I suppose this is (for me) the Grand Surrender (not quite, but close). I have an increasingly nasty degree of “limited mobility.” It hurts to even walk…anywhere.  I hate to call myself a “cripple,” that seems to be on the horizon.

A friend up here–a social worker–could not understand why the various elder care agencies in the Berkshires are aware of my “issues” but have done absolutely nothing to make it easier for me to get around.

So last week, MaryAnne showed up with a gift: a used but highly functional manual wheelchair. Is it perfect? What is? It’s good for getting me around the halls here, to the laundry room, and back again. It’s a pain in the ass having to maneuver corners and get doors open. But I’ll take it. I don’t like the word take, but I’m powerless. Taking is what I’m doing, after all. And frankly, it sucks. But there we are, trundling around.


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Fun (of a sort) With Insomnia

I’m kidding. It’s not really fun at all. But some people use it with great creative effect.

For me, sleepless nights can be a sign of my manic side popping up to say Hello, Sucker, I’m back. Remember: I’m bipolar. The old name for the malady is “Manic Depression.” I’m with Dr. Kay Redfield Jameson in using the old name. It’s marked in most cases by hyperactivity, sexual excesses (not lately), and spending money like a drunken sailor on a 72-hour pass. Let’s see: I feel creatively amped right now. I would not know a woman if I fell over one. And, in the words of the singer-songwriter Diane Ponzio, I’m so broke I can’t even pay attention. So something I call “creative sleeplessness” kicks in. And that kind of insomnia can be a sign that I’m going into a manic period. In the words of Fozzie Bear, wokka-wokka-wokka.

I’m far from the only person to talk about something while it’s happening. None other than the great English poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a masterful chronicler of his (literal) ups and downs during depressive periods. When he was in a manic phase of his illness, he was a fool for anyone with indoor plumbing. That included his half-sister, Augusta, who had to have been pretty mad herself, to become her half-brother’s lover. Byron was born to title and wealth, but he was a serious spender, ran up debts he could not possible pay down. And to chill himself out, he drank heavily and consumed serious amounts of laudanum. Some of his greatest poetry was composed while he was manic.

The same goes for one of America’s greatest poets, Robert Lowell. I don’t know about his spending habits, but Lowell might be classified as a sexual predator and uncontrolled womanizer who also had a fantastic temper. He had been a Harvard college rowing team member, and developed considerable upper body physical strength. During one of his manic attacks, he had to be subdued by four Boston police officers. Four.

So sleeplessness can anchor itself to hyperactivity and make you mishugeh. That’s Mandarin for crazy as a shithouse rat.

It’s awhile since I posted here, sorry to say, but sometimes real life gets in the way; mainly trying to manage money I don’t have, even after the alimony mess is now history. You can’t live on nothing, and that’s pretty much what I’ve got now. If my body would cooperate, I’d love to be able to work again, even if I could get on a bus and teach part-time somewhere in the area. The only games in town are Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) and Berkshire Community College. But no one is hiring. My best and maybe only hope is to concoct a course and sell it to one of the schools through the Division of Continuing Education. I’d love to be able to volunteer myself, but I also have this fetish about being paid. Not necessarily scads of money, but just enough to take some of the pressure off. That may spell “whore,” but everyone has a price. Right?

Oh! I omitted from my local schools the really eminent Williams College, a few miles over in Williamstown. They don’t hire adjuncts, and certainly no adjuncts without an Ivy League pedigree. To me, Pedigree is the name of a dog food. Not this week.


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Fear and Son of Fear Meet the Wolf Man and Frankenstein

I think I stole the title from the advertising genius Jerry Della Femina. Genius? No lie, he really is.wolfman

In any case, this is about chronic fear. If you suffer from it, you know what I’m talking about: not just the “little formless fears” Eugene O’Neill wrote about in The Emperor Jones, the nameless horrors that pursue the former Pullman porter turned Caribbean island dictator, Brutus Jones, and that drive him to his death by suicide. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, thank whatever God you worship that you don’t.

But permit me to play schoolteacher and educate you.

First, okay–something makes you afraid. Something specific. You can name it. “This guy coming along can beat the fuck out of me, I’m gonna cross the street before he sees me.” “Oh shit, my paycheck’s  a day late and the landlord’s already up my ass for his money. This is scary.” Something specific has you on edge and afraid. It makes sense.

But then there may be people in situations where sometimes fear becomes overwhelming. It breeds uncontrollable anxiety which in turn may produce panic attacks. Remember those? The fear may not have a specific object. It comes from somewhere deep inside you but there may not be a name for it, or a cause you can identify. What is the cause? Why is this happening? What am I afraid of?

Yours to figure out. I can only point at my experience and hope you find your own path.

“It’s All My Mother’s Fault”: A Memory of Abandonment as Death

Hey, isn’t everything? Blame Mommy, that bitch. Ruined my life. If I can’t get an erection, it’s her fault for symbolically castrating me.

In my case, it really was her fault. I don’t know if you believe in recovered memories. Some shrinks think recovered memories are bullshit. Others think they’re very real. I’m lucky: the ones I’ve dealt with since 1995 believe they’re quite a doorway into personal hells.

To wit:

When I was a baby, we lived in a one bedroom apartment. I slept in a crib across the room from my parents’ bed. Is this sufficiently perverse? Sharing a bedroom with your parents? Hang on, it gets crazier yet.

My mother put me down for my afternoon nap. How old was I? A year at most. She figured it was okay to do this, and she went out to do the wash. The laundromat was up the block. I was out cold. But I was completely alone in the apartment.

And I woke up before she returned.

What does a baby do when it wakes up? It calls for its parent. So I called for Mommy. And she did not answer and she did not come. I was in a crib I could not escape, and where was Mommy?

I began to become afraid. Very afraid. I want my Mommy!

This is a level of fear that corrodes the insides. It has its own geography. It has its own coordinates. It speaks in a terrible voice.

You have been abandoned. There is no one under the sun who is there for you. There is no one who can help you. You are helpless and you are entirely alone,. And so it will be forever.

I began to cry. Then I began to scream from a horror I still cannot describe. The nearest I could come was the afternoon my mother actually died: February 26, 1992, when I had just turned 48. Permit me to quote from myself:

The line on the monitor:
no longer an upheaval of Nature,
but now a plain, vast and unpathed,
leading to what we know and do not.

Put another way: you are in a huge room, and it is totally dark. There is nothing to hold onto, no internal GPS by which to locate yourself. You can’t find your way home, and for a very good reason: from that moment on, you no longer have a home. It’s gone forever.

Thereafter, you can love men or women, but without your soul. You can have children. But you have no home in which to situate them or yourself. You’ve become homeless long before that particular horror descends on you as it did on me early in 2013.

And because you are homeless, you give yourself implicit “permission” to be cruel and random, to slash your way through the world like it’s your enemy. And that’s what it is.

My particular fear was abandonment. Winston Smith in 1984 has rats as his “worst thing in the world.” In my case, it was my feeling of being abandoned. The universe radiated from a trip to the laundromat when I was a year old. You don’t love me! You just want from me what you can take. And when there’s nothing to take, when I need help, you’re not there. So fuck you. Fuck you! Now I will take from you!

So I backed away. So I damaged every relationship I had. “Oh what a lonely boy.”

Once I was freed of alimony as the finale to my divorce, I felt anxious and empty. My body, which is always a pain center, hurt worse than usual. Hatred had fueled me for years. Now it was gone, and it had left a huge void filled with foul air and an inability to think about most anything. What do I do now? I did not know. I was a free man for the first time in 17 years. I didn’t know what freedom meant. But I knew I felt miserable and in pain. I had to discover the horror I’d invited to fall on me.

I began to learn it only a month ago, in a therapist’s office. I had to see how I had made myself over in the image I projected onto the older of my two sons. The shrink asked me a simple question when I complained about him. “Does he remind you of someone?” No, I can’t say he does. Then he asked me another question.

“Do you know Harry Chapin’s ‘Cat’s in the Cradle'”?

Out of nowhere, I burst into tears. That question had done it. It broke the spell of sleeplessness, anxiety, and panic attacks that had driven me into trips to the emergency room, into misusing prescription drugs, and fearing I’d truly gone mad. What I saw was that I’d given birth to my own son, a son very much like his father.

That revelation broke the back of my clutching fear, the fear that’s pervaded everything, but everything, in my life forever. What I regret now is that it took me until I was 71 to figure it out. Yes, I was abandoned once by a well-intentioned but profoundly foolish woman; but I learned in my turn to abandon others and lash out at the people nearest to me–that same mother, wife, lovers, children, friends–to avoid being hurt. No, damn you, I will hurt you first. And I suppose I did.

This kind of fear can be diffused into a nameless non-specific fear that is something monstrous. It is no longer entirely within your control. It is your motivator, your lover, your millstone, and a curse you can throw off only with recognition that it’s there.

I don’t know what your trigger is. Mine was a Harry Chapin song I’d heard 100 times before. What’s yours? Don’t be afraid to look for it. As mawkish as this may sound, you’re trying to save your own life, so anything goes.

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Wonders never cease

June 15, 2015

The last entry marked the change to how remarkably different I feel. This entry is short and simply reinforces what’s been Francishappening to me.

It’s truly a mystic transformation, the gift of medical science and therapeutic practice. I can’t get over it. Nor do I want to. I would like to feel this way forever. Nothing really phases me anymore. When I find myself getting upset and obsessive, I can simply say to myself, “It will pass. Everything does.”

Surely, that is the good as well as the bad. But perhaps when the bad tries to overcome the good, I will have built strength sufficient to face and overcome it.

I can listen to music. I can read. I can write here. I can, in these entries, dare some Power or Principality to remove calm from me and replace it with the old paranoia and anxiety. Truly, I pray that will not happen.

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And then a miracle occurs….

The other day I had another series of epidural injections into the vertebral areas around my spine. I was heavily sedated. Oh hell, basically I was cold-cocked so the doctor could work on me.

Children of photographer W. Eugene Smith walking hand-in-hand in woods behind his home, in photo entitled

I was unconscious when he did the work. When I was brought awake, the friend who brought me over drove me home. I was a bit dazed.

Epidural spinal shots come with absolutely no guarantees about whether they will work, to what extent, and for how long. Yesterday morning I woke up and could walk on pain-free feet. I still needed my cane because I walked like a guy about to go to the drunk tank for 15 days. But miraculously, my feet did not hurt.

A spinal, Neurontin, and Tramadol. I am feeling far closer to human than I have in quite awhile. And I love how it feels. Yes, I love how I feel. It’s novel for me to feel this good. I also got a high-powered anti-bipolar drug called Seroquel, and Cymbalta from a psychiatrist and my neurologist. It’s a juicy cocktail, but damn if it isn’t making me feel a hell of a lot better. How long will this go on? I don’t know. Two weeks, two months, two lifetimes? I’m not in the prediction business.

All I know is that I feel civilized again.

I’ve even begun to write again, and to edit some earlier work that I think deserves exposure via publication. I’m learning how not to be reticent about showing my work. I’m rewriting my divorce poetry sequence, tentatively entitled Bodas de Sangre (Blood Wedding), after Lorca’s play. I’m sufficiently far away from the divorce to be able to look at it now as an opportunity for craft, not to just spew. Enough, already, with spewing. I’ve done that.

I don’t walk well, but I can walk. I took a healthy stroll this morning from the local mental health clinic to the bus stop. Yes, I “sought professional help,” and I’m getting it. No pain. Oh, some wobbles. I’d still be busted for public intoxication, and I’m not signing up for a 5K run, but short walks now happen without pain. You can’t imagine how good it feels not to have your feet killing you. And I feel somewhat optimistic again. I can write, I can walk, I may even be able to love. given the right opportunity. I can’t predict but I don’t necessarily think I’m an idiot for feeling that way.

As for the pictures….

The photograph at the top of the entry is by the great photojournalist W. Eugene Smith (1918-1978). It’s known as “The Walk to Paradise Garden,” it’s the first image Smith made while healing from a severe shrapnel wound to the face and jaw he received in the Pacific Theater during World War 2. Remember, combat photographers are the ones who stand up to shoot when everyone else hits the deck. Smith got his two kids–Patrick and Juanita–outside and had them walk toward the light. He claimed the photo was mawkish, but it’s inspired people to the point where it often carried religious significance, an ayuda a la oración. Mawkish or not, it inspires me.

So does this, closer to home, of Misha my cat:

Misha FaceNever underestimate the healing power of a companion animal. Misha is my friend, my four-legged son, and a companion who’s held me together more than once. His effect on me is beyond any words I might otherwise have used to describe him. Plainly, I love him, just as I loved the three cats and one (really big) dog who preceded him. Cid the dog loved everyone, and almost everyone (except maybe the cats) loved him back.

Cures, or at least relief, come in all shapes and sizes. They may come through a well-placed injection. They may come through a cat or dog licking you. Stroking a cat is a fabulous stress reliever. So is walking a dog. A big doggie grin is an analgesic for lots of pain. Don’t discount it. Ever. Or you’ll be bitten.


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After great pain can come more great pain

Emily Dickinson wrote some wonderful things. This, perhaps, is my favorite, one of her almost weightless poems that carries all the weight of the world.

After great pain, a formal feeling comes –
The Nerves sit ceremonious, like Tombs –
The stiff Heart questions ‘was it He, that bore,’
And ‘Yesterday, or Centuries before’?

The Feet, mechanical, go round –
A Wooden way
Of Ground, or Air, or Ought –
Regardless grown,
A Quartz contentment, like a stone –

This is the Hour of Lead –
Remembered, if outlived,
As Freezing persons, recollect the Snow –
First – Chill – then Stupor – then the letting go –

Miss Emily wrote a lot of great things in a too-short life. This was one of the best. And at the risk of being called (again) a pussy, it still makes me cry. Every time.

Everyone with a nervous system has, I think, been to that house of pain. Sometimes it seems almost unbearable. Going broke. Break-ups. Divorces. Death. “How shall I survive this? How can I survive it? How can I let it go? Where did I leave my real life while this was happening in spite of me…or even because of me? What do I do now?”

Do I want to survive it? The house is full of sharp knives and cleaning chemicals.

Sometimes I just wish I were dead and this shit would be over once and for all. But after all, who would want to miss the next chapter of this adventure?

Feels pretty bad.

Even the good stuff can suck. And at times it certainly does.

This at last is about one of those times.

A few weeks ago, the Superior Court of Bergen County, New Jersey, freed me from what had begun in 1998 as lifetime spousal support. That’s also known as alimony. That also known as a life sentence. It lasted “only” 17 years, but that’s bad enough. Jesus Christ! Would you have liked even more?

I didn’t think it would happen. I was representing myself in court while my ex always had a lawyer. Where I’d begun as the plaintiff, now I became the defendant. And still the Judge ruled for me.

When the Court clerk told me, I began to cry. All I’d let myself hope for was a reduced amount, at best. But a complete release from my chains? Impossible. No. But it happened.

Then something else happened that entirely blindsided me. I immediately became sick to my stomach. I began having renewed panic attacks. I could barely sleep. I’d been in a mental and financial prison for so long I could not absorb it.

I still can’t. Oh, I’m not planning in giving her the money back. A reversal of fortune is not making me rich. I wasn’t married to Sunny Von Bulow. I’m just trying to figure out how to live like a free man.

So re-enter panic attacks, intensified peripheral neuropathy, pain that makes walking so horrible I can barely believe it. And my set of questions. Starting with: what the hell kind of half-man are you, anyway? You wanted release, you got it. So shut the fuck up, fag-man.

I won’t. I can’t.

I’d settle for a “formal feeling” right about now. I’m sick to death of great pain. I’d like for the nerves to quit crawling all over me. Will the hurt never end?

So tomorrow morning I get to go to my doctor again. He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. He doesn’t like prescribing pain meds and he knows shit about psychiatry. But my body hurts. My soul is brutalized. I can’t break both ends of the cycle without starting someplace, can I? I came out of that late Forties/early Fifties generation where the word of the doctor was the word of God. Yeah, right. How far can I throw my house? I had some great, artistic diagnosticians and practitioners, one of whom saved my life in 1958. I’ve had others who are assholes. Guess which one I go to now?

What, I wonder, was it like….cromwell

…to live in the age of Henry VIII? I’m rereading and have seen several times Wolf Hall, the magnificent saga of Henry’s chief Minister, Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell died by decapitation for high treason on July 28, 1540, but really for the Unpardonable Crime of Fucking Up. He was 55 years old, way old for those days. What else could have killed him? Plague, war (he’d been a professional soldier), smallpox, sweating sickness (look it up in your Funk & Wagnall’s), murder, a street fight. No question, Cromwell was a man of his age: objectively, he was a bastard who guarded his boss’s power and wealth, even with his own life. He sent men and women to their deaths by beheading and burning at the stake (ever hear of Thomas More?). Not a man you might want to entertain for dinner. But for years he was the true power behind Henry VIII, and within months of Cromwell’s execution, Henry lived to regret his ill-considered move.

The point, if there is one, is that life 500 years ago was nasty, brutish, and short. It was always precarious. And then, as now, you took your chances on the Great Stage of Fools.

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Panic Attacks, III: Mécontentement et sa civilisation

I know I’ve written about panic attacks. In real terms, that was a bit like theologians debating angel-dancing. I didn’t quite know what the hell I was talking about. The memories of panic attacks fade. Last night I got them all back. Aren’t I glad for me?

It turns out I was the one dancing on the head of a pin, and yes, it hurt to have all those pins up my ass.

This isn’t quite “recovered memory.” It’s not that gently encountered. Not really.

Late afternoon yesterday, I phoned North Adams EMS and said “I’m in trouble. I’m shaking, I’m trembling all over. I can’t eat. I can’t breathe. I think I’m getting sick to my stomach.” Pause. “I’m scared. I think I’m losing my mind.” The EMS ambulance drivers really are the health care professionals in this area of Western Massachusetts. They kept me on the phone. “Do you want to hurt yourself?” “Not lately. But make me an offer.” Silence is not always golden. Sometimes it can be lethal. Toughing it out can get you killed. The ambulance got to me in under 15 minutes. I could not sit still. Vital signs–blood pressure was racing and way too high. Hyperventilating. Walk round in circles, shake, shake, walk around. I was just frightened. And there’s always the nasty little voice in the back of my head. “This is the one you may not come back from.” That really is the pervasive fear. The ground bass. At least I had enough sense to unlock the apartment door. I could not find my breath. I felt like I was praying. Please, God. let it stop. Please.

Peace, Lord…please. Peace. I felt like I’d been punched in the throat. I was hearing Leontyne Price’s exquisite prayer from La Forza del Destino. But even Leontyne wasn’t doing much for me.

The doctor gave me some sublingual medication: I think it was Ativan. A nice, juicy sedative. I began to calm down. At worst, I began to feel marginally human again. The hospital sent me home. I had some hunger at last, but knew better than to stuff my face. I was good to myself (that alone is unheard of). I ate what my stomach could handle and fell asleep in my office chair. I came to around two AM. I stayed up for awhile, drank coffee, wrote here, and went back to bed.

The day, overall, had become so bad that I even yelled at my cat. That’s how bad. Cat forgiveness is instantaneous. The last thing I remember was Misha walking on me, kneading his paws into my stomach. “All is forgiven and I love you, pet human.”

I’m actually a good person to have as a patient. I am reasonably articulate, so I can map my symptoms and what might be happening. I could recall Lord Byron, one of history’s great self-destructive self-describers, standing outside himself and looking at his symptoms: overeating, following his wandering johnson, his fondness for laudanum, and the fear, the fear, the fear. After I saw the doctor, in came the clinic shrink. “What’s different?” And I could describe it. “After seventeen years of being trapped paying permanent alimony since 1998, I don’t have to pay it anymore. The Court freed me of the burden just a week ago. I’m off the alimony hook. But then explain the outsized panic and overreaction to everything.”

I was experiencing the infamous “unbearable lightness of being,” and I had no idea of how the fuck I could deal with it. I was experiencing imperfect freedom. Because freedom is always imperfect.”Here’s your train ticket, twenty bucks, and new suit.” No way to blame the monolith of the Bergen County Superior Court. I could only thank–actually thank out loud–the bloviating Gov. Chris Christie. Hereafter, I had to deal with my own symptoms and keep a can tied to myself.

Even the on-duty psychiatric social worker said, “Christie? He’s awful.” Well, yes. but he helped me get my life back.

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.

So now I have freedom. Whenever Social Security and the State align. But what’s that mean, anyway? It means I can’t blame anyone else. Maybe not ever myself. It’s still scary out here. But for all the terror that walks by night and the arrow that flies by day, it’s still better than where I’ve been.

Maybe freedom itself is a chronic condition, too. Maybe we all need to learn how to live with it.

In one of the Gospels, Jesus gives sight to a man born blind. The blind man has his mat and his corner in the marketplace. Once the man gains his sight, he can’t beg anymore. He is out of a non-job. He has to find a new path to follow, a new way of relating to the world and making a living. What’s he going to do?

Anyhow, the shrink gave me an exercise: You’re still here for starts. You did not die, you did not off yourself. You must find something worth preserving and working toward. An ideal. You’re free, Ken. Now what are you going to do with your freedom?

I expect I’m going to spend a fair amount of time looking for the answer to her question, and mine.

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