world, feeling like I had nothing except a college diploma and a lifetime of resentfully achieving for teachers and professors.

Two months earlier, I had left a job at a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant, which was, like everything else, on Grand Ave. I had worked there for about a month and hadn't worked since. I couldn't, I stated desperately and somewhat angrily to Rose, when she called asking me to fill in for someone. I just couldn't. I don't know why I couldn't, except that busing bins of plates and waiting on customers was hard physical work. I wasn't really sure what I could do or when to know that I had reached my limit. That kind of vague unknowing pretty much characterized my entire state of being, and I was intently focused on it. It was not the image I cultivated for myself. I was a hard-working successful student. Truth be told, I was afraid of many things.

After graduating, I had found some work in my field, as one might logically expect to do, but I either lacked belief in myself or had a somewhat arrogant sense of my importance, so these were insincere or uncertain efforts at best; at worst, I resented or discounted them. During the summer months, I had worked at a tiny environmental foundation in West St. Paul, run by an older woman onto whom I projected an increasing amount of frustration. One day I took my bag lunch, walked a mile down the road to the nature center, hiked around a little, found a staff person, and asked if they had a job there for me. Well, we don't really have anything, except an internship – it doesn't pay much...Okay, I said, eagerly and a little bit falsely perhaps, as I had been conditioned to do. No need to think about it. I'll take it. If I wasn't obsessively stuck on making a decision, this lack of self-respecting consideration was typical of my process, too.

For the next few months, I led tours and participated in events and staff meetings, and it went fairly well until late October, when, feeling an especially acute amount of anxiety, I uncharacteristically failed to show up for an evening event. I finished the internship the following month, looking rather unhealthy by that time, and traveled back to my family in Philadelphia for the holidays.

I've just now realized that the two internships were the last “jobs” I would have that were related to my college major – environmental studies with concentrations in geography and biology – until I began graduate school seven years later and taught physical geography labs. I must not have liked something about myself very much to have put so much work into a degree and then feel like I had to turn away from it to accomplish the basic goal of earning a living. Maybe too, I didn't really know much about why I had chosen those majors and lacked a desire or the courage to go deeper. Perhaps, also, I simply preferred to avoid the issue of putting myself out there in the world by staying in an academic environment, even though I often felt lonely there, too. Be that as it may, in the years that followed, I learned a lot about everyday jobs, almost as if to compensate for my flippant refusal to seek employment as a teenager, and I learned about the pressures and problems associated with not having a job.

After the good feeling of college graduation celebrations wore off, the comforts of familiar people and accustomed roles had gradually faded or shifted to less familiar ones, though I lived close enough to campus to continue to stay involved and occasionally hang out with friends. I wasn't part of the crowd that was busy working new jobs and I was too cautious to hang with those who sought to forge a less traditional path. Basically, I had to both appear responsible and avoid being overwhelmed by responsibility. I had relatives in the suburbs, but lacking transportation and feeling poorly about myself, I didn't take many trips out their way. This cutting myself off from people would be a habit I still have to work hard to change.

On the positive side, I was subletting a cozy room in a renovated horse stall that smelled pleasantly of old wood. Heavy wooden doors sliding along a thick iron rail separated my space from the hallway that lead to the garage in one direction and the laundry in the other. The stall/bedroom was on the lower level of a carriage house behind a mansion on Summit Ave. The other tenants, with whom I shared a sunny, modern kitchen and living area upstairs, where the other rooms were located, were friendly professionals and graduate students, two American men and a Canadian woman. The stairs were opposite my nest, next to a small room with bench seats and a wood stove.

In the house at the front of the lot, also divided into apartments, lived a woman who was a therapist and a member of the Twin Cities Society of Friends, a group I did things with in my kind of erratically shy and enthusiastic way. It was her vision of me living in the carriage house that had been all I needed to call Bill, who was heading to Hong Kong as an Outward Bound instructor, and arrange for a three month sublet of his room. I brought in my futon and turntable and the folk albums I was listening to at the time, browsed the books he left in the cases lining the end wall. One in particular, “I'm OK, You're OK,” stuck out in my mind. Since it was a popular self-help book at the time, and I was starting therapy at a clinic in the far western suburbs, having declared myself “all better” to the Jungian analyst who lived in the neighborhood, this was a bible of sorts that I should let people know I was studiously attending to. I probably read parts of a chapter or two.

I might have connected with the other tenants more than I did, but I was having a hard time hiding the effects of my insecurities on my emotional and physical well-being. Basically, I knew how to worry and feel frustrated as I studied furiously and got good grades. I liked seeing classmates and relatives, being part of a dinner or some other special event. The symphonic band wasn't the most exciting thing in the world, but it was a comfortably familiar ritual too, and there were several other groups, but to be honest, I didn't really value connecting with others socially as much as I thought I valued getting grades, even though I often felt desperately lonely. In fact, I recall badgering my roommate about his habit of heading off to someone's room at one in the morning, or bringing someone by ours, because they wanted to talk about something or go somewhere. As conscientious as I was about keeping a hard-working, studious attitude, he was about attending to the needs of his friends to be listened to, including mine. Maybe I just didn't know that such a thing was important. Maybe I didn't believe I could succeed socially. In either case, when I fell beyond the pale of what were the comparatively nurturing arms of the educational institution, I floundered.

One example of this was my attempt to turn the holistic health clinic I was frequenting into my next college and the chiropractor there into my next adviser. He did serve this role as best he could and connected me with both an analyst and a clinic in the suburbs, but my vision was producing more frustration than achievement. I still have a pretty clear memory of the tidbits of information I pored over following their classes and seminars, as if they were scraps of ancient texts of wisdom that offered a ticket to success and freedom from my prison of bad feeling and insecurity.

I had taken the initiative to start treatments there about sixteen months prior to that point. In December of 1987, at the end of my penultimate semester, before I moved into an apartment off campus, some of the people from the clinic presented at the student union. The staff included the chiropractor, his wife, an assistant, a macrobiotic, former French chef nutritionist, a receptionist and office manager, as well as a massage therapist and their professional friends and colleagues. Having had some kind of muscular back seizure earlier that fall, I followed the logical line of reasoning that treatments there were a diligent and rational decision, and I was attracted to the intriguing new perspective of holistic health care.

I sought to take them up on their introductory offers and convince my father to cheerfully pay for it. My father worked for the organization that oversaw the medical board examinations at a time when chiropractors were viewed by the medical profession as quacks. But at this clinic, I enthused, they would educate me about healthy food choices and cooking methods and I could get a massage and take classes and seminars with other like-minded, I don't think chiropractors really do anything, but if you think you'll learn something from them...well, I'm sure they're good enough, and if it will help your sound very enthusiastic about much is it going to cost? For how long will you be going?

For most people, a decision to treat their back at a chiropractic clinic would indeed have been a sensible thing to do. Others might have politely declined and taken care of themselves, but for me, there was nothing but to sell myself and my family and anyone else who would listen on their idea and become an enthusiastic “patient and student,” as I later defined myself on my resume. Um...yeah, sometimes, I think original, attention-getting ideas bordering on flaky are brilliant. I'm kind of learning to recognize these feeling and take a few steps back toward a safer, more practical stance. Another thing I'm learning is when to let go. I continued for years at this clinic and then switched to another chiropractor whose office was next to the Vietnamese restaurant. The man, who was at the time her partner and the father of their soon to be born son, befriended me after I got out of the hospital and began working at the grocery store across the street. When, after a couple years, she told me that I was too much of a victim for her to continue working with, I went back to my first choice, though as my life improved in the coming years, I reconciled with her and continued getting treatments until leaving for graduate school in the mid90s.

Suffice it to say that, although the treatments had had the expected positive results at first, I wasn't exactly getting healthier when I went to talk to a medical doctor about my weight loss and depression, and my choice to use a chiropractor and learn about alternative healing had become a nagging source of contention with my family, who were basically wanting to know when I would get a job and everything would be fine.

In astrology, four elements and three modes combine to create the twelve signs of the zodiac. I had learned about elements at the holistic health clinic, though that was the Chinese system, in which there are five. The astrological elements are four: fire (inspiration and intuition), earth (practical matters), air (intellect and sociability), and water (feeling). Planets, which loosely speaking include the sun and the moon, more properly known as the lights, represent components of the personality. Each uses the energy of the zodiac sign in which it is placed to express itself.

When I was born, there were no planets in the signs of the zodiac associated with fire, and I think that tellingly describes my lack of a certain kind of energy as I attempted to take on the challenge of doing the expected things, while maintaining my sense of health and well-being. My natal chart has many planets in mutable signs. There are three modes in astrology: cardinal (active), fixed (established), and mutable (evaluative, adjustable, educational). I found many ways to keep learning after leaving college, and had many new experiences despite the mounting difficulties. I showed initiative (cardinal mode) in trying things out that solved practical problems (earth element), but the learning, in the emotional arena (water signs), was an area of life that could no longer be ignored out of anxiety or fear of losing a certain attitude that had to that point driven me onwards. The emotional and mental stresses ate into my ability to function in practical ways (earth) and in intellectual and social ways (air), which are otherwise strong points in my personality.

I guess one could say that the therapy I had begun and the hospital mental health program I became involved in at the hospital were my first steps toward a degree in emotional knowledge from the school of life, though I always seemed to escape from the true lessons before they sunk in and would return to therapy to reach my latest, anxious goal.

The Moon intersects the Earth's orbital plane at two points. At one, it is moving into the space above the plane (to the north) and in the other, it is moving below the plane (to the south). These are the points where eclipses occur, because the Earth, Sun, and Moon line up in exactly the same plane. The points move as the earth moves around the sun. When viewed against the backdrop of the tropical zodiac, which is based on the Earth's seasons and made up of the four elements and three modes, they migrate backwards in overall motion, changing signs in a little over a year's time, sixteen years to cycle the complete zodiac.

When I was born, the south node was in the fourth degree of Sagittarius, and the north node, which is always exactly 180 degrees away, was in the fourth degree of Gemini. The south node represents things we are born already knowing well, a kind of default behavior or attitude, while the north node represents the things we must, without any real incentive, learn how to do to balance the south node and feel satisfied with what we've done in life. Sagittarius values freedom above all else and is scholarly, too. The Moon is located just past halfway between the North Node and the South Node in Virgo, another intellectual, analytical sign. Getting a book to study something and working toward some kind of career student hood seems to be how I approached my Moon's square to my South Node.

The South Node is in my natal tenth house, the part of life that is the most public. It represents the public roles people play and the part of life for which one gains recognition, such as a career. I would follow a career path that included college, and do well...that meant security, though it never honestly felt that way even when I was highly stimulated by the learning. The North node is in Gemini, a communicative energy based on immediate connections in the environment. It is factual in its outlook, and more local and everyday than the culturally astute and conceptually oriented Sag. It is in my natal fourth house, the most private area of the chart, representing one's home, family, ancestors, and inner life. I have learned to talk and write about my feelings, though with Gemini, one truth is often as good as another, so being honest with how I feel is a challenge as well – the Moon's square with the North Node. Becoming critical about everything is another associated with the Virgo Moon, and that makes acceptance of one's faults (so that one can actually want to change them) difficult, though I am getting much better at it. It is finally starting to feel okay to set aside cynicism and adopt a positive, but not pollyannish, attitude. Discriminating between the two is one of the strengths of Virgo. There's a lot more astrology in the words above. I discover it as I write it, or I think I do. It would take a long time and a lot of energy to patiently write it all out, and so I'll wait for a good reason to do so or let it go.

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