Two of my wonderful and brave sons, Levi on the left and Judah on the right, confront the fearsome spectacle of an autumn dino massacre. I believe they would have been just as brave and just as winsome had they known the trials which would await our family a month later.
This giant prehistoric chicken, which of course post-dated the dinosaurs by several dozen million years, looks as though he could use a friend. In times like these, can’t we all?
Damn, this day started out good. It ended up bruising, but at the same time fortifying.
Today was my brightest, most hopeful day since the initial hours of my illness. My first day of group therapy had left me emotionally drained but hopeful of better days to come. I suffered a pair of related panic attacks, but by being proactive, I found myself able to work my way through both of them without major upset. A discussion with my brother Ric appeared to set me on a path to achieve a sense of closure, one way or another, regarding one of my three major stress issues. I felt, despite temporary setbacks, that I was truly moving in the right direction.
Today began with my assumption of the status of Zen Master of I-95 South. I mastered my phobia of driving alone by bringing along my “silent partner,” soul jazz saxophonist Lou Donaldson. Lou asked me no questions, and he demanded no quick answers. He allowed me to achieve a sense of peacefulness on the busy highway. By mastering my fear of the highway, I was able to meet one of my biggest goals regarding returning to my office on January 2: driving solo to the Manassas VRE train station.
My second day of group therapy began on a much lighter, brighter note than my first had. Rather than filling out reams of questionnaires and trying to tell my life story multiple times at triple speed, I received gifts of friendship from two members of the group: a recommendation for a good vegetarian Greek restaurant in Fredericksburg, and a notion for a perfect late Hanukkah present for my most special girl. For the record, my score of predicting assholes in the “Who’s an Asshole? Who’s a Sweetie?” game ended up 100% false negatives. A bad score I was happy to achieve.
I shared my ambivalent feelings about continuing to write journal notes for this blog. Two caring relatives had warned me yesterday that I was putting myself at risk by posting publicly details of my recovery process. One relative reminded me that the government, my employer, has the power to see and read any materials it wishes to. Another relative told me that the spread of some of my stories had resulted in some of our school-based friends no longer wishing to allow their children to associate with our children, due to me. According to an old Jewish teaching story, bits of gossip, true or false, are scattered on the wind like the feathers from torn, beaten pillows. Not all the fingers in the world can regather them. I consoled myself with the unalterable truth that my story is already out there. No efforts on my part can vacuum the rumors and tales back into their bottle. Regarding the parents who no longer wish to have their children associate with mine, all persons are entitled to their own fears and phobias, and all are free to set their own limits on their associations. I can feel disappointment, but not anger. Regarding my employers, I can honestly state that their conduct is in no way dishonored by my illness. The onset of my illness had nothing at all to do with my duties at work. My supervisors have praised my performance and are openly hoping for my swift return. I have let them know I have a strong desire to support my valued coworkers and a powerful wish to return to the office as swiftly as events and my stamina will allow. The stories I have chosen to share do not besmirch or damage the reputation of my employers in the slightest. They have been fully supportive of me, at least as supportive as I have had any reason to expect. Writing this blog for a presumed larger audience (larger than the audience of one which my personal journal would have) gives me the confidence and practice I need to produce writing for the audience awaiting my fiction, and writing my fiction on a regular basis has always been an essential part of my daily mental health regimen. So by working on this blog, I am setting the stage for a vital component of my ongoing recovery. This blog is a record of recovery. Any probing eyes with any discernment should be able to tell the difference between a tale of disability and a tale of ongoing recovery.
I shared my sense of this being a turning point of a day with one of my closest friends, a man who has recently seen me at my worst. It gave him a sense of accomplishment and hope, as I intended it to.
A portion of the day’s therapy was given over to a discussion of cognitive behavioral therapy. In laymen’s terms, this is known as either “Doing the Opposite” or “Embracing That Which One Fears.” If one suffers from depression which seems to force one to retire to one’s bed, the way to combat it is to force oneself to socialize as best one can. If one fears rejection, one should actively seek out opportunities for acceptance. I realized I had been intuitively putting “embracing that which I fear most” into practice, both by forcing myself to drive independently and to spend time in the company of my contentious children, whose fits and shrieks I had learned could drive me to the edge of a breakdown. Realizing that I had been putting cognitive behavior therapy into practice by instinct gave me an increased sense of confidence, both that I could still trust my own judgement and that by consciously practicing it, I could likely achieve even more positive results.
My day ended far differently than it had begun. If I chose to be cute, I would call it “A Tale That’s Too Sh_tty.” I was recently informed by a mutual friend that my dear friend Lucius S. had suffered a stroke. His primary disability involved processing language. The mutual friend asked me to call Lucius so that Lucius could practice speaking to a sympathetic listener. I was overjoyed to have such an opportunity. I was more overjoyed to discover the strength of character with which Lucius confronted his disability and strove to overcome it. I told him I considered him to be a Superman, which he shyly disavowed. Yet I also shared with him a prayer that, should I ever be struck down by a similar fate, I would request that God provide me with at least a portion of the same courage which Lucius was so obviously drawing upon. Less than a week later, I suffered the onset of my illness, which, in its early stages, due to the effects of medications, felt as though it had been a minor stroke.
The details of the end of my day are both painful and painfully funny. I arrived home, Zen Master of I-95, to find two police cruisers parked in my driveway. I immediately began repeating a simple mantra: “I will NOT freak out. I WILL not freak out.” I knew the only reason the two cruisers could be parked in my driveway. Levi had suffered another uncontrollable anxiety fit, and Dara had been forced to call 911 for assistance. Worried about me, Dara instructed one of the officers to meet me as soon as I exited my car. I reassured the officer by admitting that I had experienced the beginnings of a panic attack but had overcome it with my simple mantra. I told him how much I respected the hard work he and his partner are responsible for, particularly in such cases of domestic disturbances. I told him I was grateful that his partner would be escorting Dara when she drove Levi to the hospital.
Dara called our neighbor Larry to come be with me and with my other two children. I praised Larry as an example of a Christian gentleman and a Christian neighbor. He, like Lucius, disavowed my praise, but I told him that, as Jew, not a Christian, I am not bound by the dictates of avoiding praising acts of Christian kindness, so although he could not accept the praise, I was free to offer it.
I found my two younger sons watching episodes of Felix the Cat. They did not yet understand that their older brother was being brought to an emergency room. I passed the beginnings of my nightlong acid test of mastering a panic attack by joining them in front of the TV and comforting them with hugs and kisses, as we had been apart for many days. They were gentle and grateful for my affection, which made me only love and appreciate them all the more strongly. I attempted to contact Dara at the hospital to ascertain Levi’s current condition, but her cell phone had no reception from within the hospital’s thick walls. I knew I needed to take my children to get something to eat. A day earlier, I had sworn to Dara that it would be weeks before I could trust myself to drive my children in my car, due to their constant questioning me and quarreling with one another making me fear I would lose control of my automobile in a fit of frustration or anger. Yet tonight there was no one else to bring them somewhere where they could eat dinner. I determined to bring them to IHOP, the International House of Pancakes, which sets aside Tuesday night as Kids’ Night. Before we ventured out, I made them promise they would be mature young men and not distract me from my driving with unnecessary questions or fighting among themselves. They promised. I told them I would give a sterling report of them to their mommy if they followed through on their promise. To their enormous credit, they managed this difficult feat. We arrived at the IHOP without incident.
Rather than the typical Tuesday night face painting, our IHOP had an all-American non-Nordic Santa on hand, along with supportive elves of all races and genders. My Jewish boys, who do not celebrate Christmas other than by observing the American Jewish tradition of eating at a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Eve or Day, were completely charmed by the dark-skinned Santa. They wrote him “Dear Santa” notes and made him Christmas pictures, as well as posed with him for photos (although Judah indulged his shyness and hid his face). Asher proudly announced to Santa that he had brought along his special Coles Elementary School Principal’s List cap, which he’d acquired as a reward for earning straight A’s. Santa insisted on a special Santa-Asher photo. Asher quickly decided that this Santa was the coolest Santa he’d ever met. The invisible hand of the brilliance of American cultural capitalism made its positive mark upon me: studies have proven that the human brain cannot discern any difference between genuine smiles and forced smiles, and I forced so many smiles that my brain began to believe I was cheering up. I called over both the Santa and Charlie the IHOP regional manager to explain, with tears in my eyes, that they had given my family so much more than they could realize. My oldest son had been admitted to a psychiatric hospital that afternoon. The end of the day should have felt like a tragedy, yet their innocent, ignorant warmth had turned the evening into a time of celebration for my children. I shook Santa’s hand, then I embraced him, holding in a sob.
Judah, unfortunately, allowed his eyes to be bigger than his stomach. Without my realizing he would be overdoing it with Christmas cookies and chocolate, I allowed him to order himself a bowl of ice cream as a third dessert. Dara called and requested that we stop by McDonald’s so that I could pick her up a large vanilla latte, fat free and sugar free, which she needed to stay awake in the Emergency Room with Levi. I told her we would visit her and Levi at the hospital as soon as possible. At the corner streetlight only a block away from the McDonald’s, I smelled, heard, and sensed my youngest son begin retching a very full meal of macaroni and cheese, french fries, cookies, chocolate, and ice cream into the back seat of my Kia Rondo. Asher, sitting next to Judah, began to immediately protest in the vehement way only a slightly bigger brother can. He threatened to begin retching himself if I did not immediately get Judah out of the car and away from Asher’s sensitive nose. I was stuck at a red light. I said to myself, “I will not panic. I will not panic. I will work my way through this.” I finally turned into the restaurant’s parking lot and had Judah strip off his jacket, pants, and shirt, which were thoroughly soaked in vomit. I also scooped up my umbrella and snow scraper/brush and the floor mat, all of which had been inundated, as well. I fruitlessly scooped chunks of semi-solid, semi-digested dinner from Judah’s lap and car seat. Then I pleaded with the partially frozen child to accompany me and my soiled possessions into the McDonald’s, where we made straight for the men’s room. Most unfortunately, I discovered that the faucet in sink was motion activated, which meant I needed to wave the filthy clothes in front of the sensor to get the water to begin flowing. This did not make my task easier. Judah assisted me by taking his sopping wet clothes, which I had wrung out, and placing them in front of the hot air blower in a mostly futile attempt to dry them. To the child’s enormous credit, he redonned his sopping clothes without protest. I scooped the semi-solid vomit and toilet paper out of the filthy sink and deposited them with my hand into a garbage can, ignoring the aghast looks of a fellow customer. I then went out to the counter to order Dara’s tall skinny vanilla latte, apologizing profusely for the disaster I had left behind in the bathroom. The young assistant manager, to his enormous credit, did not give me a fish eye but responded with placid understanding, the best possible response to a man on the verge of a panic attack. Part of my mind realized I had been subjected to a true acid test, and thus far, I had somehow passed with flying colors.
Asher insisted that we drive to the hospital with the windows open. I blasted the heat so Judah would not go into hypothermia. We found the “automatic” entrance to the Emergency Room mysteriously locked. A paramedic wheeling a trauma victim cursed like a drunken sailor, then immediately turned abashed as he realized he’s just hurled several “F-bombs” in full hearing of a seven year old and an eight year old. I told him not to sweat it, that they’d already heard it all in PG-13 superhero movies. The door finally opened. We delivered the coffee to Dara in Room Five. I saw my oldest son dressed in hospital scrubs, sleepy from a nerve-wracked nap, awaiting his transfer by ambulance to a separate psychiatric inpatient facility. I swore to him that God would stay with him anywhere he might end up, and my thoughts would be with him, and the spirit of his Great Grandpa Frank would look down upon him and mentally soothe him with special back rubs and back scratches, even without me to serve as Frank’s physical stand-in. I hugged Dara and reassured her that she didn’t need to worry about me so much; the entire evening had been a massive acid test for me to prove I could withstand a panic attack, and I had allowed the acid to wash over me without losing my skin.
At home, I had Judah take a hot shower. I then did something which I had not had an opportunity to do in more than week: kiss the boys goodnight in their bed.
I had passed my test.
If anyone from my office is reading this blog post, please know that I faced my challenges with the perseverance of a Marine, if I may be so immodest as to claim such men and women as my model. Being afraid, and yet still doing what one knows one must do, is the definition of courage. My prayer of a few weeks before had been answered: like Lucius, I had discovered a reservoir of courage with which to keep my illness at bay. To those parents who do not want to expose their children to me, I humbly suggest that exposing their impressionable child to a person who has managed to conjure even a small scrap of courage is not a thing to be dreaded. It might even be celebrated.
This is my recovery in progress. True to cognitive behavioral therapy, I have “embraced fully that which I fear.” And I have survived the embrace. I will return to my office, as planned, on January 2. Thanks in part to my work on this blog, I will have the confidence to once again listen for the voices of my characters in my head and type their fictions upon my keyboard. I am getting stronger. I am reattaining my old stamina. I will recapture my confidence.
If anyone who reads this blog post responds with aversion or disdain, the fault does not lie with me or my choice of events to share. I can be fully confident of this truth now.