Saturday, January 25, 2014

Being a body

Part of the baggage I carry from fundamentalism/ fearful groups is the idea of spirit or soul over body. On the one hand, we believe that Jesus was a human and rose from the dead, but we didn't talk about the body in a positive light nevertheless. The emphasis was not on matter at all, for specific historical reasons.

* On another day I'll get all intellectual and shit and talk about those reasons, and the theology of spirit over matter. Today is not that day. Today is a day in which I will ramble, and hopefully some of it will make sense.*

As I went deeper into puberty, it became clear to me that women would not have created an anti-matter theology. We can't, because we can never forget our bodies. The Cartesian "I think therefore I am" (which has done so, so much damage) would never have crossed our minds. That's because women are constantly reminded of our bodies, whether we like it or not. The man can, perhaps, forget that he is first and foremost a body, and that his thoughts and body are intricately connected. The woman can't - not for long. If she tries, her body will force her to remember, and not always in pleasant ways.

Last year was/ is painful for me, mainly because that was the year my body said enough.

One day I hit my head. Two months earlier I started on new medication for mis-diagnosed bipolar 2 disorder. I don't know what caused what. All I know is that in April of last year my body took over. 

It is difficult to explain what it's like to loose your mind. We use it as a euphemism for many things, but what is it like when the mind is lost? Where does it go, and how can one get it back?

It came to a head one day in April when I had a psychotic breakdown. This is also a euphamism. Unfortunately, those of us who truly experience it can report little, by its very nature. I remember talking to a co-worker and noticing that his voice was coming through a tunnel, that the words were no longer making linguistic sense, and that my vision was blurry. I remember being in my manager's office, sitting on the floor knees to chest, sobbing. I remember my husband picking me up at work and hailing a taxi. I remember clinging to the rails outside the ER and screaming. And my next memory is being in a wheelchair at the triage desk, getting a bracelet around my wrist and the cacophony of voices. I remember that the nurse was exquisitely tender and compassionate. I remember being taken immediately back, that I was afraid of the big double doors that swung open, that every bump sent a jolt through my body. I don't remember taking off my clothes or receiving a hospital gown, but I remember wearing it. I remember my laughter, my high-pitched hysterical laughter interspersed with sobs. I remember that the man one partition over kept saying "nobody loves me" over and over again, and I wanted to help him. I told my husband we should go over there and tell him yes, I love you, it will be OK. I remember being interviewed by 2 ER docs, and the man asking me if I wanted to harm myself or others. I remember, clear as a bell, saying that I did not want to hurt myself, but that a few minutes ago I wanted to punch the female doctor. I remember being wheeled away for a CT-scan which came back negative. I remember a nurse telling me it was negative and said "isn't that good news?" And I thought "what about that is good news? That just means I have no fucking clue what just happened to me." The diagnosis was "anxiety." The patient education packet suggested that I try deep breathing and positive thinking. "Do you ever feel anxious? Maybe you're going through a hard time at school or work...."

A few weeks later I had an EEG. That was kind of fun actually, because they put all these electric nodes on your head. My husband took a picture that's hysterical. It showed "slight abnormalities conclusive with a mild to moderate concussion."

Most of last year is a blur to me. At the end of the week when talking to my mom, she would ask what days I made it to work. I was unable to remember. I had a list by the door that said "REMEMBER: did you brush teeth? Shower? Take meds? Do you have: keys, debit card, license, wallet, metro card, office building card, cell phone? Did you charge your cell phone or have a charger with you?" I wrote this list after despairing that I would be able to walk out the door without forgetting 2-3 of those things.

And for funsies, my ability to self-edit disappeared. I said things to people that I can never take back - not mean things necessarily, but completely inappropriate things. I had a bad reaction to Xanex which made me seem like a cross between a toddler and a drunk. Perhaps it's a blessing that I have forgotten a lot, because I don't particularly want to remember in detail all the panic attacks. I already remember things I wish I could forget. I remember staring at a stapler at work, wondering how it functioned. I remember saying words that rhymed with the word I wanted, and being unable to say what exactly I meant. I know that my worst personality traits were exacerbated and, because of my inability to censor, everyone suddenly knew about them.

The control freak couldn't control her own mind, and the fear exhibited itself in interesting ways.

It got better: I got off the terrible medication, and I got a better diagnosis. My memory has slowly been healing, and I can "use my words" again. My ability to function has improved.

But my body didn't forget.

Sometimes my body reminds me that there is so much from my past that has not been dealt with.

I don't know what happened last year. I don't know why my brain is still struggling to heal, or even what it's healing from. I don't know how to keep my mind from spinning into sudden panic attacks - all I have now is medication (wonderful meds, without which I couldn't go to work), and certain coping mechanisms. And this blog, writing down my thoughts, has been amazing.

And yet, it's not enough. My body will not be ignored.

One thing people don't talk about much is how much anxiety and panic - or any issue with the mind - affects the body. For one thing, we still don't know, and science is still uncovering the fascinating ways that the body and mind (if the mind is even a separate thing!) are connected. I know that when the medication chemistry is off, that I change in drastic ways, and that being off medication is not an option. And my background, my toxic beliefs about mental illness, the societal stigma attached, doesn't help. But thanks to my body I have to face it head-on. I have to recognize that even on a good day my muscles tense up in all areas of the body, so that at the end of the day I'm exhausted. I have to recognize that I can't play "mind over matter" anymore.

So my plan for Lent is different from the usual. Typically one hears about using Lent to "overcome" the body: to show the flesh who's boss. In some spiritualities the flesh is not always connected with the body per se, but with sins. But let's be real: we Christians have some serious baggage when it comes to being a body, living in the flesh, accepting that bodies are good, accepting that Jesus was an infant who breastfed and pooped and needed the comforting body of His mother.

I can't be Cartesian anymore, and neither can my theology. So this Lent will be learning how to be a body: how to give my body the activity and exercise it desperately needs, to learn how to listen to my body's needs instead of shutting them down, to avoid harming my body. To let the body tell my mind to listen for once. And maybe, to accept my body in its own proportions, with all its quirks.


  1. I am consistently amazed at all the different ways my anxiety has affected my body, and how my anxiety-wrecked body then ratchets up my anxiety levels, thus making things worse. And don't even get me started about hormones!! Our bodies most definitely can make it impossible to forget exactly how material we are, you got that right!

    Catholic theology very firmly asserts that we are body-souls, and that our bodies are not just good things, but WHO WE ARE. Yet, even having this as part of my theology, it is still a struggle sometimes to overcome the culturally-prevalent gnostic belief that body = bad, spirit = good. Our culture is just so soaked in that notion, that it can seep into my thinking before I realize it, and I have to root it back out again. I'm glad your working on rooting it out of your thinking too, because it is definitely a toxic thing to believe that half of who/what we are is bad.

    I hope your Lenten journey is a fruitful one, both physically and spiritually.

    1. Thanks Casey! After your journey last year you certainly know what it's like to be a body. I am super impressed with your attitude about all that.

  2. This is so powerful, Caroline. I have very little personal experience to relate to your post, but after my first child was born, I had a case of the "baby blues." It was striking for me to realize (and I'm glad I realized it) that the emotional and physical turmoil I was going through at the time was not "of" me. It wasn't simply a shift of my mood, that I could shift back with little effort. It was something separate that I could not control. I was fortunate that it passed away. That small glimpse of depression or whatever-you-want-to-call-it gave me the beginning of an idea of what it must be like to wrangle with mental illness. Just the beginning, I know. I'll keep you in prayer.

    1. Here's the thing: you can't compare suffering or experiences. I've done that so many times, and the thing is that no one reacts to trauma or sadness the same way. So don't think that what you went through was "lesser" in some way. After all, I'm not having to take care of a baby while I'm depressed! See? Context matters.