Year of a Hundred Things – “Thing” #92 – Humor

I still remember feeling it break. The pain shot through my chest as though at once all my ribs had cracked. It was the last 30 seconds of the video, a clip of my dad taking my brother’s hand, and laughing about some now lost but undoubtedly sarcastic remark as he said, “Goodbye, son.” Donny Hathaway’s “I Can See Clearly Now” played as the clip slowed and faded into the last image in the video. I felt it break a little more. He was finally in a place where laughing was all he’d ever do, and while I was sure that only my ribs kept my heart from coming apart, I found peace knowing that humor would save me. 

My father loved to laugh. In fact, he is the only grown man I’ve known that could watch cartoons all day. And he was funny. His entire face participated when he told his family stories, especially those involving his cousin Steve. They were two boys who should never have been left unsupervised. For the last half of my father’s life, he suffered through numerous health problems and a lot of pain, but he laughed at whatever he could. And he taught us that humor heals. 

So, in the days that followed his passing, and even now, seven years later, we laugh with him, retelling his stories. My sister and brother are so very much like him in their ability to shake off life’s challenges and find mirth in everything. I’ve spent years trying to emulate them, and I think I’ve finally gotten close. 

The old song says, “Laugh, when your heart is aching.” It is a prescription I highly recommend. 

Daddy, this one’s for you. 

Altered States

Blades of sharp, wet grass nettled between my bare toes as I stood dumbfounded, supporting my right arm at the elbow, trembling with fear on the mottled, unkempt lawn. The tissue-thin, cotton t-shirt I wore did nothing to protect me from the frigid mist saturating the night air. Trembling turned to convulsive shaking as the pain set in and my mind unravelled.

10pm, the first coherent thought I could pluck out of the shrapnel left behind by a shattered peace.

Move, said a tiny, distant voice.

No, answered my limbs.

You have to get out of the cold, said the tiny voice.

Can’t move, said my limbs.

Builders no longer routinely installed doors as heavy as the one in front of me. There was no weak crack made by cheaper hollow doors. No, this door had to be sealed tight when closed, and then pressed tight again while locking. But he had done it. He’d closed the door so hard that it made that sick, angry sound, followed by the unmistakeable clicking of an old deadbolt.

My keys, another coherent thought. After a minute, the unravelling slowed. Get your keys. Only five steps to the door. The door was still locked and my keys were inside.

Cold and terror had turned my legs into marbled pillars, mottled red and heavy.

The neighbors, another fragment that made some sense. They won’t call the police. Priorities had realigned as I stood frozen in the front yard. Terror had mushroomed and with every blast of blood through my temples, anger mushroomed with it. I seethed. All of the fragments began to coalesce into a single, purposeful thought.

You will not survive this if you stay.

I had watched an intelligent, educated man decompensate before my eyes. I witnessed the physical manifestation of a complete loss of emotional control usually attributed to children under five. I found myself barreling down the mineshaft, dragged along behind the speeding rail car of his rage and I was entirely powerless to stop it.

All I had said was, “I’d rather not go out tonight, if that’s alright.” A perfectly reasonable thing to say.

Within ten minutes, he’d grown so angry that he’d gripped the back of my neck and thrown me out of the front door of our house. I landed with a sickening thud on the concrete stoop, all my weight falling directly onto my right elbow and wrenching my right shoulder. There was no sound, but something came apart. Many somethings came apart.

Go to the neighbors, adrenaline had started to motivate my muscles and they began to move, slowly. My head began to clear and the plan to leave fell neatly into place.

Time passed, but no amount of time would stop the shaking. That would require distance. I knew I had to go back and keep things quiet until I could leave. Wait until he falls asleep, I thought. And he did.

Find your damn keys! I had enough time. It took only minutes to gather a blanket, my pets and some pants. I got in my car and made my way to an apartment I’d secretly been keeping for months. I didn’t care that I’d be sleeping on the hard wood floor. I only cared that I was safe. The following morning, I would begin the healing process, both physically and emotionally.

Pain has a way of telescoping our emotions. Each and every time I aggravate or re-injure my shoulder, I become someone else until the pain subsides. I become altered. I can feel myself grappling with it. I am transported back to that cold night and as my shoulder heals again, I crawl back from that helpless moment.

Each time, I am reminded that one night, a long time ago in a fit of rage, a man who claimed to love me tried very hard to hurt me. It had happened before but I had decided that it was not going to happen again. Over the years, I mastered compartmentalizing my feelings. My success at surviving an abusive relationship has had everything to do with remembering that I did not create him and it was not my sickness.

There are many reasons why I was able to leave and eventually move forward. Any counselor can tell you what makes it possible to thrive after that kind of experience. But they should also tell you that not all scars are visible, and how you choose to use yours will define your existence for the rest of your life. They will be part of your new normal; they will occasionally force your altered states.

My altered state is short-tempered, impatient and surly. I abhor that state, so I seek immediate and effective remedies for the pain. I cannot help that for a few moments, when the pain is the worst, I remember that young woman again, seething and helpless. But I draw great satisfaction knowing that I’ll never be her again.

What is ‘what is’?

Naturally, I was seated in the first desk.  It was the only way I could stay awake. It wasn’t that Mr. Givens wasn’t interesting. Quite the opposite, actually. He was a quietly elegant man. Average height, slender, very late sixties, and full of a love and knowledge of literature that I’ve perceived rarely since.

He stood at the blackboard, grinned mischievously and asked the class to write four words at the tops of our papers: “What is ‘what is’?” I remember, clearly, the terror that bounced around my brain like bee-bees in a kettle drum and the pyrotechnic spinning wheel burning in my chest. Even I knew that I couldn’t possibly have anything worthwhile to commit to paper. I knew that I had neither the maturity, nor the command of concrete thought that it was going to take to answer such a question in an innovative way. Perhaps, had I just written that, had I just said that my ‘what is’ was a profound fear of not having the right answer, of sounding trite or glib. Then perhaps I’d have been able to write an answer that pleased Mr. Givens. But instead, I sat frozen, increasingly aware of the clicking of the second hand on the white, industrial clock on the wall and the furious scratching of pens all around me. I continued to stare at those four words, dodging the bee-bees. Staring. Staring harder. Squeezing shut my eyes. Searching my mind for a spark of clarity. Nothing. Nothing at all.

I knew that all of the brilliant kids around me were far more self-aware than I. Actually, I’m not sure that I knew to label it as self-aware. I just knew that they seemed to thrive. I was clinically depressed. Only, at the time, no one around me knew what that looked like. Looking at a teacher, hearing what they said, and trying at the same time to stop the bee-bees in my head and the spinning wheel in my chest; it was very hard work and I was exhausted all of the time. I couldn’t remember what I’d heard just minutes before, even though I’d done everything I could to focus on it. My grades suffered; my family suffered around me; and I began a slow decent into that state where feeling all of the time left no energy left to think. The bee-bees got louder and the spinning wheel hurt more. “What is” for me was just four words, written in perfect Catholic school penmanship at the top of a piece of cheap notebook paper with blue lines. To this day, that is all I remember writing.

The paradoxes of my life were many, and varied, and kept me from feeling like I had a place, much less a path. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and I knew that I was very much alone in it. I longed to identify with and belong to anything, but with all the “noise,” there was no room for anything else. I would get close and then my “what is” would stop my progress. My “what is” was debilitating fear.

Now, the word depression is often associated with images of people who won’t get out of bed or celebrities who drink themselves into oblivion. I showed up every day, and tried, but without the tools I needed to get past the “what is” that handicapped me. Long ago, I learned to cope with it. I understood the idea that depression is the emotional “snow in the TV screen,” as it was eventually described to me when I was finally diagnosed and treated several years later. In fact, when I admit to people now that I’ve dealt with it my entire life, they look at me as if I have three heads. “What???” they say, shocked. “How can you be depressed? You seem so happy.” Well, these days, my ‘what is’ is vastly different than it was for the teenager sitting at that desk, staring at that piece of paper.

Thirty-two years later, that scene still bothers me. Out of sheer curiosity, I’d love to know what all of the other pens scratched out on paper that day. If I had to write the same essay today, naturally, “what is” would be “perception.” I might, in a flare of drama, write only that one word. It really is no more complicated than that. The sky could be a perfect cerulean with big fluffy clouds, but a hundred different people will see a hundred different shades of blue. Depression dulls all the colors, covering everything with a veil of grey. A few years ago, I chose to live a life full of color and I’ve managed my ‘what is’ as best I can ever since. It isn’t always easy, and some never make it to this point. But it begins with avoiding triggers and then follows with tiny choices. I choose what takes up real estate in my head. I choose to spend time with people that add color to my world. I choose joy. I choose to explore, experience and thrive. I choose my “what is” every day. 

So, now ask yourself, what is your “what is?”