My essay, "Ordinary People"
A friend of mine recently messaged me via Facebook with a link that contained a call for submissions to a site doing a month long exploration of mental illness. She thought I might want to contribute. I sure did, and hunkered down to write an essay about something that had been on my mind. Unfortunately, the essay was rejected, but here's the note I received back from them:
Thank you so much for submitting "Ordinary People" for review. Unfortunately, we don't feel it is right for our website at this time. However, we did want to let you know that the editors enjoyed your work. And although this isn't quite what you were looking to hear, we thought you should also know that your piece made it far in our editorial process. Though we weren't able to publish this piece we sincerely hope you submit to us again--the sooner the better!
I am very grateful to receive these encouraging words. Of course I am disappointed that the response was a "no," but how great of a no is this!
I'm proud of this piece, and think that the holidays are a perfect time to share a message about healing and finding gratitude in what could be considered the mundane.
It’s 2013. My daughter, fourteen, is an ordinary teenager who doesn’t bother tidying her bedroom. To enter her sanctum I must sidestep the detritus of young life: nail polish bottles, empty snack containers, sheaves of old homework. On this particular morning, I bend down to retrieve from the floor the crumpled sweatshirt Olivia slept in. I plan to toss the oft-worn thing into the closet, where it will at least be invisible, when something catches my eye. I inspect. The sleeve is stained with two silver dollar size splotches of blood. I stare at the spots. Rub my thumb across them. Look more closely. My eyes aren’t playing tricks on me. This is no optical illusion.
I inspect the shirt further and find more bloody stains on the front. My brain seizes, my body follows. In the middle of Olivia’s bedroom, I stand stock still. Stuck. Seconds tick by. Normal communication to my central nervous system is disrupted. I think I can actually feel my synapses miss-firing. All one trillion of them. They don’t know what to do with this information. Finally, one command penetrates: Take care of this. As if eradicating the blood stains can eradicate my daughter’s mental illness.
I march to Olivia’s hamper and gather additional items for a load of dark laundry. I carry my bundle to the garage and dump it in front of the washing machine. One by one I check the items for blood and, finding none, drop them in. To the sweatshirt’s soiled areas I apply liberal smears of Stain Stick. I knead the thick goop deep into the fibers. I want every trace of this horror gone.
Five months ago Olivia changed. My vivacious daughter turned into a sullen angry stranger. Except for a few bites of food a day, she stopped eating. She shunned time with her friends. Screamed at me and her dad, Tom. I scheduled appointments with her pediatrician. We talked about her attitude and her behavior. We reasoned with Olivia to try to make her get better. It didn’t work. The doctor recommended a therapist.
The therapist diagnosed Olivia with severe depression and made suggestions for us to avoid power struggles and offer unconditional love. Duh, I thought. I had always told Olivia I loved her. I always would. But unconditional love and support didn’t heal Olivia’s despair either. She smacked herself across the face. She bashed her head into the wall. She cried and wailed and said “I just don’t want to be here.” She meant she wished she was dead.
The harder we worked, the further she withdrew. Any semblance of normalcy in our home disintegrated. Doors slammed. Voices rose. Warnings bounced off the walls of our ordinary world turned war zone. The therapist said Olivia needed more help and recommended an outpatient clinic near our home.
Now, Olivia attends an intensive program six days a week. The more experienced girls there confirmed what she had suspected: self-harm soothes volatile emotions. A team of clinicians rebut this assertion, offer healthy alternatives like positive coping mechanisms, therapeutic workbook assignments, and quaint colloquialisms. “Feelings aren’t facts,” they say. The phrase is meant to be used during dark times as a reminder that discomfort passes. Olivia never says those words, not once. Instead, here at home, she experiments with releasing mental anguish by etching it into her skin.
In the garage, I study the miniature instruction sticker affixed to the underside of the washer’s lid. Maytag’s recommended course of action for blood stains is to pre-soak in cold water for 30 minutes then wash in the hottest setting safe for clothes. I turn the dial and measure the detergent.
I listen to water tumble into the machine. Soon, the stains will be gone and I will able to pretend for a little while this isn’t happening to my child, to me, to our family. I will be able to pretend we are normal again—our ordinary life intact.
I am shocked by Olivia’s cutting behavior. I am filled with despair. I am overflowing with anger. But: this isn’t the first time I’ve found her blood in places where it doesn’t belong. Already, I have cried. I have dropped to my knees. I have even prayed. Standing here, it’s as if my synapses are shielding me, modulating my ability to feel, an act of self-preservation. I am numb. My singular focus is on the task at hand. Olivia isn’t the only one in danger of losing her mind, but, as her mom, I can’t afford to succumb to the darkness.
I return to Olivia’s bedroom to make the bed. I grab the comforter and her Team Jacob blanket and am about to tuck in the edges when something on the sheet catches my eye. I inspect. These stains are smaller and hard to identify against the fabric’s hot pink color, but closer inspection confirms my fear: more dried blood. Damn it. I toss aside her favorite stuffed lion. Off comes Jacob, the sheets, and pillowcases, all headed for the same fate as the dark load.
A few hours later Olivia’s pajamas are hanging on the hook in the bathroom. Jacob and the stuffed lion are returned to their proper places. Clean. Ordinary.
Red blood. Brown blood. Dried blood. Bloody Band-Aids stuck in between the books in her bookcase. Bloody tissues hidden at the bottom of her garbage can. Under her bed. Wrapped up in her sheets. Her self-harm is an epidemic that leaves chaos in its wake.
I never see Olivia’s self-harming behavior, only the aftermath—a fact that stokes my imagination and inhabits my dreams. She walks into her cotton candy colored bathroom and shuts the door. There’s still a framed Winnie The Pooh picture on the wall. Does she have a ritual? Is she staring at herself in the mirror, slinging insults, horrid names at the image she sees? What is the exact moment like when she puts metal to skin? These thoughts nauseate me.
These thoughts are breaking my heart into a million pieces.
Satisfaction in the simple act of cleaning clothes. My hubris astounds me—what other ordinary aspects of life had I taken for granted? The preparation of a meal for us to enjoy. The ability of a Band-Aid and a kiss to fix a boo-boo. The security of a roof overhead.
Being my parents’ child didn’t prepare me for the feelings associated with having a child of my own. Olivia’s birth cracked my heart open in ways I hadn’t known were possible. I vowed to love and protect her, to make her life happy and healthy, and worked hard to follow through on my promises. Tom and I ordered our lives in a predictable, reliable fashion. We were stalwart and trustworthy. We created a routine, the type of life a kid needs to thrive. And thrive Olivia did.
But I also made assumptions, so many assumptions. I assumed Olivia would grow up, that her life would follow a trajectory similar to mine. I assumed she would go to high school, college, meet a fella, get married, have children. I imagined doting over grandkids. I supposed there would be bumps in the road, of course, but nothing our family couldn’t together surmount. Thoughts about the functioning of Olivia’s brain, let alone about her will to live, never entered my mind. Never, that is, until mental illness happened.
I realized, fast, one of my major mistakes. I had failed to appreciate our abundance, was taking for granted everything that can be taken for granted, including the lavish ordinariness of our life before. A delicious meal that sated us. A tended wound that comforted us. A family outing that overjoyed us.
Olivia got sick and I spent hours at therapy appointments, scouring the internet for information, and doing loads of laundry. In between times, I yearned for that particular kind of life more ordinary. I feared it was gone for good when I ended up standing in the lobby of a residential treatment center. The choice to help Olivia at home removed by the wrath she was perpetrating against her skin.
On the first day that Tom and I left her, someone, a stranger who works there, said it was time for Olivia to head into the common area. They said it was time for Tom and me to leave.
My whole body shook. I choked back a sob. “I love you so much, babe,” I said, and wrapped my arms around her. My tears spilled onto her shoulder. I never wanted to let go. The cotton of her long-sleeved sweater was soft.
“I’ll be fine,” she said, and pulled away from me. She must have been furious with us for admitting her there, hurt, and scared, but displayed nothing. “Bye Dad,” she said, and disappeared down the corridor.
Back at home, without Olivia, I didn’t have to wash clothes or cook food or tend wounds. I wandered from one end of the house to the other. I stood in the doorway to her room expecting to see something out of place. Nothing was.
I wondered how we ended up here, with our ordinary life in tatters. My girl was gone. She was safer living under a different roof. So they said, anyway. I reminded myself that this time apart was supposed to be a respite for Tom and me from the pain of watching Olivia’s illness intensify and our powerlessness to stop it. But in her absence there was no satisfaction, no comfort, no joy. What had been ordinary no longer was.
Depression’s destructive power was pervasive. Insidious. I couldn’t fix what I couldn’t see. I couldn’t fix what wasn’t here. In my daughter’s absence there was a modicum of relief, which ignited crushing guilt. I would not have the responsibility of helping her heal. Neither would I have the privilege of helping her heal.
This type of freedom is its own loss.
Fast-forward five years to a Monday morning in 2018. Olivia prospers. She is managing her depression with hard work, therapy, and medication. She wakes up this morning in the bed in her college dorm room, returned there yesterday, the last day of Thanksgiving break. While she was home, she washed three loads of laundry—weeks’ worth of dirties saved for the trip. She folded each item, and repacked her suitcase and the portable hamper we bought last year. “Leave your bed,” I’d said. “I’ll take care of it.” She was happy to oblige, bored by such ordinary chores.
I carry the linens to the washing machine and dump the load in. Standing there, I see no blood. Don’t need to use the Stain Stick. Life more ordinary has returned, and I am filled with gratitude. My girl is gone because she’s supposed to be gone. She is where she belongs, as safe at school as she is at home and everywhere else. I remind myself the loss born of this freedom is from normal maturation, a girl grown. A victory I do not take for granted. In Olivia’s absence I am relieved. Yes, I am.
The dryer buzzes and I carry the warm bundle into Olivia’s room. I busy myself re-covering the pillows and hooking the fitted sheet onto the mattress. As I do, I realize that I sort of wish I hadn’t volunteered for this job. I’m bored by it, too. Taking the ordinary for granted. My eyes sweep the sheet’s fabric. I toss the comforter on. Take one more look around, at the carpet, the bookcase, the garbage can. Just checking. I figure I will be checking for a very long time to come. The beauty of this made bed is not lost on me. Appreciation. I scurry out the door.
I am relieved. Yes, I am. And therein lies the problem. Life is better, has been for years. Most of the time, I acknowledge satisfaction and comfort. Usually, I embrace happiness and joy. Almost always, I recognize the privilege of waking up in a safe environment with a healthy family. And there are even days when I catch myself daydreaming, making assumptions about where we’ll be next week, next month, next year. I allow myself this folly. And yet, life isn’t simple.
Sometimes complacency gets the better of me. I relax. I let down my guard. Dare I admit to the passage of entire days when I don’t ruminate on blood or the magnitude of our potential loss? Do I confess to forgetting many of our journey’s more ordinary details? What day of the week Olivia returned home. Whether I prepared the corn bread first or the chili. When I washed the clothes she’d had with her. Because I don’t want to forget. Because anything can happen.
I worry that I am one day, one memory, one assumption away from crossing the razor-thin line that separates then from now.
And the only antidote I know for that kind of hubris is appreciating this life more ordinary.
Throughout the month of January, please view the essays, poems, fiction etc. that made the final cut on the site Not Your Mother's Breast Milk HERE