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Getting Religion - Part XVII The Lava Lamp

The one day each week I went to D.C. was an adventure.  The rest of the week was a blank slate.  Although Dr. Lebensohn had given me instructions for what to do and not do, it was my task to figure out how to live with my incurable disease.  

My disease, I'd learned from Dr. Lebensohn, was just that, not a death sentence, not a social disgrace, not something to reduce my feeling of self-worth.  It was very similar, he said, to his own heart condition, a chronic obstruction to his tennis game but not a serious one. That's what he'd told me.  

The truth was my episode and need for psychiatric help made me feel inferior and hollow. Of course I'd always felt inferior: being short, not prone to a thin, model-like figure, having bad hair, being from a questionable family, not fitting in with the Warrenton Jones'. Now I had a new reason to feel bad about myself and so I did.  Unlike not being thin, I couldn't stretch myself taller as I attempted in my teens, attaching feet and hands to my four poster bed. As someone with mental illness, what could I possibly do to become okay or even normal? And what was normal? It was up to me to figure this out. 

As for the hollowness, that wasn't a new sensation either.  I just hadn't paid much attention to it and thought it was how most people felt. When I considered my identity, I conceived of myself as skin surrounding hot air. Rather than that being troubling, for most of my life up until my twenties, it made me feel lighter, less restricted, separate from a confined physical dimension and separate from others, several of whom were scary like my father and aunt.

While I sensed something was not quite right with me - my emotions as a teenage were extreme, I had a hard time reconciling events and actions that seemed inconsistent -  the feeling of hollowness had never been an obvious problem.  I was able to focus and I felt in control most of the time. I could make plans and move forward with these plans like a dog after a bone. In retrospect, my doctor's description of me as someone with steely determination fit perfectly. 

But the "I" that was able to focus and to be in control was different from that hollow person that lived inside.  It was as if there were two of us. Through my teens and early twenties, we got along fine. But then I became sick and that hollow part of me went AWOL.  The skin and hot air part was hijacked by unfamiliar and frigthening forces. And when part of you goes AWOL and the other part feels inferior, there's not much to rely on or to feel good about.  It's hard to know how to get up out of a chair to start your day much less how to construct an identity and the independence you need to hold a job.  It's hard to know what to believe in and what parts of those beliefs are valid and consistent (with the real you!) and what parts are fraudulent and made up by someone else.  

When I started therapy, something told me to dump everything. All the cues I'd pieced together from school, family, work, and church seemed no longer valid.  And of course, many of them weren't:  the racism, the inequality between the sexes, my parents' failed marriage and parenting, our government and its involvement in Vietnam, college classes that taught everything was relative, congregational attitudes that appeared more interested in conformity and the topic of sin than in love and acceptance. The norms and institutions of my past had failed me as had my patchworked identity. To move forward, I needed to find a new source for creating myself, for balancing the hot air that was now aching inside from uncertainty, with a persona and set of values that felt comfortable and real.  

So I became a people watcher.  I began looking for clues as to what I should be looking, acting, and thinking like.  I watched television:  General Hospital, Star Trek, Columbo, special programs with Billy Graham; and I watched people along the street. 

When I went to the store, I observed how people shopped, how they talked to their children, their husbands and the clerks. When I went to the bank, I noticed how long people took making deposits, chatting with tellers about their busy day and their need to get back to work.  On the weekends, my mother took me to farm fairs, art shows and local social outings.  Her commitment to keeping me socialized and active, as Dr. Lebensohn had encouraged, gave me content and perspective. 

After weeks of observations, something became clear to me:  most people are busy; most people are moving from one activity to the next; most people are tied to a way of life that doesn't allow them to focus on the big questions in their life; and most people, unlike me, could accept and make something out of the life they'd been given.  And that was the difference: I no longer had a life that was in any way acceptable; that gave me a foundation and connection with others that, if not totally positive, was at least not doomed for a speedy and frightening demise. And as some did, I couldn't pretend I had such a life. My unacceptability had not only been fully demonstrated but officially spotted and labeled. According to the authorities and confirmed by my doctors, it was impossible for me to work and be independent again until my life had been positively changed.  And that meant creating a sense of who I was that not only felt stable but that looked and acted stable as well. 

Now that I was unemployed, free from imposed schedules, free from my friends in San Francisco and not restricted during the week by my mother's "get Betsy out of the house" push, I had the time and intense need to figure out who I should become: what characteristics I had to pursue to separate me not only from the destructive life style I had turned to during my twenties but the dysfunctional family behaviors and mind sets into which I'd been raised. 

The responsibility of a total mind/body/spiritual transformation when there was nothing to start with overwhelmed me, weighing me down with such feelings of anxiety and despair that I'd find myself immobilized, stuck for hours starring at a blank TV screen, striped red and beige wall paper, and the state of my unacceptability replaying over and over inside my head. And the boredom became palpable.  Like the summer heat, it settled into my warm clammy skin, calming me into a place where thoughts began to emerge from nowhere, flowing like the shapes and colors of a Lava Lamp, replacing the mantra of doubt and doom with something that approached peacefulness.  But who was I?

Only the soft body of a white Cocker Spaniel named Taffy spread across my lap felt real and certain to me. I'd share my thoughts with him and he'd respond patiently, wanting to hear more, asking me questions, assuring me my inquiries and feelings were all important. As the days passed,  I felt the universe slowly embracing me. And as Taffy and I sat and spoke together during the hot summer afternoons and under the cooler star lit nights, I began to feel my hard blank slate soften into something more. 

To be continued ...



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