Anne Sexton’s Grave

Last summer, I visited Anne Sexton’s grave. I touched the cold stone, traced my fingers along the etching. Bore witness to the offerings others had left behind: coins, ink pens, jewelry. I hadn’t expected to be in New England, hadn’t quite wanted to go to New England in the first place, but, since I was in New England, I went to Forest Hills Cemetery to see Anne Sexton.

The last time I was in New England, life was very different. Supposedly, it was a happier time: It was the first plane trip I took with my family after my daughter was born. She was about 6 months old. It was the first time I had ever been to Rhode Island or Cape Cod. I remember thinking that everything was so outlandishly beautiful–the Breakers, for example–but I couldn’t quite feel the excitement that I usually experienced traveling. Instead, I felt a mix of anxious, worn down, muted. The entire trip felt like a dream, something I only have a vague recollection of.

Of course, I couldn’t put it to words at the time. I was still breastfeeding and was thick in in the midst of postpartum delirium. I don’t think I even knew that I was struggling–with my body, with motherhood, with the changing circumstances of my life. It was only two years later, when I came back to New England, that I was confronted with the memory of how detached I had felt. The bewilderment. The strange sense of loss. I came back two years later, feeling suddenly like I saw my life more clearly. And I began to take some small solace–in this truth and the expression of it, in poetry and those of women who came before me, like Sexton, whose unflinching gaze towards suffering and loss continues to inspire me.

I could not get you back
except for weekends. You came
each time, clutching the picture of a rabbit
that I had sent you. For the last time I unpack
your things. We touch from habit.
The first visit you asked my name.
Now you stay for good. I will forget
how we bumped away from each other like marionettes
on strings. It wasn’t the same
as love, letting weekends contain
us. You scrape your knee. You learn my name,
wobbling up the sidewalk, calling and crying.
You call me mother and I remember my mother again,
somewhere in greater Boston, dying.

I remember we named you Joyce
so we could call you Joy.
You came like an awkward guest
that first time, all wrapped and moist
and strange at my heavy breast.
I needed you. I didn’t want a boy,
only a girl, a small milky mouse
of a girl, already loved, already loud in the house
of herself. We you Joy.
I, who was never quite sure
about being a girl, needed another
life, another image to remind me.
And this was my worst guilt; you could not cure
nor soothe it. I made you to find me.

From “The Double Image”

Dark Night of the Soul

Sometimes our fears, our grief, our betrayals are a blessing in disguise. They can be transformative. If we are willing, this dark night of the soul can teach us about our true nature. When we find that we don’t know who we are anymore, that we are so lost in the darkness, we can loosen our grip on our small identities, the impermanent and superficial things that we often take as representative of the whole of us. We can finally glimpse ourselves as a part of something greater.

Pushing Through

It’s possible I am pushing through solid rock

in flintlike layers, as the ore lies, alone;

I am such a long way in I see no way through,

and no space: everything is close to my face,

and everything close to my face is stone.

I don’t have much knowledge yet in grief

so this massive darkness makes me small.

You be the master: make yourself fierce, break in:

then your great transforming will happen to me,

and my great grief cry will happen to you.

Rainier Marie Rilke, Translated by Robert Bly

Don’t be afraid, even though you will be afraid. This dark night is a gift.

The Shame and Secrecy of Trichotillomania

I’ve never liked my hair.

I was about eleven when I started pulling my hair out. I remember doing this at the school library, sitting at a table alone reading a book and compulsively pulling out my hair, strand by strand. Sometimes I would take a strand and pull it through my clenched teeth, like a vegetable grater, until the strand snapped under the tension.  Or I would take the black, sticky follicle and tear it apart with my nails. When I would do this I was in my own little world. It was like a trance: I was oblivious to the piles of hair I would leave on the tables and floors around me. The strands people were always pulling off my clothing. It wasn’t until my grandmother, visiting from out of town, started picking at the thick layer of hair surrounding where I sat on our living room couch that it even registered to me that this was a noticeable thing to others. She looked disturbed as she asked me, “where did all this hair come from?” I said I guessed i was just shedding, and laughed–as if that was some sort of joke that explained it all. For whatever reason, she didn’t push it and after that, I started cleaning up after myself better. That bought me some time, but soon I developed a large bald spot in the back of my head from where I would pull out the most hair. I couldn’t see it looking at my reflection in a mirror, I only noticed it after kids in gym class started pointing it out. I could feel it when I reached my hand to the back of my scalp. It was about the size of my fist, completely devoid of hair. One of my classmates started calling me Friar Tuck–I guess that’s what it looked liked.

Finally, my mom asked me what happened–my teacher had mentioned it to her. I lied the best way I knew how: I blamed it on my little brother, who was probably two at the time. I said he pulled the whole chunk straight out. The lie was unbelievable even to me, the bald expanse on my head was too big, and my hair was thinned in other places as well. My eyelids had swollen because I would pick the lashes out, and my eyebrows were uneven for the same reason. But, the lie did its job. After that, I promised myself I would stop pulling out my hair, and I did stop. In a perverse way, it wasn’t even that hard–the deep degree of shame and embarrassment at my public self-disfiguration were powerful enough. Eventually, mercifully, my hair grew back, although it’s always been more unmanageable, as if it grew thicker and more obstinate in response.

I learned later that year that this behavior has a name: trichotillomania. It’s an impulse control disorder often appearing alongside depression, anxiety, and OCD. As a kid, I was comforted to learn my behavior had a name, that other people experienced the same thing. That context helped alleviate some of the shame and disgust I felt. But some things still lingered, things that continue to bother me to this day: why didn’t anyone help me? Why didn’t they see past my secrecy and unbelievable lies? Back then, I assumed that it was because of me. I thought there was something deeply, inherently wrong with me and I carried that notion around for far too long. It ballooned into the depression of my adolescence, the reckless anxiety of my twenties.

It’s significant to me that I developed trichotillomania right around the time I started puberty. It seems like a no-brainer that the increase in anxiety that comes along with being newly minted and fixed in the male gaze could manifest in compulsive bodily mutilation, especially in regards to hair, which is culturally associated with sexuality and beauty. It inadvertently turns that dynamic on its head: Hair can also be a shield. It can be a deterrent.

We Don’t Know What “Normal” Is

I, like many others, suffer from anxiety. Often, it is just a generalized buzzing, a pervasive feeling of dread, this excess negative energy. Other times it is acute, sharp, and dangerous-feeling. These are panic attacks. To me, these feel way worse than the generalized anxiety, which typically starts in my head and stays there. Panic, on the other hand, hijacks my body. My heartbeat feels impossibly fast, my throat feels like it’s closing, my vision narrows and darkens. My chest feels constricted. Sometimes, I can’t feel my hands. I can feel myself spinning out of control. In those moments, I feel horribly damaged. Broken. Like there is something really wrong with me.

I haven’t really found a great solution for the panic attacks. For me, the best plan of action has been to avoid situations that tend to lead to panic attacks. But, once I’m in the middle of one, the only thing to do is ride it out, pray to a god that I don’t really believe in, repeat some positive affirmations that I don’t really believe in, lie through my teeth and tell myself that I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m okay. Eventually, it passes.

Afterward, I still feel shaky and weak. It’s like I’ve seen a part of myself and I can’t go back.  I’ve seen myself for who I really am: frail and fragile and struggling to keep it together, and usually failing. I don’t always see myself this way, but there’s something about the aftermath of a panic attack that makes me feel vulnerable and flawed. This feeling can last for days or weeks. I feel depressed and, ultimately, anxious again.

That’s when I try to remind myself that I don’t know what normal is. Not really. Have I ever been normal? How would I know? So, what am I striving for? Most of the time, I tell myself that I should be different or how I shouldn’t have this problem. I compare myself to some imaginary person who has all their shit together. Deep down I know it’s a fiction: to think you know about someone else’s interior life. We don’t know what normal is. All we have is our own lived experience. Start from there. All those shoulds and should’nts just end up giving you an inferiority complex.