The Horrible And Beautiful Postcards You Receive From Your Brain
By July Westhale
What is anger, and how do you manage to sit staring out a window when you feel it? Staring out a window is so placid — it seems counterintuitive. My therapist says that anger is cleansing, like a fever. It burns everything off, and makes it so you can survive. My therapist and I talk a good deal about survival. It takes a lot, is very exhausting, my friend Lettie Laughter wrote on Facebook the other day, to be crazy.
When I repeated this to my best friend Bets, she told me emphatically that I’m not crazy. I’m not entirely sure on that, nor do I think that reassuring one that they aren’t crazy — emphatically and immediately — is an entirely reliable response. By that I mean, I don’t feel like being “crazy” is a bad thing, or, I guess, I don’t believe the stigma around so-called craziness. I am thinking here, flashing here, to that movie with Robin Williams, The Fisher King. You remember? He develops schizophrenia as a result of seeing his wife murdered in front of him.
I think that’s a perfectly beautiful response. Your brain, who loves you, who sends you postcards on the regular from beautiful and horrible places in your mind-world, just put you on a spaceship to another galaxy until your main mind-world (let’s call it mind-Earth, for simplicity’s sake) could get its shit together enough to deal with the fact that you just witnessed something so unfairly horrifying that you just need a goddamn second OK.
I guess this concept of “craziness” and checked-outness comes from a place, a culture (I’m being U.S.-specific here, because it is largely what I know), of not caring properly for oneself — that “craziness” and needing to just have a goddamn second OK is somehow a lazy route to take, as if you were actually presented with a plethora, at the exact moment of your trauma (like you’re Robert Frost in the woods), of options in terms of paths you could possibly take.
I’m writing this having just received my own postcard from my brain, who loves me strangely, and in ways I can’t always recognize, and certainly in ways too generous for me to understand. I’ve just come out of an intensive week-long quarantine because I got struck down with the worst case of strep throat I’ve ever had. I contracted the worst case of strep throat I’ve ever had, I suspect, because I came home from a month in South America where I not only got hit with incomprehensible altitude sickness from improperly touring La Paz, but also a kind of parasite that I suspect was due to a contaminated Greek salad — my attempt to care for myself and eat vegetables in a country not known for vegetables.
I suspect that I also got struck down because I returned back to the United States immuno-compromised and launched into one of the more chaotic months I’ve had, where I had to battle pretty much every destabilizing thing in my mind-planet, all within the confines of a month-long time frame. Mind-planets, it seems, give no fucks about temporality.
I have the urge right now to apologize to you, dear reader, for complaining. And then to take it back, because I think sussing out why one’s brain may have had to shut down one’s body isn’t something to apologize for, nor does it necessarily constitute as complaining. And then that leads me to wonder why it is everyone is so afraid to be seen as complaining — and I think that that circles back around the idea that complaining = a person not trying hard enough to problem solve, which = laziness, which brings us back to this whole thing about anti-craziness.
Bitching is sacred, a friend who is unfortunately not a friend anymore once said. It was a huge takeaway (and I could also disclaim here, not because it’s medically necessary to the terminal diagnosis of my friendship with said person, but only because I want to be respectful — it was the kind of friendship that was perfect for the moments we occupied in our respective lives at that time, and that when we had both grown from those moments, we found ourselves suddenly wearing one another like ill-fitted sweaters).
The forgiveness in that statement — bitching is sacred — was and is something I practice in the daily compassion I often exercise to those around me — but not, of course, never, to myself.
This is my first week out in the world after a week in bed with delirious and exhausting and infuriating strep. Strep itself isn’t anything to get real mad about, aside from missed work and missed money, but staying is bed and feeling like you can’t join the world and feel a part of it in the ways that make you feel like an actual person — that’s crazy-making. So in this sense, I’m feeling crazy because I was feeling lazy. As if being out cold from strep is actually being lazy.
When friends ask for advice, I often ask them what they would say to me if I were coming to them with the same problem. Not because, as it would seem, I am looking for an easy (lazy) way out of emotional labor, but because I know that the people in my life (and myself included) often exercise compassion towards others in ways they don’t exercise towards themselves.
So as I was saying, it’s my first week back out the door after strep, and I’ve really hit the pavement. Feeling, somehow, like I owe the world twice as much for my absence, and not caring for myself as I would my friends, or my partner, or my family. I’m angry a lot this week, and frustrated. I move slowly, still in recovery from the last two months of being bodily wrecked (and also battling, as I always am, chronic pain). I get angry with myself for moving slowly, and then I stress, and then I get sick. Over. And over.
My brain sent me a postcard today from Anger, which I imagine is a hot dry part of my mind-Earth, much like Death Valley, California or American Fork, Utah. It came white hot, in the middle of Home Depot while my partner and I were buying grip tape for our porch steps so that I wouldn’t fall down the stairs for the millionth time when it rains and I am leaving for work in stilettos. It was an act of care, my partner reaching for the grip tape — knowing my aesthetic to be so closely tied to my identity that stilettos are important to making me feel powerful and sharp in the world, rain or not, and as they were reaching for it, I suddenly got the mind-mail like a singing, singeing telegram: anger. Because I am a person who has been so insularly brutal to myself that I’ve somehow made it other people’s cross to bear, my well-being. And then anger at myself for thinking that caring for others is a burden.
The same Lettie from above, who drove me from Utah to California after my life had fallen apart in 2012 and I was numbly incapable of taking care of myself — had taken my own brain space ship to another galaxy to just get a goddamn minute OK, once said, as I thanked her (there is no way, of course, I could ever thank her for the incredible kindness and care she showed me when I was at my most hurt), that caring for others and being trusted with their vulnerability was a gift. And that everyone felt that way.
I do feel this way. About others.
I’ve written extensively about caretaking. I’ve written extensively about emotional labor, and trauma, and survival. EMDR, and how people with mental illness are goddamn wizards. But for as much therapy as I’ve had, as kind and indomitably compassionate as the people in my inner circle are, as much as I pride myself as being an empathetic and caring person in the world, I cannot seem to extend the same kindness to myself.
What is that internalization of the world, and how did it get so entwined in my own mind-Earth? Because I’ve done a good deal of environmental work on my mind-Earth, to make it a sustainable place to live, a place that won’t combust. There are still dark parts of it that haven’t received care, or even visits from me — and may never. I won’t get to visit every spot on this actual planet, and I think my mind-Earth is even more expansive. I could provide a good many reasons — context that includes the ways in which I’m at a disadvantage in the world, the ways I’ve been trained to internalize these terrible things, to be so brutal to myself.
And though that context and rationalization is highly important, what feels most pressing, from where I’m sitting, staring out the window in anger, is how to deconstruct it, and how to extend the same care to myself.