Category Archives: Memory

Comfortably Numb

I used to love Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I haven’t listened to it in years, but the title of the book I’m reading, Comfortably Numb, jumped out at me when I was in a bookstore last week because it was a reference to a song from the album and the movie. I still remember the images, although it’s been over 20 years since I’ve seen the movie. An unconscious man lies in a dingy hotel room, surrounded by people furious because he can’t perform on stage. They shoot him up with something, and after a period of semi-consciousness and hallucination, he finds himself in uniform, riding in a car. The video is interwoven with images from the man’s childhood. He finds a sick rat as a small boy and wishes to nurse it. His mother won’t let him, so he takes it to a shed by the river, puts it in a box of hay, and covers it with his vest. When he returns, the rat is dead. These images contrast with war images, images of himself as a child with a fever, and the scene as he returns to consciousness after being shot up with some kind of powerful stimulant and hallucinogen.

I must confess here: I didn’t remember all the images. YouTube is a remarkable resource. I remembered the unconscious man in the dark room (played by my countryman, Bob Geldof), the men trying to slap him into consciousness, the shot, him waking up. I remember the nightmarish quality of the lighting, and the words “Comfortably numb.” The rest returned only when I saw the video on YouTube. What surprised me is how accurate the images I did remember were. I caught snapshots of the video on my brain, and those snapshots retained the mood, the shadows-and-light, the despair, of the original video.

When I saw the book, with its aptly named title, I couldn’t help but buy it, and I’ve been reading it for the past week. (I’m on break! I have time to read!) It describes a nation of malcontents who have bought into the dream of perpetual, instant happiness as a right, and who have fallen under the drug industry’s spell. In their millions, they march into doctors’ offices around the nation to demand whatever drug they’ve seen advertised on TV that week. “Pharmacists say that in the days after a news story or a new DTC [Direct to Consumer] ad for a medication comes out they observe a massive increase in prescriptions for that medicine” (48), writes author Charles Barber.

He validates the horrible experience I had when on antidepressants after my mum died when he writes of the side effects of tardive dyskinesia and akathisia, which he calls, “the worst common side effect, in my observed experience” (88). While his references to these effects are for antipsychotic drugs rather than antidepressants, in some patients — and I was one of them — SSRI medication can cause both akathisia and tardive dyskinesia. In my case the tardive dyskinesia, which often is permanent, was temporary, lasting only two or three weeks.

In addition, he described a Welsh study in which healthy college students were given SSRI medication. No less than 10 percent developed “horribly disturbing suicidal and homicidal tendencies, completely alien to anything they had ever experienced. One person imagined slitting her throat and bleeding to death next to her partner” (58).

I am not alone. I read his words and felt another wave of relief wash over me. While I have no doubts about what happened to me almost four years ago, occasionally my little toad voice will creep in. It was you. No one else would have reacted that way. Look at all the people you know who take antidepressants and are just fine. You imagined it all.

No. I didn’t. And I didn’t imagine that the doctor released me after only two days, and that the insurance company didn’t charge me for the hospital stay, although it should have. Why not? Why did the doctor release me immediately after I told him what had happened? Sometimes, when I see those personal injury solicitation ads like the one I linked to above, I think I should pursue it. I know I have a case. But I’m not going to because it’s not my way. I’m just happy that slowly there’s a growing awareness of how dangerous SSRI’s can be. Maybe, eventually, the medical field or the FDA will restrict prescription rights to psychiatrists who are trained in adverse reactions, contra-indications and other potentially deadly dangers of the brain medication that today doctors hand out with very little prompting.

I’m not saying — and neither is Barber — that antidepressants don’t have their place. But he distinguishes between depression and Depression. We’re all depressed sometimes. Grief can bring on depression, as can divorce, life-threatening illness, and other life challenges, all of which I dealt with within a very short period of time that terrible year. But Depression is different. The only Depression I’ve ever had was caused by the drugs that were supposed to treat it, and I had to get off them to get over it.

My path has swerved, as it so often does, in writing. I thought I would write about a phrase from Barber’s book that I read and that pushed me back into my teen years, another stab at my constantly stalling retrospective. But I found myself considering the phenomenon of antidepressants and the American psyche instead, and remembering my own experience on those drugs. Barber has a solution, about which I’m reading as I probe further into the book, and it involves the Buddhism that saved my mother’s life.

From comfortably numb to aware. From depressed to awake.

Every day I pray that I shall wake a little more.

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Retrospective revisited continued

Continued from here:

Bastards.

“I’m illegitimate and I’m proud of it,” said Fran in history class one day, an unimaginably brave move in Ireland in the late 70’s. I worshipped her from then on, because she took knowledge that had destroyed my sister in some way, and made it her talisman. Nobody could put her down. She simply wouldn’t accept it.

Leah, on the other hand, went crazy. It was Rachel’s and my fault. We were flush with the secrets Aunt Maureen had given us. Rachel was Dad’s unacknowledged daughter, and she, and Leah, and Ruth May, were all bastards because Mum and Dad weren’t married. If anyone found out, we’d be doomed socially. We’d be looked down upon. We’d be despaired of.

I wasn’t sure what I was. Mum had been married to J.D. when I was born, but no one knew of his existence. As far as my friends knew, I was Dad’s daughter as surely as the others were, and so if they were bastards, I was one too. He’d never adopted me, but Mum had changed all our names by court order to his last name, so I belonged to him in that sense, sharing his name if not his blood.

Maureen, gossip though she was, had the sense not to tell the two youngest ones about the mystery of Rachel’s birth and our illegitimate status. Rachel and I, though, weren’t that sensible. Maureen’s secrets were heady things to us. Rachel, who long ago had learned to hide any sensitivity, didn’t cry that Dad didn’t acknowledge her. Perhaps she was simply happy that he liked her better than he did me. Perhaps his receptivity to her was enough. Nor did she seem stricken by the news that our parents weren’t married. I think the shock of learning that there had been another man in Mum’s life before Dad came along had inured us to other shocks. Anything might happen in our family. We might peel back the facade to find murder, unannounced royalty, secret gardens, rich benefactors. The fantasies I wove were all positive ones: I was the little princess, who would be discovered to belong to another, far better family one day, and the lonely, marginalized world of my childhood would be revealed as simply a necessary step on the path to greatness.

But Leah was different. Leah liked her life. Leah was happy. She was the beloved one, adored by Dad. Every morning Mum wove her thick dark hair into two long plaits. She was clever and sweet, beloved of teachers and parents, surrounded by friends, strikingly beautiful. Until Rachel and I destroyed her.

“Guess what?” we said one day, gathered in Rachel’s room, all three on her bed.

“What?”

“Maureen said Mum and Dad aren’t married. We’re bastards. Can you believe it?”

There was a moment where everything was fine, that moment when the words we’d spoken were just words, like “Have a nice day,” or “Isn’t it remarkably sunny outside?” And then Leah realized what we’d said.

Why did it hurt her so much? Why did it change her so much? It had meant so little to Rachel and me, just another secret. But Leah told me recently she’d always known Dad wasn’t my father, or Rachel’s. She wasn’t aware of any secrets at the time we told her Mum and Dad weren’t married. Life was simple, for her, until that moment.

Her face changed. She cried out. She struck Rachel, and bit her, and screamed. We hurried to fix the damage.

“We was slagging. Only slagging, Leah. It’s not true. Really it’s not.”

It was too late. Something was lost in her. She doesn’t remember it, though. When we asked her about it years later, she swore we never told her anything — that she’d always known they weren’t married. “What are you talking about?” she said. “I never got upset. I always knew.”

Still, only days later, after a school skiing trip to Bulgaria, she returned and went into the local town, and came home after two hours with blue, spiked hair. Her long braids were forever gone. She shed her conservative clothes for dog collars and chains, for fishneck stockings and black lipstick and nails. She shed her kindness to old women for nights on the town, punk concerts, drunken binges.

What had we done? I suppose it haunts Rachel still, as it does me. It was the beginning of Leah’s uniquivocal condemnation of our mother, a condemnation that lasted till the days leading up to Mum’s death years later.

Maybe something else would have triggered her transformation. Maybe.

In the end, we are all OK, so what need is there to worry?

Still. I wish I could take it back.

Four crows

I saw them this morning as I looked out past the deck of my father’s house to the water beyond, as I admired the filtered light of early morning, the faint mist obscuring the far shore. I was washing dishes, and the crows landed on Dad’s boat, which was on the deck right outside the wall of windows fronting the main room. There they stood, quarreling, on the boat cover, and then they flew about, two up to the trellis on the side of the deck to stand side-by-side and squawk at one which finally flew down to the deck. The fourth, with blowsy, ragged feathers, stood droop-headed on the boat, looking back and forth between the two scolding birds and the one on the deck, and then flew to the deck railing. The two on the trellis flew after it, dancing and jigging, ruffling feathers as though to make themselves look bigger. There was a scuffle. The bird on the deck joined in. They scolded and leapt back and forth, and whatever they were saying to each other was hardly affectionate. I wish I understood Crow.

After a while the three sleek crows came together, rounding on the ragged one, and the ragged one hopped back and forth from foot to foot, cawing rapidly, before launching itself up into the air and flying off. The three sleek crows talked amongst themselves for a moment, and then flew up, one by one, in the opposite direction from the ragged crow, until the deck was deserted once more.

How did they know, these four crows, to act out their little drama on my father’s deck, in front of me, who would see, of course, the four girls in the family and their eternal family roles?

Morning Ritual

Up, take shower, dress, come downstairs for breakfast. Often the dogs linger, sleeping in while I eat. Later they wander downstairs, go outside with me as I water the plants. After I come inside, I wait till they’re curled up on the couch before I creep upstairs to make the bed, which is still warm from their fuzzy little bodies. Carefully and slowly I pull the covers up. I’m never quiet enough. Sadie always hears the sound of sheets sliding over each other, and I hear the jingle of her tags as she bounds up the stairs and leaps onto the bed, ready for DOG WRESTLING. And then it’s a wild five minutes of her growling and snarling at me, baring her substantial Jack Russell fangs, as I try to wrap her in the bedclothes. She sounds fierce, but with an undertone of laughter. Yes, dogs laugh. It’s buried in the tone of their play growling. You just have to listen for the nuances. When her teeth connect with my hands, they do so with a gentleness that wouldn’t bruise a flower. She lunges for me with her mouth wide open and her lips drawn back, and right before the fatal, piercing bite, pulls back just enough that she doesn’t hurt me, her bite as gentle as if she were play biting a tiny puppy. No. Gentler. I’ve seen her play with tiny puppies.

Finally I get her wrapped up, and she fights with all her muscular terrier self to escape, and I pretend I just can’t hold her, and she gets a paw free, a muzzle, her head, her fierce biting bangs,and then all of her, and I roll her around on the bed till she grows floppy and lets me rub her belly, her eyes all crinkled with happiness.

Can you imagine she almost died 10 months ago?

Finally we’re both ready to start our morning.

Protected: Retrospective 19: 1981 — Not lying to get attention

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Retrospective 18: 1980 — Adah Did It

“Adah did it!”

I stood frozen in shock. I can recall the moment perfectly, the tableau in the kitchen, my mother by the Aga, holding the broken kettle, my father in the doorway, my sister sitting at the table. And I stood by the sink, far from the stove. Far from the kettle.

My father had just walked in. “What happened to the kettle?” he asked, when he saw my mother holding the handle in one hand and the dented body in the other. And my mother said, “Adah did it.”

Leah looked up in surprise. “Mummy,” she said. “Adah wasn’t anywhere near the kettle.”

My mother had turned, not paying attention, and knocked the kettle off the stove. It had hit the hard tile floor and the handle had split off. My mother had bent and picked it up. She was examining it when my father entered and asked his question.

“Adah did it.” I was used to those words. The dynamic in my family had been set for years now. Rachel was the responsible one, in a way. She was more developed than me, and beautiful in a taunting, sexy kind of way even though she was barely in her teens. She was also directive and strong. She and Leah, only a year apart, were the closest. When we fought, she and Leah always sided together, usually against little Ruth May who was the constant butt of Leah’s disdain. I almost always stood up for Ruth May, having a thing for underdogs, but invariably Leah’s and Rachel’s concentrated venom would wear Ruth May and me down. Then Ruth May, who had a strong instinct for self-preservation, would switch sides abruptly to the winning team, and it would be the three of them against me. When Mum or Dad came to investigate, the chorus would begin: “It’s Adah’s fault.” “Adah did it.” “Don’t look at us. It was Adah.”

And then I’d storm out to my pony, usually crying, which earned me the name “Crybaby” in my family. Mum called me melodramatic and over-reactive. I grew more and more morose and sullen, withdrawing into myself and turning more and more to my pony, who didn’t judge or blame me.

Finally, that day with the kettle, even Mum blamed me for something that wasn’t my fault. For a long moment I stood, unsure of how to react. And then I just walked out, past Dad and Leah, and went to my room. Even now something freezes in me when I think of that day.

It is a small thing, really, compared to what others endure. I was not beaten. Dad hit me once, and grabbed me roughly enough to leave a bruise on my arm another time. The time he hit me he threw me into the wall, and somehow I ended up with a black eye. It was actually an advantage at school, but I am talking ahead of myself. My point is that I didn’t endure physical violence time after time, as others do. I was not s*xually abused. I had a good life, with ponies and later a horse, with four meals a day laid on, and my own bedroom. With four acres on a lovely little river, and apple trees and gooseberry bushes and bushels of fresh fruit and vegetables in the summer, and canned and frozen ones in the winter, all from our garden. We had donkeys and chicken and geese and goats, dogs and cats, guinea pigs and my ponies. We had fresh honey and golden dripping honeycomb from our own bee hives. When Dad wasn’t home, Mum would sit with us in the kitchen and we’d drink tea and eat biscuits and talk with her best friend and her best friend’s kids, a pack of us, laughing for hours. We had wonderful lavish sit-down Sunday dinners with my grandparents and my aunt and my two cousins, and we played hide-n-go-seek in the garden at dusk, and the midges chased us, and the smell of fresh-mowed grass followed us to sleep at night.

Beautiful, all of it. Just — here and there — the odd dark moment. And that day was one of them.

Mum came after me. I don’t know what she said. “Adah broke it,” she said to Dad as she walked out of the kitchen. Why was she so afraid of him, that she had to blame me for what she had done? That she had to insist, despite Leah’s assertion of the truth, that I had broken the kettle? I heard her, and something boiled in me. I turned, there in the long hallway, at the door to my room.

“Why is everything always my fault?” I yelled. Is that is? Is that what I said? I was blind with rage, blind with the injustice of it all, and strengthened because Leah — at least — had spoken the truth. Mum screamed back. We were like that, short-fused and fiery in our rage — all of it useless and wearing.

I don’t remember resolution. I want to say she apologized, that we hugged. But we never hugged. Years later, she did explain it — that her anger at me always calmed Dad down in some way, pleased him. She could change his moods by punishing me. But I don’t think she thought it through back then. I don’t think she could. She just acted out of her own fear — that Dad would leave her, that he would disapprove of her, and grow ice-cold for weeks, and fill the house with silence. Over the years, the pattern was established. Leah was brutal to Ruth May. Rachel ordered people around. Ruth May played the clown, and when that didn’t work, she turned on me. And I was the sullen, angry scapegoat who carried the sins of the family.

“Adah did it.”

Why not? If it made it better for everyone else — why not?

Antique linens and the smell of steam

With Leah and Dad here the other night we made dinner, and I set the table and pulled out the beautiful antique handmade linen that I inherited from Mum when she died. I use it only rarely, and every time I spread it over the table I see the careful embroidery unraveling, or watch as the act of eating a meal causes small stains that will take bleach for removal, and I know its time is limited. But I use it anyway. It reminds me of Sunday dinners in Ireland, of Easter and Christmas, of the formality and complexity of my past.

Today I ironed the tablecloth and matching napkins. I don’t usually iron, but these, pure cotton, needed it. The heat, the steam, and the smell of the two combined evoked the hours I spent ironing my grandfather’s cotton handkerchiefs as a child. I actually enjoyed the handkerchiefs, the way the spray of water darkened the white cloth, and the way the iron lifted the dark water, and smoothed all the creases till the square of thin monogrammed cotton was as smooth as cream. I hated shirts, still do, but the linens, those were easy, and satisfying, and calming. And today, ironing those 70-year-old linens, I felt calm.