Friday, February 25, 2011

The Unraveling of A Man

"The Unraveling of a Man" was announced this morning on several major networks, regarding Charlie Sheen's latest public display of psychosis and despair. I quietly looked away while reaching for the remote to quickly turn off the television. This certainly isn't the first public unraveling of a man or woman and I'm certain it won't be the last. It's disturbing nonetheless. Reknowned psychologists, psychiatrists, addiction experts and experts in the fields of legal, medical, intrapersonal, and finance all came forward. Celebrity hawkers and stalkers all needed to weigh in. To what end, I wonder?

If the purpose of this exposure is to educate the masses the educational component is not clear. If we are being provided a service on behalf of Mr. Sheen what is it? Is the moral of the story to avoid drugs, alcohol, attention and or celebrity attraction? Is the story exposed simply to mock and shame Mr. Sheen? Are we to pay attention, lest we end up in this position?

The story that is not told remains important. I don't know for certain what Mr. Sheen, or Mr. Gibson, or Ms. Lohan or Ms. Spears struggle with. I don't need to know. I, like most others that don't live in the lime light, as well as those that do, have personal connections with mental health issues. According to National Institute for Mental Health NIMH, over 26% of the adult population is suffering from one or more diagnosable mental disorders. Of the 26%, only 36% seek treatment. These numbers do not take into consideration the population suffering from substance abuse issues. While there is an overlap due to dual diagnosis and self-medication, there is a likihood that the overall statistics are higher than 26%. I can say with a great deal of confidence that all families have or have had at least experienced one personal relationship with mental health issues.

So the story that remains untold regarding the unravelling of a man, husband, brother, son and father or woman, wife, sister, daughter, and mother is about dignity, trust, acceptance and support. We are not doing so well in this realm. We parade and publicize the downfalls and unravellings. We keep the cameras aimed, we replay the rantings and rage filled 911 calls. We watch and we watch again. We stigmatize and dramatize and traumatize. We compare ourselves or those around us to maybe convince ourselves we are ok, or not as bad, or determine the liklihood of mental illness in someone near and dear, or not so dear.

We play a dangerous game by watching these unravellings and we create and support a collective disservice to those in need. Who is able to admit and accept "weakness" as it is displayed and played out in this manner? Imagine being diagnosed with an illness recognized in the medical field. When is the last time a news broadcast showed someone suffering from cancer so that the masses could laugh and ridicule and suggest the person with cancer deserved it, or needed to lose everything based on his/her behavior? Cancer patients vomit and lose hair, and can look physically unattractive. Why aren't they fair game? Outrageous concept isn't it? Cancer patients typically seek treatment and try to take care of their "problems". It isn't quite so easy to accept mental illness and then seek out treatment. The decision making process being so much a part of the mental functioning of a person is somewhat compromised. Add to that the reality of the stigma, and the manner in which we continue to disregard and derogatively display or expose mental illness.

Charlie Sheen does not appear to be taking care of his problems. Or is he? The fight that ensues in attempting to deny or derail or even project an episodic mental illness elsewhere typically occurs at the point that the illness takes hold, in a way that can no longer be contained. A big difference between illnesses that are recognized by the medical profession and those that are relegated to the psychiatric realm are the recognition of symptoms and the simultaneous ability to mask and manage those symptoms. In the medical profession, by the time an illness unravels itself full-blown, symptoms typically reach varied body systems and become evident. Prior to a mental health issue developing into a full blown crisis, erratic behaviors that are displayed can still be reasoned away for some time while much destructive and harmful behavior takes its toll on the suffering party and the family members that may be blamed, devalued, abused, cut off and/or abandoned.

Imagine being screamed at or accused of causing a brain tumor or multiple schlerosis in your husband, wife, or child? It doesn't usually happen. Yet, it is with much ease that others are blamed for the destructive and erratic behaviors of someone in the midst of a mental illness. To make matters worse, it seems to be somewhat easy to convince others that family members caused or created the need for destructive behaviors. Mental health issues can certainly be exacerbated by stressful relationships and interactions, but they aren't caused by others. The field of psychiatry itself helps to perpetuate this dysfuctional belief system. In the name of protecting patients, husbands, wives, partners and parents are often blocked from in-takes and treatment planning. Rather than blocking, doesn't it make more sense to incorporate the experiences of those close by? If only to help teach effective, supportive strategies, wouldn't it be potentially beneficial to bring in family members? Try suggesting concerns to a loved one when they are physically sick, now imagine suggesting they are "mentally" sick.

I recently watched a family destruct as members were simultaneously cut-off from one family member while being accused of abandoning, being hostile and not being supportive enough. Outsiders appeared from nowhere to support the "victim". The other family members were left to grieve the loss, make sense of the behaviors, as outside, unrelated newcomers were recognized and praised for providing support and understanding. No one asked the family for more information or questioned the validity of the story. If someone had a stroke and suddenly his wife and children mysteriously left, wouldn't there be questions, support, a casserole even? There might even be compassion, understanding and attempts to reach out. Why are we so quick to blame and judge? A social worker might step in, I imagine. Maybe not, families being so messy and all. How many of us ask the hard questions?

Charlie Sheen, afterall still, has friends that support and love him, on far away islands in bikinis. I am sure he must be getting all the help he needs. If not, all of America is watching and prepared to weigh in. Who is able to turn off the tv, send a message to the media, stop perpetuating the stigma associated with mental illness, addiction and substance abuse? The unravelling isn't in need of celebration. We need to celebrate authentic living, not reckless self-destruction caused by underlying serious problems. Recovery and acceptance are not as attractive to cover in the news. A painful, ugly, journey to be certain. Cancer recovery is not any more appealing in the throes of it, but each is worthy of support and dignity, one day at a time. Stop the madness. I believe there is hope and the promise of a life worth living, for all.

Friday, February 4, 2011

I Love You, Forever and Then Some

I am in this spectacular position in my life right now.   This rare and unique place that allows me to stand at the precipice of what's to come, while also looking briefly, with definitive clarity at what has been before. A brief and fleeting moment to be certain, so I am attempting to breathe it all in and appreciate the colors, bright and muted, all. I am allowing this to provide a fresh perspective and I feel all the more lighter for doing so.

As I start to determine the way of my journey and carefully consider the path I want to follow, I have been enjoying a brief look backwards. It has come by way of an old relationship, revisited. The ability to reach into my past to contact old friends, past romances, peer at gossip hounds, and join the run of the mill web-based stalkers, does have it's advantages. I'll focus on one old romance here.

I am in the process of a divorce and have been trying to make sense of my relationship choices, to learn from my mistakes and value and cherish what shall remain treasured. When I look back at my relationships, I can suddenly see certain patterns. I have been trying to understand some of my choices, make some sense and also make peace with the outcomes. I also have the luxury of retaining copies of some curious and beautifully comic, as well as beautifully rendered passionate pleas and promises from a time long ago, when letters were written and mailed from afar. Anthropologist's fodder, and deep insight into the way a certain heart and brain may have operated and developed.

One early relationship that had a huge impact on me and perhaps, ensuing choices afterwards had always been somewhat troubling to me. The first “big” relationship I had took place in college. The man/boy of my dreams was playful and light. Fun. Everything an early relationship should be. Right? Sort of. For a brief time, it was light and fun. He made me laugh. He laughed at me. I, in turn did the same to, or for him, I believe. Co-ed dorms- the place where dreams are made! Whispering I love you's, finding secret places for our free-loving explorations, occasional real dates, school, work, dancing, fifty-cent beers, and more love. We played, a bit. And then, I think, we play-acted. Only I failed to recognize this feature in myself, as well as in him, and so I felt heart-broken when it ended. Devastated even, dramatic does not justify my feelings of that time. An old roommate has suggested there may have been a bench removed from the front of the dorm due to my tear stained caterwauling fetes. I wanted so much for this relationship to work, I was sure. I was determined to believe in the promise of forever. What went wrong? It ran it's course, we were very young, that's all, the end.

Instead of trying to determine what went wrong, I should have been asking, what was I thinking? All the feminist power and possibility awaiting me in the early 80's. Why would a relationship at this point in my weight-fluctuating, pimple-producing late adolescence, (sure 18 still qualifies) determine to some extent what might come next? I think I wanted to believe a relationship could work more so than the relationship with this particular fun guy was working. He wrote deep letters vowing his love for me. I wrote in kind. He wrote that he would love me, forever. The ultimate promise. Silly, now, to think about it- or even re-read the letters. So much love and adoration and promises. When he stopped loving me in that forever way because, he realized, I think, there were loads of girl/women out there to have fun with, I was crushed. I fell hard. I didn't get it. Or I didn't want to get it. It wasn't so much that I was ready at 18/19 to love someone forever or he would be the the man/boy to do that with, it was more the idea of the forever love, and the fact that he could state forever love and retract it or renounce it. I couldn't come to terms with the possible fallacy of these feelings. They were mere words to try on and try out.

It turns out, in relationships between men and women, young men are more likely to say I love you earlier than young women. Although women are socialized from birth about the importance of romantic relationships, they tend to try them out a bit more and have a few more practice relationships. By the time young women  are becoming interested in committed love, they have been through a few, at least minor, relationships. Saying I love you tends to carry more weight for women and they typically wait for the man to say it first, believing that when it is said, it is meant. When young men say it, they aren't at the same stage as their "so-called" love interests. They say these important words with meaning, because they lack the language and communication skills to say much else that will convey importance and attraction. Young men do not have many experiences that promote or support the expression of feelings. They are socialized not to express so many of their feelings. The one experience they have with attachment and bonding typically comes from their mothers who express love for their children by saying "I love you." Young women talk and socialize and share intimate feeling with friends. They talk about crushes, and dates, they try on their feelings by talking with best friends and parents on a regular basis.  They have many different ways to express and communicate their feelings.

"Forever", apparently means something very different to the male brain.  When it comes through his mouth it may sound the way a woman wants to hear it. It isn't quite the same as eternity. It may be helpful to consider the second entry for the definition of "forever" according to The American Heritage Dictionary; at all times; incessantly. I think men, especially young men, may be expressing their feelings related to physical desires and sexual urges. Forever: at all times, maybe in all places, positions... When they say I love and whisper forever, they may be saying I want this feeling to last forever. I want to make love to you in all places, at all times of the day. Women are hearing the first definition, forever: without end, everlasting. Forever, the dream, the goal. I love you forever, means, he wants to marry me, right?

I had dated, kissed and enjoyed a few passing fancies in high school. I even believed myself to be quite adept at not being so typically gushy and girly, I had been attempting to master aloof. In at least this experience I was for once, on target. I felt a bit in control of these early relationships. The key word might be felt. I was young and so had, the somewhat limited experiences of youth. So much of that inflated sense of self in the world is such a boost. The fun guy might have really loved me when he said those words. He more likely believed, the feelings he was having were so exciting and they were reciprocated, and well, what else can one say? We have not as a society, or species even, so much as figured out how to say much of anything that many of us can agree on. But we think somehow that love is that universal language that we all understand. Saying I love you and hearing I love you is after all, pretty darn special. How does one express all of that thrill and dopamine-delivering activity without suggesting long-term, eternal, commitment? The alternatives probably wouldn't have gotten this fun guy very far;  I like you?  I want you for a little fun?  I have a burning desire to make my body move on yours and then let's see where it goes, or doesn't?  C'mon, are you in or out? Would you bang me, or bang my gong, get it on? (It was the early 80's after all.) Should I stay or should I go now... (Maybe for laughs I might just try these terms out in my next phase of attraction or love, but I'll update the song lyric come-ons.)

While I wanted to emerge a woman in control of my destiny at the young age of 18, 19, 20, I had also wanted to be desirable, lovable and loved. And suddenly, when we broke up, I believed I was no longer any of the afore mentioned and didn't seem to have a clue how to remedy the situation. Worst of all, I believed this fun guy was able to determine whether or not I was attractive and of value.  I gave it all up so easily.  Damn, he must have been good!  And he was definitely fun. I started seeking less fun and more serious. I ended with serious. I really miss having fun.

I recently read this quote from Marlo Thomas, “I wish someone would have told me that, just because I'm a girl, I don't have to get married.” It resonated with me. I never considered not getting married. I never imagined that not getting married was a choice to consider. I fell right into figuring out how to be desired and valued because that would certainly ensure marriage.   I jumped a bit too enthusiastically at all that forever talk.  When that "failed", I jumped back in and tried again, and again to be loved forever, as though it was some activity or event to master or win or prove. I don't regret getting or being married.   I regret the determination to get it right somehow, the approach to keep it working way past it's life-span. The forever of certain relationships have different life-spans, I believe.   I have realized, I sometimes keep things going way past their prime. I don't particularly like how disposable relationships, objects and countless other experiences have become.

Looking back, I think I went right into auto pilot when forever was written and whispered. Forever. I saw marriage and rainbows and all the dreams little girls are spoon fed from an early age. I went into auto-pilot and I wasn't even interested or ready to be in the driver's seat the passenger seat or near a moving vehicle. Forever meant this is it-game time. I wish that we could stop telling girls about their weddings as though they were inevitable, of utmost importance and necessities. We don't raise our boys with this as the first and foremost goal in life. Marriage is an option, it can be a valuable option and a worthy option, for many. I wish that getting married, being married and staying married did not seem to equate just so much success or failure. Maybe most of all, I wish we would tell our children to have some more fun, real, lively, experienced fun from living a life and participating without too much thought about tomorrow, forever, and eternity.

When I was around 9 or 10, that strange time when girls are suddenly aware that they will soon start becoming different, I knew it was a loss as much as some sort of transformative biological rite of passage into womanhood. The loss meant I had to suddenly "be" different not just "look" different. Around the same time, Marlo Thomas produced this groundbreaking album called “Free to Be, You and Me.” It offered the notion that girrrrrls, like boys, could have power, be equal, go forth in the world. I liked me. I wanted to be free to be me, yet I was moving too quickly away from the catchy children's sing-songy tunes towards a world where Mick Jagger was grinding to “Let's spend the night together”. The freedom to be a girl, woman, equal was being thrust all around me. A free girl/woman just bursting to be. What? Who? I loved that I had potential and possibilities. I never considered any possibilities about marriage, except that I wanted to grow up and get married the same way I wanted to grow up. And so the choice was made, and hah! I got to make it. Now what? How to make that choice... huumhh, hey maybe, I'll fall in love and decide to get married and have children and have a career and live happily ever after...

I am pretty sure I would have chosen marriage and motherhood, regardless of the choices offered. I imagine I might not have made them so quickly or for all the same reasons. I don't think I even considered that there were other choices. Or that I could wait and live and figure out me for a little bit longer. I don't think we do a very good job offering options to our daughters, still. I recently attended a forum about Gender and Politics. I ran into a fellow mother and we shared a few pleasantries about our daughters and ended up commiserating over the heartbreak and suffering caused by recent break-ups and boyfriends. So afterwards I thought, why? Would us mothers of sons even care about the somewhat insignificant love interest or developmentally appropriate break-up of some minor relationship that our sons were in? How do we move away from this? By the time these very young women have started college or have a couple of years under their belts, they seem to feel ready and open to the possibility of love and a meaningful relationship. Are we still pushing and prodded them into this?

I am pragmatic, by nature. I am a productive worker, a problem solving, doer of sorts. I tend to build trust and take people at their words. Words like I love you and forever have meant a great deal to me. But I have not been very successful at getting these words to mean much from the speakers of these words. I am finally realizing that is ok. I can't assume that Mr. Fun, Mr. Serious, Mr. Honest soul-mate man is going to be in sync with my forever thoughts. Rather than seeing relationships, and idealistic romance as fluid and possibly temporary, I seem to have been going at them as rigid and literal truths or facts, and then problems to solve, as opposed to fun to be had. A marriage of these ideas is necessary for me in the future. Know when to throw my head back laugh wildly and not take myself or others so seriously and know when to bid adiu forever or for a brief break.

This man/boy from long ago has remained somehow deep in my heart. He was at ease, with himself and in the world. I was, and remain; serious, confounded even, and at times, fun and occasionally light. I have been looking for light amidst darkness. The ultra cool shades he wore seemed made to dim the darkness and let only the light in. Lately, my coke-bottle glasses seem to first register the darkness, in order that I may carefully step over the piles of debris and disaster that I can see before others. I have become the dreaded canary in the coal mine, he finds the diamonds and whistles whilst he works. We were never truly compatible. We didn't love each other forever. We weren't meant to. When I long for a relationship that works, however, this is the one that I long for. Or at least the concept of this one. I think he was so important because he showed me light, and he often brought it out in me. Fun, light, possibilities and ease. Above all, laughter. When he speaks of his wife, who unfortunately and prematurely, died of breast cancer, that is how he describes his relationship with her. Fun, light, not too serious and able to enjoy each day. They must have shone brightly together. I imagine she was truly blessed and lucky to have experienced this love.

Marlo Thomas' quote evokes the possibility that girls have choices. The marriage plan for girls does not really need to be started in utero, kindergarten, middle school or even college. I don't know any boys that are giving any thought to the color of the cumberbund they would like to wear at their weddings. They don't promise their locker room buddies that they are going to be their best man. Marriage can be some kind of wonderful but it needn't be set up and searched out and procured by the time we are old enough to legally enjoy our first champagne cocktail.

I am ready to discover new and different options. Right now I want nothing more than light and easy fun. I am even enjoying some funny tips from my light and easy, friend. We occasionally write or text from time to time. He is very funny.  Just the way I liked him, so very long ago. We probably didn't really need to try on the love. But what the hey- it lead me to where I will eventually be, again. Light and easy and fun. At any time, at all times would be best of all-but, nothing lasts forever.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Tea and Sympathy? Tea and No More Apologies.

"Women are like teabags; you never know how strong they are until they're put in hot water."
— Eleanor Roosevelt

My daughter pointed this quotation out to me recently. She is my champion of late. I am watching her grow into this incredible young woman and the transformation is incredible. She has also been observing how I have been coping with some hot water- steeping, strengthening and hopefully cooling off, full-flavored and revitalized.

I have been noticing quotes lately. More so than usual. I have been stopping and reflecting on them. Even searching them out. Brief little soundbites of sorts. Motivators and encouragements, heart candy for my soul. A delightful friend gave me an inspiring gift for Christmas. A desk calendar with the fabulous title, “Keep Calm and Carry On” Oh were it that easy! Wouldn't life be charmed?

I have been attempting calm. I certainly need calm. I have been thought to be calm in the midst of chaos. Sometimes stoic. Grounded and purposeful. Recently, I was described as “the most productive person ever met.” And while I have great respect for the woman who said it, it left me feeling a bit proletarian, bourgeois, maybe. Productive didn't exactly feel light, or calm. It felt busy, nose to the grindstone, missing out. I have been attracted to or at least in awe of, a little more fun, a little less production. Maybe even a few brief dalliances with wild abandon. I don't know, dancing, shaking the groove thing. Not analyzing, over-thinking, processing or producing a thing. So the quotes have been helpful, I think....and a hot cup of tea is calming.

But alas, I may need many more quotes and post-it notes to help me get to that carefree place.

When my daughter, beautiful woman that she has become, posted the "Women are like teabags...” quote from Eleanor Roosevelt, it got me wondering. After I got over feeling a little peeved about the idea that we are put in hot water. Why is it that we women get “put” anywhere, I wondered? Why don't we determine our own destinies a bit more. I thought about my strength, real, perceived, projected and produced. I have danced around this aspect of myself for some time. Being strong is the essence of who I am. And yet the next quote sums up my dance with this trait; “Men are taught to apologize for their weaknesses, women for their strengths.” Lois Wyse. I have been exuding strength and equivocally apologizing for it. Often, making it appear as though I was conflicted by it. Over time I have allowed myself to become troubled by it and even shamed. I have permitted others the opportunity to hold it against me and coerce and control me.

We have all heard the negative connotations regarding strong women. Controlling, bitch, raging, emotional, out of control. Earlier in my life, I scoffed at these terms to some degree and didn't allow these terms to compromise my stance, or what I stood for. I agreed temporarily with the following quote maker; “I'm tough, I'm ambitious, and I know exactly what I want.  If that makes me a bitch, okay.” ~Madonna Ciccone. Yet, some of these terms are damaging and derogatory and I have buckled under them. I did not want to be thought of as a bitch or be called one. I wanted only to be self-assured and strong, ambitious and possibly productive. I wanted this to be a part of who I was and remain to be. Men on the other hand, get to be: leaders, aggressive, powerful, uncompromising.

I did not however, want to be a man, ever. I did not want to make any man feel devalued or emasculated. I was not being, in comparison to anyone, I simply was, and am, being true to myself. I agree with the next sentiment that seems to address the belief that strong women don't like men. Men weren't really the enemy - they were fellow victims suffering from an outmoded masculine mystique that made them feel unnecessarily inadequate when there were no bears to kill.  ~Betty Friedan I, and many before me, have been accused of emasculation. I deny the accusation and challenge the accusers. I have not hidden any bears, stopped the hunting, or derived any pleasure from taking out the trash. Emasculation is to deprive of virility or procreative power. Maybe it was all that productiveness I was embarking on that was somehow perceived as threatening. I am ready to embrace my strength and no longer desire to apologize for it, or be controlled because of it. I will not be manipulated or quieted. I am woman hear me roar, laugh, hum, sing, whistle, cry, moan and confer. I am not now, nor have I ever been responsible for emasculating any man because I have been strong. The emasculating of men comes from an internal struggle, a weakness or an inability to embrace weaknesses, preferences and or/otherwise manly or womanly leanings, true or culturally expounded. I don't feel less feminine when I am accomplishing an otherwise manly task, I generally feel gender-neutrally proud or maybe just productive. Man-up or woman-up, but be humane.

Sadly, a woman I knew of hung this quote on her refrigerator, “Grow your own dope, plant a man”. Numerous men later and a son and daughter raised under this mantra, I am not sure if her current husband is considered to be a dope or a man. I am pretty sure her son was devalued by the experience, and her daughter confused. I think she may have been planting the seeds of emasculation if not “dope”. I personally don't believe we need to devalue men because we have felt devalued. I do think we need to raise our children, as valued beings. This quote may inspire; We've begun to raise daughters more like sons... but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters. ~Gloria Steinem

The initial reaction to the scalding hot water that I have been thrown into, jumped head-first into, and at times blindly or foolishly walked towards, was an internalized shrieking from the pain. I am currently embarking in the boiling water of family court. There is little support of family in this place. The onslaught of adversarial American divorce proceedings seems to be the ultimate war zone for the battle of the sexes. My strength, in this particular cup of boiling water, is at times, weakened from the experience. Maybe not my strength, as much as my idealism. My sense of being a woman is challenged to say the least. There is no power in attack and retaliation that seems prevalent and somewhat, "manly" here. For me, only destructiveness and demoralization seems to be the offering. It is not a place I wish to linger. Yet, it is helping me to find acceptance, in myself and those around me. I am learning to step back, be less "emotional", or reactive, I am learning; We acquire the strength we have overcome. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson In the end, I wish my children to be supported, loved and cared for. I wish for equality. And I wish for peace, happiness and a bright tomorrow for all parties. Iced-tea and sunlight, anyone? Rainbows and silver linings?

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves - slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.  ~Thich Nat Hahn

Iced tea may not have as much wisdom as hot tea, but in the summer better a cool and refreshed dullard than a steamy sweat-drenched sage - leave sagacity to the autumn!  ~Linda Solegato

All true tea lovers not only like their tea strong, but like it a little stronger with each year that passes.  ~George Orwell, "A Nice Cup of Tea"

A Proper Tea is much nicer than a Very Nearly Tea, which is one you forget about afterwards.  ~A.A. Milne