Saturday, April 4, 2009
On Finding Home
Ever feel like you just didn’t belong somewhere? Like your real self, your real life, was out there somewhere waiting for you, and as soon as you could find it you could really live? Really blossom and grow into yourself? Or that there was a place out there somewhere, full of people who would understand you and cherish you—the real you? A place where it would be easy for you to shine, find people to love, forge a place in a community?
I used to dream of this when I was younger, in my teens and my twenties. I wanted it so bad it hurt. I felt so stifled where I was, so alien. It seemed so cold and unwelcoming, and it seemed like you had to punch through brick walls just to connect with someone. I was kind of shy about initiating friendships, and wished I could live in a culture where people were more exuberant, where people reached out to each other (and they would just come to you because you’re so intriguing and invite you to their house on the Riviera), where people were tolerant of others’ eccentricities and even found them intriguing (like carnies, maybe).
I was living in northwest Montana at the time, and thoroughly hated it. I felt like I was living in a tiny black box—well, maybe more of a tiny gray box. I had never really lived anywhere else as an adult (lived in Bozeman during college but it wasn’t that different), and had only traveled a little. I felt like I had never stretched myself, wasn’t even really sure what I liked, or what I was capable of (although I suspected it was probably “more”). I had never really seen much of the world. I felt trapped and oppressed and like I had no options. And I didn’t like myself. I felt boring, and freakish (kind of an unusual combination…)
High school was an exceptionally difficult time for me. My family was quickly devolving into chaos, with my father’s drinking spiraling out of control. I never knew exactly what to expect at home at the end of the day, but I could bet it was going to be hellish and humiliating. My father would be roaring drunk, make some embarrassing and inappropriate remarks (but thanks to his practical wisdom I now have a surefire way to monitor my boob sag), and my mother would be understandably mad as a hornet. And then he would sleepwalk in the middle of the night and try to pee in my closet. What kind of a freak lived in a home like that? It seemed like my very origins had marked me as abnormal. (Oh, and then there were the two skinny rat bastards who followed me around at school for two years, informing me publicly at every opportunity that I was fat and ugly. Or ugly and fat (they weren’t very creative). And the guy behind me in math class with the flaky eyelids who would draw pictures of ugly creatures and pass them to me with the explanation that he had just done a quick portrait of me. How nice. I hope he is now bald and as fat as Jared in a town with no Subway. And plagued by yeast infections between his skin rolls. Who, but a freak, would engender this kind of unprovoked hostility?)
In part I was right about needing to get out of Montana. My options were in fact limited there, and there wasn’t really anything there that interested me at the time. I wasn’t particularly outdoorsy, and I wasn’t intent on raising a family (in fact, being someone’s mother was and is on my top five list of “Things to Avoid at All Costs”). That doesn’t leave anything else in Whitefish. I really was in the wrong place at the wrong time. But heck—where to go? The idea of just packing up and going off to some city (I really wanted to be High-Powered Urban Girl) scared the crap out of me. What the hell would I do when I got there? I wasn’t really the ballsy type. More like cautious and analytical. And deeply depressed.
My long journey out of this rut began with a conversation with my friend Ada. I had been living with her off and on, between housesitting gigs. She’s a therapist, and a damn good one (and a great friend). We were talking one day, and she asked me if I thought I might be depressed. Hmm, I didn’t think so. I wasn’t, like, crying all the time or anything, and I never missed a day of work. She gave me a little cheat sheet on the classic signs of clinical depression. Huh, look at that…I’ve got every one of these except the suicide thing. (Although I did think things might be easier if I was dead.) Headaches, neck pain, back pain, body aches, constant anxiety, irritability, indecisiveness, difficulty concentrating, oversleeping, no appetite, zero interest in the stuff I normally liked to do, extreme fatigue … I had never associated those kinds of things with depression, but there you go. She suggested medication, which I was really resistant to. I was petrified by the idea of taking a drug that would affect my MIND. If my mind got fucked up I was screwed. What if I had a bad reaction to it and it STUCK that way? The only thing I had was my mind and I was reasonably sane, even if I was miserable. Well, eventually I felt lousy enough to risk it, and with Ada’s assurances, I went ahead and gave it a try. Eventually settled on Prozac (tried Zoloft first and had the worst 24 hours of my life). Oh. My. God. Even now, some 14 years later, thinking about it, my throat aches and I want to weep. I wish to God I had done that sooner (and if you’re struggling with depression, don’t write it off). I know it’s not supposed to work this fast, but within a half hour (swear to God) of taking that little green and white pill my big black cloud lifted and my little box opened up. The top came right off that little gray box, and I thought, my God, I’ve got the whole world before me, my whole life before me. I can do whatever I want. It completely changed my experience of being alive. Just like that. The doom and the dread and the shame disappeared. All that was just … gone. I actually felt happy, and free, and I could step out of myself for the first time in a long time, like since childhood. The air smelled fresh again, food tasted good again, I could feel the sunshine again, people were safe again, music was beautiful again … I never thought I would be able to feel that way. And I even felt a little bit of … secret liking for myself.
I was working with some really lovely people at the time at Heather’s Candles in Whitefish (I had just made my daring escape from an evangelical pseudo-cult so it was a real haven for me)—Heather, Natalie, Karen, Heather’s daughter Kelly, Rocky, Ryan, and other various people who came and went. With my newfound mental health I was finally able to interact with them. Rocky was a great friend and we spent lots of time talking, and he didn’t seem to notice that I was a freak. So my freak-identity sort of faded. And Ryan, a very grown-up 16-year-old boy who worked magic with the gardens there, was as kind as could be to me, complimentary even, and also seemed oblivious to the freak thing. And that was a jaw-dropper—a teenage boy who is NICE to me? Whoa, parallel universe where I am COOL! And teenage boys are KIND! Well that really stood my self-loathing (and my fear of teenage boys) on its head. I got so used to being with people who seemed to like me, who were apparently under the impression that I was completely normal that I began to take it for granted that I was in fact likeable and normal (and was able to be more convincingly normal-appearing with yet more people). And the more of this positive feedback I got, the more confident I was interacting with other people, which in turn led to more positive feedback, etc. And I even started flirting. UNHEARD of. But I honestly don’t think any of that would have been possible at that time without medication. I wouldn’t have been able to see or believe that they liked me, I wouldn’t have been able to interact with them or build friendships with them, and I probably would not have even been approachable.
I only ended up taking the Prozac for about a year. I just started feeling a little too happy, kind of wound up (I think it was actually causing a little bit of hypomania—I think I probably have a touch of cyclothymia, which is a mild form of bipolar personality disorder). So I stopped taking it and did just fine. Never had any rebound or anything. What I feel it did for me was remove the unreasonable feelings of doom and dread (which I believe were products of a serotonin deficiency), and give me a receptive, or at least blank slate, to reinterpret myself and the world around me in a positive way. It was like a veil was lifted, and I could see myself and the world as it was, and I’ll be damned if it wasn’t pretty good. Even after I discontinued Prozac, I was able to take this new image of myself, and other people and the world in general with me, along with all the positive reinforcement I had received, to the next phase of my life. My mind STUCK that way, and it was good!!! In short, the right medication can buy you some breathing room to discard painful or destructive beliefs and acquire new, healthier ones.
So I was primed, primed for a major life change. My friend Ada invited me to come to Washington, DC with her to visit her husband. I had a great time, and met some great people. And I thought, I could live here. And then a job came open at the organization where Ada’s husband worked, and with my newfound self-confidence I talked him into hiring me for it. And off I went. (Turns out I can pack up and move to an unfamiliar place—I just need to visit there first, meet a couple people, and nail down a job. Then I am comfortable going. I actually love change.)
The job was at a private, international humanitarian aid organization called World Vision. Kind of like Care, Save the Children, etc. I eventually stumbled into a position (I mean that, I’m not being modest) that required me to travel a lot, and I ended up making numerous trips to southern Africa. Got to see some countries in between too, and with my frequent flier miles I got to vacation in some pretty exotic places (Egypt was my favorite). It was a dream come true—I had always wanted to travel the world. I had wanted to put myself in unfamiliar situations, unfamiliar cultures, and try my hand at navigating through that. I’m pretty good at communicating cross-culturally, putting myself in other people’s shoes, and adapting to new environments. And apparently pretty good at bullshit (I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing but by golly I had read a lot and acquired some pretty handy lingo—lingo covers a multitude of ignorance). I never really experienced “culture shock.” After a few days I would start feeling pretty at home where I was and it would start to feel like I had always been there. After a month I would nearly forget what it was like to be back at home. But I didn’t really want to stay there. If I had been forced to, it would have turned out fine, but that wasn’t my preference. The uncertainty and sometimes outright chaos of the third world really wore on me after a while. (As well as the eye-searing body odor—I’m going to start a charity that raises money to send Right Guard to Zimbabwe. Well, on second thought, maybe I’ll wait on that ‘til they get piped water).
The first few trips I took, I was surprised at how choked up I felt when I got back home. I remember landing at Dulles or wherever and having this visceral reaction, wanting to kiss the pavement. It wasn’t like it had been a bad trip, I was just apparently really attached to my own country and culture. Who knew? And when I got back home, I had learned some stuff, sure, but I was essentially the same person. It didn’t magically transform me into Work-the-Room Fearless High-Powered Urban Girl. I was still Mysteriously Sexy Low-Key Analytical Wall Flower Semi-Rural Girl. I still had to find meaning in my life (huh...). Being in an exotic place didn’t automatically do that for me. What it did for me was make me realize that I liked living in my home country, and that there was not, in fact, a Work-the-Room Fearless High-Powered Urban Girl lurking under my neuroses. And that my “neuroses” were actually just my natural personality traits—I finally came to terms with being an introvert, mostly, and learning to appreciate all that comes with that. This was amazingly freeing. No more yearning for that as-yet-unidentified perfect place where all my dreams would come true, or I would become a different person. I could be happy right where I was, with who I was (“And you were there, and you were there, and you too! Oh, Auntie Em! ...”).
This was the first major step in my “homecoming.” And once I had accepted that I wasn’t “abnormal,” or hopelessly neurotic—just had a mostly introverted personality type—I was able to admit that I didn’t really like the city. It was overstimulating: the range of choices of stuff to do was overwhelming, I couldn’t keep up with the pace (I just kind of watched everyone else run around), and there were just too many people for me to navigate comfortably. I needed a quieter, slower, simpler environment. When I was back in Whitefish on vacation one year, it dawned on me, this would be just the ticket. So I saved up my money and came back. And apart from the weather I’ve never regretted it. (Going to have to move one day though when I reach the Hip Fracture (a/k/a “Golden”) Years).
Ever since then, contentment has come pretty easy. My mind lives where my body lives. I’m convinced now that I’m essentially normal and not particularly scary, and my family and my carny friends have led me to believe that I’m reasonably likeable. I don’t want to be anybody else anymore. I like my quirks and my abilities and sensibilities—they’re the flip side of my limitations. Before I learned to embrace all these smarmy psychological truisms, I felt like an alien hiding among the populace who didn’t really belong here (“here” being the Earth). But now I’m confident that DNA studies would confirm me as genuine homo sapiens—Earth is my home and I belong here.