all of the selves we Have ever been
A nurse met me at my office door:
“Can you keep Stella company? Her mother and brother are in with the doctor.”
“Of course!” How could I say no to a child?
The petite preschooler let go of the nurse’s hand and approached the office chair across from my desk. The chair must have looked like a mountain, but without hesitation or request for assistance, Stella succeeded in the climb. Once in the seat, she turned to face me. Bracing her hands against the arms of the chair and mustering all of her strength, Stella extended herself into a full body stretch. With her feet planted against the seat and her back arched, it seemed she might make herself large enough to fill the giant chair. Despite all of that effort, the heels of her black patent leather shoes did not reach the edge of the seat. Stella centered herself on the roomy cushion, smoothed her skirt, and gracefully crossed her legs at the ankles. Narrow bands of lace adorned the cuffs of her tiny white socks. Stella placed her hands in her lap and looked straight into my eyes.
“Why have you come to the clinic today, Stella?”
“It’s my brother. He’s resturbed.” Stella spoke earnestly, like a concerned colleague providing a case review.
I felt a sting in my chest. This precocious child should have been at home watching Sesame Street and memorizing the words to nursery rhymes. Instead, she was hanging out in a mental health clinic and learning the jargon of psychiatry, the words necessary to explain the odd thinking and behavior of a six year old brother with schizophrenia. The condition ran in her family; Stella’s mother was “resturbed,” too. Thoughtful in her every move, Stella seemed intent on distancing herself from the condition that held her brother and mother captive.
Stella and I shared a few moments on a busy morning long ago. Now, I am the one trying to cope with the fear and chronic fatigue that comes from living in a world gone mad. Symptoms of severe mental illness have spread faster than the coronavirus: poor reality testing, delusions, chaos, confusion, suspiciousness, prolonged anger and hostility, lack of insight, poor judgment, increased violence, rigid thinking, poor impulse control, hypersexual speech and behavior, excessive anxiety, peculiar beliefs, inability to form or sustain close relationships, self-importance and attention-seeking, inability to consider the needs of others…Many days it is a struggle to hope, to believe that the world is not irretrievably broken. That is when I think of her. How did Stella do it?
Despite her growing awareness of the mental illness that surrounded her, that tiny, precious child was still so innocent, so whole. She was graceful and well-mannered, intelligent and articulate. She waited patiently for the experts to do their work, and she followed their advice. Somehow, she remained capable of trust.
Stella gave maximum effort to taking the seat assigned to her. It didn’t matter that the seat was too big; she sat up straight and tall and held on to her dignity. Though it took effort, Stella stretched and planted herself firmly in the middle of the space afforded to her. Character added to her beauty; she was the delicate lace around the rough edges of life. Stella was brave enough to hear the truth and to tell it to others. She was cautious but open. Stella could separate herself from the odd behaviors of her people and love them anyway. She was willing to make the effort to be extra good, to help balance the cargo so that her capsizing family ship did not go under. And somehow in the chaos, she found what she needed to grow and develop.
Like Stella, many us are feeling weary and outnumbered. We are trying to be extra good to balance the load, to find what we need to sustain ourselves, but the problems seem so big and so numerous. Leadership is, at best, disappointing, at worst, terrifying. Each day brings something new and disturbing. I have been disturbed so many times that maybe that defines me as “resturbed,” too. I long for peace, the restoration of dignity, the practice of common courtesy. I want the world to work again. I don’t think we can count on politicians to get us out of this crisis. I do think it will take another epidemic, an epidemic of decency--simple, persistent, contagious goodness. Perhaps a child should lead us.
Are you out there, Stella?
It has been a stressful week.
Our citizen-selves seemed fully engaged. With all eyes on the presidential election results, it was difficult to get any shut-eye.
We all rejoice when we our team wins, but every American can relate to the agony of defeat. Each of us has a history of disappointments, losses, and experiences that wound and hurt. For all of us, it begins in childhood, and we navigate those waters throughout our lives. No matter our age or accomplishments, a loss can makes us feel like that scolded child who could never do anything right in the eyes of his father, or like the rejected school girl who never got picked for the teams, or, perhaps, like the humiliated teen who wets his pants as he runs from a snarling dog while his friends stand on the sidewalk and laugh.
We each have our defining stories. I can’t say we always get over them, but most of us get through them. Some keep reliving those experiences to feed their anger, hatred, and retaliation. Others become paralyzed with self-doubt, anxiety, and withdrawal. For most of us, the hurts eventually lead to insight, empathy, and resilience.
Thankfully, most of us lick our wounds in private. Our losses are not on public display for the entire world to see and exploit for entertainment value. I have heard President Trump poke fun at empathy, and yet, I imagine he could use some today.
The agony of defeat can cloud our thinking, but losing the game does not make us losers. Sometimes we have to put on our magnanimous hats to restore normalcy and reach for greatness. Each of us would like to be remembered not for those silly moments when we were real characters, but for the important moments when we revealed our real characters.
Most of us survive our falls by getting up before the bus runs over us. Even with our legs broken, we eventually find a way to put our best foot forward and keep walking. As Dr. Claire Weekes once counseled an anxious client who was afraid to cross the street, “Even rubber legs will get you there.” That has been my mantra in the thirty years since I first read those words.
I have tried many things in my life. None of them made me rich or famous. By objective assessments, many of them were failures. But all of them made me friends. That is the currency with which I measure my success, and friendship is the ointment that has healed all of my wounds.
If you are suffering some agony, Dr. Weekes would say, “It is never too late to give yourself another chance.”
* * * *
Some other tips for coping with anxiety from Dr. Claire Weeks in Hope and Help for Your Nerves (1990):
It’s a good thing
poor old Mr. Whipple isn’t here to see this.
That man ran a dignified, orderly, well-stocked, and well-patrolled toilet paper aisle.
Even before Mr. Whipple, toilet paper had an interesting history. In the process of evolution and elimination, our ancestors used whatever was available. The earliest humans turned to nature utilizing rocks and sticks and leaves. Later corncobs and wood shavings came in handy. Much later, people began to use paper, and the hefty Sears catalog was prized for more than the merchandise pictured on its pages. Eventually, a separate paper emerged for toileting purposes. By 1928, a soft, attractively-packaged toilet paper on rolls came to market helping the parent company survive the Great Depression. Apparently, toilet paper has a history of significance in national emergencies. Oh, the things we cling to in desperate times!
In the past few weeks, I’ve heard many puzzled people asking, “What’s with the toilet paper?” With it rapidly disappearing from store shelves, even the well-stocked have become suggestible to fear and doubt wondering if they have enough.
We’re Americans, people of action—and of shopping. If we can buy something to solve a problem, well, that’s downright patriotic! Stocking up on toilet paper helps to relieve our feelings of helplessness. It is something we CAN do. We feel prepared and in control of something. But seeing this common item disappear from the shelves has also added to uncertainty and fear. No one wants to be the only fool without toilet paper!
As we face the potential horrors of this pandemic including loss of jobs, loss of money, loss of health, and loss of loved ones, something inside us screams into the dark abyss, “We will not surrender our dignity!” Toilet paper has become the universal symbol and a rallying cry. People are on a roll. Not only are folks buying toilet paper by the truckload, they are engaging in numerous noble deeds as well. Thankfully, we are not hoarding our dignity; we are exercising it and finding that the supply is endless when we share.
No one wants to run out of toilet paper. Or dignity. Not in a pandemic. Not ever. So, enjoy the go, but please, don’t squeeze the Charmin supply.