Have You Seen Short Term 12?

One of my favorite movies of last year was Short Term 12. I saw it on recommendation from a friend’s mother, of all people, and dragged A to see it in theatres (we both love movies, but his penchant is generally not quiet indie fare).

It was incredible.

It’s on Netflix instant, which meant I just rewatched it tonight (I had a good day, but I was in the mood for a cry. Know how that is?). It is just stunningly powerful.

Short Term 12 is about a group of kids in a group home (Short Term 12) and the twenty-somethings who are basically their caretakers. Everyone in this movie is delicate and damaged, but clearly also intelligent and complex and fierce.

I had a really nice childhood, except for that whole mental illness thing. I never lived in a group home. But I do remember distinctly what it’s like to fly into banshee-like rages, to utter vile things to people who are trying to help, to simply become too overwhelmed to manage human interaction. I also know that when Nate and Mason hold Jayden down, sitting with her on the floor as she screams, and Grace says, “You don’t have to like me right now. Just let it pass,” that is exactly what ten-year-old me would have needed to hear.

Mental illness is devastating, and I feel so lucky to have come out the other side relatively unscathed. I am grateful to my parents even though they didn’t do everything right. I don’t know what I would have done. I forgive them.

No one wants to rage. No one wants to scream. No child who actually loves their parents wants to hurt them, really. I remember talking about those feelings, that violence, like a mutant bacteria, or even another person inside me. If I focus in, I can still find her. I will never forget how visceral those experiences were. I can never quite explain to anyone on the outside how little blonde me, little perfect home me, little meticulous focused me, flew into rages that involved knives and fists and and and and and, which I couldn’t control. I don’t think anyone who hasn’t experienced could really understand what that is.

Short Term 12 does a great job of humanizing these characters– their anger, their affection, their inability to let themselves be revealed, even when they are able to help others do so– and in doing so, it’s kind of unlike anything I’ve ever seen.

Five stars, highly recommended, two thumbs up, and spread the word.

P.S. I can also vouch personally that John Gallagher Jr. (who plays Mason) is a cool dude.

Seismic Shifts

I’ve been thinking about what to write for a few days now, and I’m just now sitting on the couch, hoping to scratch some of it down. It’s going to be jumbled, but sometimes there’s poetry in chaos. My dad always said to start with a free write.

The window behind me is open a crack. The air is wet and full, but the breeze has a chill. It’s been a rainy June, but we’ve had a couple of miracle days. Days of perfection– bright blue skies, calm air, just enough warmth to release the sounds and smells of spring, as if every piece of the city was perfectly placed on its coordinates, suddenly allowing things to flow just right.

I have moments in this city, like I did yesterday on the way home from working with my boss while he was in rehearsal at the Barishnikov Arts Center on 11th Ave, where the pieces feel like they fit just right. I can glance at the skyscrapers uptown and wonder at how a homebody from Idaho made a life here. I’m not hungry, but I’m not overfull. Breath flows, unobstructed. Heading home in time for dinner, the sun just starting its descent over the Hudson.

I’m alone, usually, when this happens. It’s like those toys we had when we were kids– the beak of an eagle perched on your finger balances the whole bird. Miraculous. Also, temporary, and also, solo. If a bee lighted on the back of the small plastic eagle, it would crash down, all memory of balance gone. So I relish those moments– solo, balanced, and necessarily brief.

I have found that I am still very young. This is not shocking. I mean, I’m not crazy– I’m 24 years old and I’ve known I’m young for about as long as I’ve been alive. But I don’t have a life pattern yet. I have little to base what’s next upon. I was in school for 22 years– day care and preschool, elementary school, high school, boarding school, college. And now I’m entering my second year of true "adulthood." That’s not a very long time to develop of sense of what "life" is.

So I falter. I compare. I long for last summer’s career arc, and I pine for my college friendships. I am a different person now than I was two years, four years, ten years ago. Which surprises me, in some ways.

Perhaps personality develops through a series of catalysts. Choices we make that echo long after they’re done. Battles we fight until we can finally emerge, bloody and mutilated, but victorious. Sometimes the mere shape of the world around us– a high school, for instance, or a mother-daughter relationship– catalyze what’s next. I wonder how long I will keep changing. Will who I am ever cement? Or with every shift of the seismic plates, every strong Noreaster, will my "self" be changed a little bit too?

 I come from a town that is bigger than a town but smaller than a city. There were cul-de-sac suburbs and junky trailers off the highway, but where I lived there was a front yard and a backyard, an elementary school in walking distance, piano lessons, ballet class, and gymnastics. I had a younger sister and two parents who worked. My dad, a PhD and a Rhodes scholar, professor of English and author of creative nonfiction, my mother a labor and delivery nurse who often worked odd shifts but could be counted on, when home, to prepare stir fry or pesto pasta and knew when we should finish our last snacks so we had room for dinner. I had some friends from school– Heather, Keako, Andrew, Evan. We went camping in the mountains during the summer, alternately covered in dust and damp with lake water.

This was the structure of my life from age 6 to age 15. And yet, the inside is so much more complex. I was a difficult little girl– tempermental, moody, destructive, obsessive. My parents fought often, and for some time, slept in separate bedrooms. My mother sent money, and then refused it, to my drug-addicted cousins (there’s more than one), and she learned that her sister was in prison. My father still struggled to come to terms with his childhood sexual abuse at summer camp. It shuttered him. I didn’t know my sister, despite the fact that her room was next to mine.

The facts of my life are these:
I live with my boyfriend. I’m a professional actor. I’m a resident of New York City. I graduated summa cum laude as the salutatorian from college. I take the subway every day and see a therapist every week. My eyes are blue, or green, or gray, or a mix; no one can decide. My hair is blonde, or dark blonde, or light brown, or honey-colored; no one can decide.

Underneath, the struggle:
I can no longer see food without considering whether or not I should eat it.
I know when I’m depressed when I can’t read.
I am terrified that I have alienated the dearest friends I have.
All I really want is for people to love me as much as I love them.
I feel trapped and terrified and lost nearly every day.
I fantasize about a childhood that I know didn’t exist.
Sometimes I go through days in New York where every single person I see, I resent.
I want to write powerful personal essays like my father, but I don’t know where to begin.

Everything changes. It would take years and years to trace each seismic shift from its starting place, to its catalyst, to its change. There are patterns, of course. My triggers are familiar. Many of my dreams are the same.

But the way I see myself, the way I see the world, has transformed, and on more than one occasion.

I’m okay with that.

As long as I still find those moments where all the pieces of my life, my desires, my city, can balance momentarily on a finger. As long as I feel those sharp flashes of knowing I’m exactly where and what and who I’m supposed to be. The inside transforms the outside, and the same is true the other way around.

And maybe that makes me hope that I’ll never stop changing, that with each turn of the season and spin of the axis, I’m finding my balance on the point that feels just right, at least for a moment. And then I’ll fall off, only to tip and spin and flounder until I’ve found my perfect, temporary fit again.

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TMI

Have you ever wet your pants?

The answer is probably yes. We all were kids, right? And that’s just “one of those things,” as it were. That was a long time ago, though. Can you remember what it felt like? Can you remember how you felt?

When I was a kid, I used to wet my pants constantly. At school, at home, at different times of the day. It would come upon me suddenly– the urge to pee– and I wouldn’t be able to hold it in. I can’t quite explain the details of it. My parents, of course, asked the usual questions: “Did you wait too long?” “Couldn’t you just ask the teacher to go to the bathroom?” “Didn’t you notice that your pants were wet?” It was the pants-wetting that led my parents to approach a therapist in the first place.

They never found anything physically wrong with me. I’d get UTIs, but only because I wet my pants– it was an effect, not a cause. I had ultrasounds and took antibiotics and had invasive intra-uretal explorations. Nothing was “wrong.”

A while ago, I mentioned this whole debacle to my therapist. She looked at me askance. “Did your parents ever thing it was related to your emotions?”

I mean… they must’ve. But really? No. It wasn’t easily explained that way. It was easier to think of the pants-wetting as the “problem” instead of as a “symptom.”

I remember the way it feels to wet my pants. It is so embedded in my memory, and, embarrassingly enough, so recent in my own personal history (although I’m in great shape now, for the most part), that most times it still feels like a part of me.

I remember being 3 years old, crawling around on the floor, my bottom up, back arched.
“What are you doing, B?” my parents asked, suspiciously.
“Pretending to be a lion,” is what I said. “Trying to hold in my urine,” was the truth.

I remember sitting in a blue plastic school chair at 8, wiggling my butt deep into the groove, trying to keep from needing to pee. But I’m called on and I have to stand, and with a rush, I feel hot liquid run down the inside of my thighs and pool in my underwear. I remember sitting down in the wetness, trying to pretend nothing happened, but feeling enormous shame and complete discomfort wash over me.

I remember crouching in a bookstore aisle at 10 years old, the heel of shoe digging into my crotch to keep the urine in. I waited, pretending to look at something. I’d test, to see if I could make the mad dash, and I’d feel a think warm stream begin to inch its way out. I’d crash back down, brain whirring, waiting, hoping, praying the moment would pass.

I remember an accident in Florence, Italy at 13, on a trip with my family. Walking towards a church after lunch, an urge shoots through me like adrenaline. I arch my back, wiggle, hope, wish, pray… but then it’s over. I’m humiliated, wet, and horrified. I pull my mother aside and confess. She thinks “we were done with all that.” But we’re not. Who knows why, but we’re not. And in the most compassionate move my mother has ever made (well, one of many, but this one rings very strongly in my heart), she went with me to the bathroom and told me to hand her my white bermuda shorts and underwear from inside the stall. She hand-washed both completely in a public toilet in Italy, and then I put them back on. My bottom half was still wet, but I didn’t smell and at least the wetness was uniform and clear.

I remember the tools I used to manage the pants-wetting.
Wrapping toilet paper around my underwear, attempting to soak up the worst of it. Tying my sweater or jacket around my hips even though it was unfashionable or I was cold, just to cover the dark, damp circle peeking out from my crotch. I remember the way I had to walk when I needed to pee, I remember how I sat. I remember the smell.

I was reminded of this part of my life today, because it happened again. Today. Yes, I’m 23. No, “I didn’t hold it too long.” I don’t know what happened. I know it could have been worse. I’m not particularly worried it’ll happen again. I think I sometimes have bladder issues when I’m on my period.

But this minor episode today just brought me allllll the way back to those days when I didn’t know what to do, didn’t know what was going on inside my body or my brain.

And I’m so grateful to be a grown up, and to know that even though there are moments when I feel out of control, most days, when it counts, I’ve got this.

Weeding through…

Weeding through the medical records they sent me.

As expected, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. The most interesting document is the initial assessment from my psychiatrist when I was about 9 years old. The words seem to echo hollowly, almost appear meaningless: “very perfectionistic, overly sensitive, shy, withdrawn little girl,” “extremely irritable, quick to flare, overly sensitive, etc,” “devaluing of herself, may make threats about wishing she was dead, talks about herself being a ‘bad person,'” “overachiever… wants to be the best and do the best.”

It sounds simplistic too me, almost offensively so. Words about “no signs of depression,” “happy and content most of the time,” “no unusual fears or phobic reactions.” I know, I know, that this was an initial assessment and things changed. I have my mom’s “book,” in which she basically wrote diary entries about my emotional health.

Even going through those entries, which I’ve read before too, are tiring to me. They seem one-sided, clinical. I know, I know, they can’t be any other way, but I wish there was something more here.

In these piles of papers, these yellowing sheets of lined notebook paper, I want to find an explanation. I want to understand what happened, who I was, where I was and how I survived. I want an explanation.

In a letter to my therapist and psychiatrist from my father, he writes:
“we’re both concerned that B’s egotism is so extreme that it impairs moral judgment. She seems utterly unable to summon empathy, and when she does her purpose seems more manipulative than empathetic.”

“B reports that she feels depressed. We know that she feels like a ‘bad’ person when her behavior is inappropriate, but we can’t help but feel sometimes that her apologies are manipulative.”

“To be frank, lately we can barely stand to be around her.”

I know, I know, that my parents love me more than most anything else on the planet. But flipping through these papers, notes, letters, diagnoses, clinical terms and records of meds increased and decreased, up on the Klonopin, down on the Risperdal,

I know, I know.

Weeding through the medical records they sent me.

As expected, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before. The most interesting document is the initial assessment from my psychiatrist when I was about 9 years old. The words seem to echo hollowly, almost appear meaningless: “very perfectionistic, overly sensitive, shy, withdrawn little girl,” “extremely irritable, quick to flare, overly sensitive, etc,” “devaluing of herself, may make threats about wishing she was dead, talks about herself being a ‘bad person,'” “overachiever… wants to be the best and do the best.”

It sounds simplistic too me, almost offensively so. Words about “no signs of depression,” “happy and content most of the time,” “no unusual fears or phobic reactions.” I know, I know, that this was an initial assessment and things changed. I have my mom’s “book,” in which she basically wrote diary entries about my emotional health.

Even going through those entries, which I’ve read before too, are tiring to me. They seem one-sided, clinical. I know, I know, they can’t be any other way, but I wish there was something more here.

In these piles of papers, these yellowing sheets of lined notebook paper, I want to find an explanation. I want to understand what happened, who I was, where I was and how I survived. I want an explanation.

In a letter to my therapist and psychiatrist from my father, he writes:
“we’re both concerned that B’s egotism is so extreme that it impairs moral judgment. She seems utterly unable to summon empathy, and when she does her purpose seems more manipulative than empathetic.”

“B reports that she feels depressed. We know that she feels like a ‘bad’ person when her behavior is inappropriate, but we can’t help but feel sometimes that her apologies are manipulative.”

“To be frank, lately we can barely stand to be around her.”

I know, I know, that my parents love me more than most anything else on the planet. But flipping through these papers, notes, letters, diagnoses, clinical terms and records of meds increased and decreased, up on the Klonopin, down on the Risperdal, I feel like pieces of the puzzle are missing. They’ve filled in some, the medical records filled in one or two, my feelings (complex to describe as they are) fill a chunk, but I still have no narrative, no story I could tell. If I wrote my memoir, I wouldn’t know what to say.

Dear Young B.

Dear young B,

Right now, it seems like your entire life is somewhere “out there,” just waiting for you to come find it and claim it. You’ll always feel that way—that if you only stretched farther or dug deeper you could find the life you were “meant” to have.

But that’s not the way life, especially yours, will go.

B, you are as talented and brilliant as they say. It won’t always feel that way, but you have a gift of the mind and the heart, and it will give you great joy, even if it’s personal and never shared.

You will also never “get better.” Along with the brilliance comes the madness. It will never be the same as it was at 8, or at 12, or at 15, or at 22, but it will remain. You will cry, and starve, and stuff yourself silly with food or feelings or pills. You’ll take Zoloft until the day you die. You will feel lost and alone, you will fall down a deep well with parts and feelings clanking along the ridges on the way down. Don’t allow anyone to tell you that you are “cured.” You are not. But you will live in the world, and you will succeed. And you will possess a depth of self-knowledge that will serve you.

Stop fearing the people around you. It is lonely without people who understand and love you for who you are. I know that as you’ve grown up, you’ve had to build barriers to your heart and soul to protect yourself from pain. I don’t want you to put yourself in danger, but you can open the window to your heart when the sun is shining.

B, you will have amazing friends, and they will hold your hand when you fall down the cliff and they will clap for you when you climb back up. People will love you because you are worth loving.

Right now, you have exactly what you want to do all planned out. I’m proud of you for that. But I wish you could know that your life will look nothing like that plan. For the next many years, you will continue to plan, thinking, or hoping, that if the checklist or calendar says it, it must happen. But life’s not like that, sweet B. You must learn to drive on long and bumpy roads, full of hairpin turns and unexpected detours. You will get lost sometimes, and you won’t have a compass. In your life, you will be expected to continue on, in some direction that seems like it leads somewhere, even though you don’t know where that is or if it’s even worth it. You may never get used to this, but you will find ways to live in it. Your friends, and the love you have for your craft—those will help.

Cut yourself a lot of slack, B. You are lucky, but you are embarking on a difficult life. You will continue to fall and lose your way and shut down your heart—we are not perfect creatures. But B, when you get older, you will feel some shackles begin to fall and you will pick apples with three friends in a Prius zipcar, and you will be the founder of a successful theatre company, and you will meet Maria Irene Fornes, who you MUST listen to, because she understands.

You are amazing, but you are going to be lost for much of your life. I just ask that you navigate the world with curiosity and openness. You will find things you didn’t expect, and those will be the greatest things you will know.

Love yourself, B. You are enough.

Medical Records

Sometimes too often, I find myself struggling to fit what I remember about my childhood into my sense of who I am today. When I meet people these days, I seem to be a quirky, friendly girl, of course with problems but nothing too crazy. They don’t know about my struggles with ED, they don’t know about my depression. And they truly don’t know about what I went through between the ages of 8 and 14. To be honest, neither do I.

I ordered copies of my Behavioral Health medical records this week. I knew that asking for your records was something you were allowed to do, but I’d never considered actually going through the process of getting them.

I told my therapist about this decision, feeling a bit shy. Like I said, I sometimes think that I steep myself in the struggles of the past too much– making too much of the manic depression and the screaming and the anxiety and the bedwetting, exceeding its importance in who I am today. I rarely talk about it now, never with my parents, who saw me through it, and only at key moments with my closest friends. I’m not ashamed… it just doesn’t seem to come up.

But I think I continue to return to those years for a reason. My memories of what happened are jumbled and vague, flashes of images and emotions with no sense of chronology or cohesion. I have no language to talk about “those years,” besides just saying “those years” and hoping whoever I’m speaking with understands.

But understands what? Not even I know. And that’s why I’m hoping for some kind of sense of understanding to come from reading my records. I do know that it’s highly likely it will be far from enlightening, highly likely it will just frustrate me in its vagueness. But I have to try.

It may not be a part of my everyday life, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that “those years,” and all those feelings, all that pain, still lives inside me, somewhere, deep, longing to be understood.