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Open Letter to Patti Smith, Day 21 (on shame and progress)

I’ve written several times about the “monster” that I thought lived somewhere deep inside me who made me unloveable. I was looking at a blog post from last year about that pesky monster, and as I read my writing about finally getting some therapy (and some lovely pills) when I was in my mid-30s, I was surprised to find myself feeling shame. Not shame about the depression itself, not shame about initially needing pharmaceutical help to deal with it, but shame about the fact that it took me so long to figure out just how fucked up I was.

No, that’s not quite accurate either. The shame is really about how long it took me to figure out that I needed help. That I wasn’t actually “high-maintenance.” That I didn’t react to the slightest change of plans like it was a betrayal because I was needlessly rigid. It turns out that a lot of what could be perceived as neediness, clinginess, coldness, meanness, flightiness and a whole hodgepodge of sometimes contradictory behaviors was the result of never being parented by my parents. Like most kids of narcissists (and other types of parents who abdicate the emotional part of their parenting duties) I parented myself by telling myself a whopper of a lie—that inner monster of mine—so I had a reason for why they hadn’t parented me.

It’s not surprising that given that that lie was my survival mechanism, one that had become enshrined in me, practically hardwired into my DNA before I even really had language or knew that language could both help you tell and untell stories, or understood that all stories we are told about ourselves aren’t true even if they’re told by the people we’re all supposed to agree are the most trustworthy. Given all of that, it’s somewhat surprising that I did eventually stumble on the truth that I was spending my life reacting to one hell of a whopper.

I mean, honestly, I thought it was completely normal to sit in the corner of my room, rest my head on the radiator, and sob till I felt sick. I thought it was completely normal to let myself ghost out of myself when I felt anything but numbness. And really, if you’re funny and smart and like to throw tea parties and can hold your drink fairly well (even though you do have an alarming tendency to ask men to sleep with you when you’re wasted but that’s another blog post) and you can find at least a few friends who will put up with your tendency to pee in parking lots on your way to the T or the El for the trip home, you can keep that lie safe for decades.

Until the summer you turn 31 and you work in a building in downtown DC with a beautiful flight of wooden stairs, and every time you walk down those stairs you have to fight the urge to throw yourself down those stairs cause you know you’ll feel so much better if you can just get the pain that’s on the inside to manifest itself on the outside. Until you make friends with writers who are in therapy and start talking about things like depression and anxiety disorder, writer friends who point out time and again how much longing is in your poems, how much grief. Until you are riding home on the Metro one day and you think, “Well, I could just kill myself,” which terrifies you because you’ve always prided yourself on not being one of those people who would commit suicide cause really things are never quite that bad. And that terror sends you to campus one day to the student mental health office and you talk with your first psychiatrist who is younger than you are and diagnoses you with “depressive disorder unspecified” and prescribes a baby daily dose of Zoloft. And you don’t know what to talk about so you tell her you procrastinate writing projects all the time because surely that signifies everything that’s wrong with you–your laziness, your lack of preparation, your general wrongness. And this baby psychiatrist asks one question: “Have you ever missed a deadline?” And when you answer, “No,” she wonders—then why are you worried about it?

Even though it will take another year or two for me to figure out that what I call “procrastination” is actually the way my brain works, processing all the information I need for the project, finding the story long before I actually scratch things out on a sheet of paper, that moment, when she asks that simple question, and I am forced to consider all the wrong words I have been using to describe myself for decades, is the first time I start to wonder what else I have told myself about myself and others have told me about myself is wrong, too.

So the moral of the story is that all of these things had to happen for me to finally catch a glimpse of the lie and that’s what matters, right? But shouldn’t I have somehow seen it sooner? I’m a smart woman. I read a lot of books. I write poetry for goodness’ sake. Doesn’t that give me some sort of insight into human existence and shouldn’t that insight of mine have detected the “Help Me!” sign that had been flashing above my head for decades?

But that’s the wrong story, too. That we are all-seeing when it comes to who we are. That there’s such a thing as “too long.” That self-awareness, self-knowledge is some kind of race with check boxes and status reports and ETAs. That when it happens trumps everything else.

 

Here’s what shame is: it’s believing the wrong story about yourself.

Here’s what I need to remember: The right story about me is that I don’t know why it took the time it did to realize I was wrong about the monster and so many other things about myself. The right story about me is that it doesn’t matter how long it took to get there. The right story about me is that penalizing or feeling bad about myself cause it took a certain amount of time is just a silly attempt to give myself another monster and really, who needs that? The right story about me is that I will sometimes forget that. The right story about me is that there will be so many other times when I’ll feel that shame and instead of letting it send me down into a spiral of self-doubt, I’ll remind myself that it doesn’t matter how long it took for me to get to that place of un-telling. The right story about me is that—despite the safety and comfort of that old story—I did, in fact, get there.

 

 

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Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 16)

…Why does it feel more disheartening to be thought of as old (or not young) than it is to be thought of as fat or not very intelligent?

I’ve been starting each day with the last few lines of the day before in order to give this project some continuity but most days it doesn’t work because my brain has moved on to the next thing. At least for now. I circle round and round the same obsessions so it stands to reason over 30 days I’ll trace and retrace the same emotional circles. I think every artist has an obsession or two in their work though they never might articulate it as such. What’s hard is exploring those obsessions in one’s art practice without starting from square one with those emotional things in one’s actual life. I think I’ve moved forward from a lot of the things I write about, but there’s still more to mine there. So am I stuck, or am I just thorough?

Yesterday I fell too deep into myself, which happens sometimes. I probably should’ve expected that after a week of being social, being out of my regular routine, that I would introvert hardcore. And that’s good if there’s some sort of movement going on—I’m going to lunch (or in the case of yesterday, I should have gone to church), or I’m walking up and down my apartment thinking and doing bits and pieces of the things I want to get done. It’s meditative and I can usually push myself forward over some hurdle—emotional, spiritual, professional—by at least a centimeter. But every once in a while I choose instead to spend the day on the couch, which starts out okay but ends with me way deep inside my head feeling heavy with stuck-ness, with emotional inertia, which is the perfect stage for all of my insecurities to flounce across, preening and parading, and sticking their dumb selves in my face. Which is not to say I shouldn’t sit on the couch ever and let myself just watch TV and dream, but there are certain times when I’m tiptoeing around an ice rink of depression that it’s just better for me not to linger there. And I think I always know when I’m at that place, but I don’t always listen to myself. Yesterday I pretty much talked myself out of going to church, which was stupid cause clearly the me that actually knows how to take care of myself (she lives quietly somewhere in the center of my gut and passes her days knitting and daydreaming and sending secret mind messages to Josh Groban and Michael Fassbender) was trying to force me into having some human contact so I wouldn’t spiral down.

I did finally fight my way out of it and by the time I went to bed last night I no longer believed I’d never get to a healthy weight at which I was comfortable, that I would die alone without friends, that I hadn’t ever done a damned thing that mattered, or that I was—when you added up my sum total—merely an insignificant, depressive speck. I don’t expect that I will ever stop having depressive episodes. The same brain that works itself into a let’s-go-jump-off-a-cliff-so-the-negative-chatter-will-stop frenzy is also the same brain that fills me with empathy and love and the courage to keep that damned pen moving across that damned blank page. In other words, I think part of my depression comes from letting too much in, but it’s all that stuff that comes in that gets filtered into poetry. So I’m not sure I exactly want to fix my brain.*

What I do want, and what I actually have gained through lots of thinking and lots of practice over time, is perspective. As much as I was weighted down with darkness yesterday, I knew from experience, that just doing one little thing different would put me back in balance. So I forced myself to take a shower and changed into fresh pajamas and washed the dishes. And at first it felt a little like slogging through molasses but little by little I felt my regular rhythm start to come back. I have the perspective now to know that even though I can sometimes feel emotionally squashed, squished, and outright pulverized, I just have to grit my teeth through it cause it’s not forever. I think that’s an important life thing to realize—nothing’s forever. Which we often think of as being a sad fact, cause we tend to think only of good things ending. But I’m going to be blatantly Pollyanna and say it also means bad things end, and good things get even better or just change into a different version of a good thing. Nothing’s ever in stasis, is it? No matter how stuck we feel. Hmmm, so maybe that’s the only thing we can count on as being true forever? Everything changes eventually.

To be continued…

*PS Don’t freak out people, I am going back to therapy soon and have two bonafide recs from my doctor.

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 6)

Yes, I think it’s time I started calling you Marc. And you should call me Paulette. I used to hate the sound of my name. Maybe because the only time I heard it at home was when I was getting in trouble for something I didn’t understand I did wrong. I admit I’m ready to forget the story about the time I came home with a straight A report card in third grade—after pulling Bs in handwriting the previous two trimesters in handwriting—and my mom’s reaction was, “Your jeans stink. Why do you smell so bad?” But I think that’s the definitive story of my childhood. Or maybe one of five or so. But at any rate I hated my name. I had this big plan when I got to college—did I mention I went to BU too? COM class of ’91—to tell everybody to call me “Paulie.” But I just couldn’t do it; it felt like a lie. It’s not surprising I wasn’t able to reinvent myself because I didn’t have enough grasp on who that self was to reinvent it. That’s what parents do, or are supposed to do, give you a sense of self. And if they fail in that fundamental area, then you spend a great deal of your life chasing down leads as to who you might actually be.

That being said, I am lucky in that I always knew I was a writer. There were several hardcore years of dallying in theater but even so, poetry continued to haunt me and spill out in me. Sometimes in stream-of-consciousness letters and in some very terrible scripts I wrote for my college classes and occasionally even in poems. And like any good poet, I was always good at suffering. Though back then, in my 20s and my 30s it was always for the wrong reason. In other words, men.

To be continued…

Curious what this is all about? Check out day 1 which explains a bit about this project.

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 5)

And also the truth can stare you in the face for four decades and it doesn’t matter. It’s not about whether or not the truth is easily apprehended—they were at fault not me—it’s about when you figure out how to stop listening to all the stories you’ve learned to tell yourself to explain the monster.

But when you’re a storyteller—as it’s plain you are—it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the stories you tell because they’re true and the stories you tell because you need them to be true. Is that something one ever learns to do with 100 percent accuracy? Even now as I write this confessional porn—Look at me and my beautiful wounds! Don’t I look great from the vantage point of my internal suffering?—I wonder what is honest, what is embellished. But that’s the legacy of growing up with parents like ours, isn’t it? It’s hard to be secure in what we feel, to know if our joy or our grief or our anger or our bewilderment is a true thing. We’ve been forced to be our own parents and, really, what kind of parent is a kid in single digits going to make? What kid doesn’t err on the side of make-believe?

I’ve been lately thinking about that lack of security—emotional, psychological—in terms of my arts career. I used to feel bad about the fact that I’ve—for the most part—as an adult always had a full-time job. Poetry, theater work, whatever else I wanted to do as an art practice has always been practiced in the cracks of the 9-5 day. I’ve thought for years, decades, that having a good-paying full-time job meant that somehow I lacked courage and drive to be an artist. But I’ve come to realize that when you’re a kid who grows up always trying to catch your balance on shifting sands, you crave something stable.

My natural state is chaos but I realize it’s all grounded in habit and ritual so I can keep some sort of balance. Even when I had a seven-month fellowship on the tip of Cape Cod during which I didn’t have to work a traditional job, I found rituals—walking up and down Commercial Street, singing with the church choir, making apple crisp. My somewhat traditional life hasn’t kept me from being a great artist, but instead I realize now it’s kept me alive long enough so I can keep working toward being a great artist. No, not a great artist, but an artist who reaches people whether it’s on a grand scale or not. It’s kept me alive so I can write about this shit and hopefully save someone else from wandering around in the desert as long as I have. I think that’s what you do, too, Marc.

Yes, I think it’s time I started calling you Marc…

To be continued…

An Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 4)

How do you say these things out loud Mr. Maron, week after week, in front of live audiences? Are you trembling even as you break into that great barking laugh of yours the way I’m trembling now as my fingers determinedly march across the keyboard? Perhaps the question is—how does one survive being self-aware and aware too of all the barren places propping you up?

I should tell you here that I’m 45, well, I will be officially in four days or so. And I’ve written poems always, it seems, and as a teenager plays about witches named after characters in The Outsiders and short stories that always ended with someone dying—suicide, murder—and a movie script when I was about 15 that starred Matt Dillon and me as star-crossed lovers who met after I’d been raped by a friend of his. On Trinidad where I was born there’s a pitch lake, a seemingly endless lake of asphalt. I thought for years that this pitch lake lived inside me, the lake and its attendant monsters (which is what leaked into my writing) and that’s why people couldn’t love me. By people I mean, of course, my parents but that’s still hard to write. And honestly, I didn’t have the language to really grasp what had formed me till my 30s and I didn’t have the understanding to grasp what was hidden in what I wrote with that language till just a few years ago, and I was still missing important words like “narcissism” and “abuse” and “unformed self” and “parent” until my father died last January.

It took till I was 36 or so and in grad school and realized that on the right day I could conceivably consider suicide and ran to the therapist’s office on campus and got some good drugs that I took for a long while and started to talk plain about what was inside me, not coded like I did in poems, for me to realize I didn’t have a pitch lake inside me. I wasn’t a secret monster and my parents weren’t right to protect themselves from me. So maybe what I’m saying is I’m a late bloomer. And also the truth can stare you in the face for four decades and it doesn’t matter. It’s not about whether or not the truth is easily apprehended—they were at fault not me—it’s about when you figure out how to stop listening to all the stories you’ve learned to tell yourself to explain the monster.

But when you’re a storyteller—as it’s plain you are—it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference between the stories you tell because they’re true and the stories you tell because you need them to be true. Is that something one ever learns to do with 100 percent accuracy?

To be continued…

Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 3)

… So knowing I can’t control my audience and yet knowing I’m compelled to write this all out loud, and knowing that the reason I want to write to you is that you say out loud all the things I should and I shouldn’t, how open can this letter really be, Mr. Maron?

What happens, I mean, if my mother finds out I think she’s a narcissist? Just typing those words, just thinking those words, just meaning those words is like firing a gun. Though it’s unclear if it’s aimed at my mother or aimed at myself. Is saying it out loud being self-aware and self-caring or is it self-destructive. I love my mother. We talk on the phone about TV shows and jewelry and the people she spies on at the mall. She calls me on my birthday and sometimes just because. Still, that feeling that I’m making nice with my (emotional) abuser persists, but what’s the alternative? I wasn’t estranged from my father, not in a no phone calls, no contact way. I dutifully showed up once a year at least and called him on his birthday and Father’s Day. I’ve endured years of picking out Mother’s Day cards and Father’s Day cards with my stomach knotted tight because there were no right words, no dutiful words, no pretty words that didn’t highlight exactly what I didn’t have with my parents. And yet I never quite broke the connection. I ran, as the song goes, I ran so far away, and still my relationship with my parents, broken and landmined as it was, as it sometimes continues to be, persisted. Does that make me courageous or a coward? Am I a narcissist too?

How do you say these things out loud Mr. Maron, week after week, in front of live audiences? Are you trembling even as you break into that great barking laugh of yours the way I’m trembling now as my fingers determinedly march across the keyboard? Perhaps the question is—how does one survive being self-aware and aware too of all the barren places propping you up?

I should tell you here that I’m 45…

To be continued…

An Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 2)

I hate how letters are always monologues. And in an effort to make this a two way street–and to change the subject because I’m already bored with myself and it’s only day one, I’ll start with a question: Are you a feminist? No, that’s not what I really want to know. I wanted to ask you about talking about your weight in public, which men never do but even that seems less important today (though I’ll get back to that later) because I spent the night wondering what it means to write an “open” letter. I wouldn’t mind if you read this, of course, and my friends, and my sister and one of my brothers. But I wouldn’t want my mother to read this or any of her friends, or any of my friends that are Facebook friends with my mother. But since I share this on Facebook (and Twitter but I don’t actually know very many people I’m on Twitter with) it’s inevitable that she may at least get an inkling.

Last November as my father was dying of cancer and I was trying to understand how to have a relationship with him–the kind of relationship where I could hold his penis to maneuver it into a plastic container when he could no longer urinate by himself and the kind of relationship where I could wipe the shit from his ass the night before he died as his body relentlessly turned itself off cell by cell, organ by organ–when I was trying to jerryrig a relationship stitched from tenderness and not rage, I wrote about him every day. In the days after he died and at the funeral, several of my cousins and people who I didn’t think paid attention to my writing came up to talk to me about it. And my mother asked to be my Facebook friend (which I refused) cause her cousin had told her I was writing about my father. So knowing I can’t control my audience and yet knowing I’m compelled to write this all out loud, and knowing that the reason I want to write to you is that you say out loud all the things I should and I shouldn’t, how open can this letter really be, Mr. Maron?

What happens, I mean, if my mother finds out I think she’s a narcissist?

To be continued…

Read part 1 of this letter here.

An Open Letter to Marc Maron (Day 1)

Dear Mr. Maron–

What you should know first is that I don’t know what I’ll find here in writing this letter over the next 31 days. I believe that in writing I find myself, that is, I trick myself into revealing those things I don’t want to face. Which I suspect is a little bit of what happens when you turn on the microphone and let yourself riff, turning the unspoken into not fact, but truth, which is so much harder to bear. Podcast after podcast I hear you growing into yourself and perhaps that’s why I’m writing to you, to pull myself forward a little. As far as I can get in 31 days, which is generally how long my courage lasts. About 31 or so days of every year. Okay, I’m exaggerating, but that’s something else we’ll talk about later.

Right now my brain is screaming, “Don’t do this! This is a ridiculous project!” But I’m old enough now–and will be older still officially in about a week–to know that I tend to find transcendence in the ridiculous. And I know that you understand that urge to slice oneself open out loud, to perform daring acts of harakiri on the ego for a crowd. Hoping not to hurt anyone, yourself included, and knowing that that hurt is inevitable.

I hate how letters are always monologues. And in an effort to make this a two way street–and to change the subject because I’m already bored with myself and it’s only day one, I’ll start with a question: Are you a feminist?

To be continued….

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