I feel a bit like this little guy -- swimming, swimming, unsure of the unknown yet determined to go deeper, farther, and end up somewhere new, bigger and stronger.
I think it's only human to worry. But I'm trying my best not to.
Two years ago, Requited published a poem of mine called "My house is filled with flowers. The walls are bare." It was my attempt at creating a Lydia Davis-esque tone — saturated in emotion, yet deliberately withholding the emotions, trying to allow the character's feelings to emerge through details, through action, through doing or not doing (observing, reporting, drinking, smoking, not sleeping, typing, aching, remembering).
This poem brings back a lot of memories for me. It came out at the end of my first year at GMU.
I re-read this poem now and I can remember what it felt like then, one-third of the way into the MFA program. The walls were bare, yes, and coming down around me. But everywhere I looked I saw life, beauty, promise.
I had no idea then that only a few months later I would fall during pre-audition, pre-season roller derby endurance training at high speed going downhill.
The left side of my chin and my left temple are what finally stopped my body from toppling any farther downhill. I hit hands first, then shoulder and knees and shins, and toppled over and over, maybe about halfway down the hill. When I woke up, I was staring at the ground and my head was at a weird angle because the rest of my body had kept toppling but my face had planted and held steady. I don't know how long I was out. Maybe a second. Maybe an hour. I got up bloody and bruised, trying not to vomit, trying to stay awake.
In the morning when it opened, I went to the health clinic on campus. I look back on it now and regret most of all that I failed to inform the doctor that there'd been blood in my ear. It had seemed so bizarre, so inconsequential compared to all the other visible damage. And she did such a great job of reassuring me that concussions are normal, that everyone gets them, that the more important thing was to not get another one immediately, that by the time I left I was worried most of all about keeping my oozing road rash from getting infected.
She sent me home thinking I was fine. In truth, I felt fine. The fall — the nurse tweezing gravel out of my leg, all the stiffness and pain — made me more aware of my body and I felt awesome. I felt powerful, like some kind of roller derby warrior.
Like, hey, look at me, I fell, I blacked out, but I'm up, I'm okay!
I wouldn't begin experiencing sensorimotor, vestibular, or visual troubles for another five months. During that time, I was either actively ignoring the symptoms, fighting through them, or in most cases not even aware that they were symptoms of anything at all — for example, I threw out all chemical cleaners (proudly proclaiming eco-consciousness, when really I just couldn't stand the smell). I also started wearing only the softest cotton and gave Goodwill everything I owned with an itchy tag, only to understand now that those were early symptoms of being hypersensitive to smell and touch.
What I've missed most is being touched.
For two years I had no idea if I'd ever let anyone touch me again.
I had to go so far as to ask my closest friends not to hug me anymore (or accept a hug and feel absolutely assaulted but remain composure). I learned to fold my arms but smile and nod encouragingly when meeting new people, or to step back while asking a question to immediately jumpstart the conversation and bypass the handshake altogether. Sure, it's made for some awkward hellos and goodbyes at various times in various places, but at least I didn't have to be touched by anyone, particularly strangers.
But I write this as if I actually went out much at all. My hearing was affected, too, so something as simple as having dinner in a restaurant could end in misery. There's always music, always way too many people talking all over the room, God forbid there be flickering candles on every table, and always so many servers walking around to pick things up and put things down, and silverware everywhere clanking, and people bursting into laughter or someone cackling or someone's phone going off or a child screaming. I think with normal hearing you filter all that out. For some reason, I couldn't. I was hypersensitive and I heard it all. It was like sitting inside a nightmarish funhouse Tilt-A-Whirl. Every public outing ended with my head in a toilet, vomiting. And then the chemical cleaning smell of public facilities would cause instantaneous migraines, which exacerbated my light sensitivity, and so it didn't take long for me to decide to stay put at home. I even built myself a fort in my walk-in closet, with dark curtains enclosing an air mattress. Eventually my roommates would call this "The Panic Room."
I should mention that I entered my MFA with an MA from Cincinnati. This allowed me to take advantage of a 50% credit reduction. Without this, I probably wouldn't have graduated on time. But because I could count my previous coursework, I was able to take an unofficial leave of absence in my second year.
Because I was gone, I fell off everyone's radar. When I came back, I had to ask for a lot of help. And I learned quickly who my friends were, who I could count on.
I want to thank Ben Bever, Sarah Winn, and Sheila McMullin most of all, for being so generous with their time, generosity, attention, and care.
Ben Bever helped me pack my belongings into boxes so I could move out of my too-big faculty townhouse and into a room for rent in a different faculty townhouse. He took car loads of things to Goodwill for me. He took boxes and boxes of books to the library donation dropoff for me. He was there when I needed him, and he has never once let me down. When he says he'll do something, he'll do it. This kind of person, I've learned, is rare and special. And to top it off, he knitted me the best Christmas gift anyone could ever have asked for (at my father's suggestion, it will soon be framed and it will always hang on my office wall, wherever I go).
Sarah Winn volunteered to come over to my new house and read my assignments to me because I could not see the text well enough to read it for myself. (Full disclosure, I'm officially crying now.) The kind of person who would do this — with so much happening in her own life — is beyond words. Sarah was a children's librarian for years, and she was an absolutely invaluable friend to me during a time when I realized even if she did read to me, I couldn't keep up with the words. When I finally did return to text, I had to go back to the beginning and learn to read all over again, starting with picture books, which I could not remember after reading, could not retain.
Sarah may not have known it, because I was hiding this fact from myself too, but when she came over on Friday afternoons to share her vast collection of picture books with me (helping me to choose which ones I might like best, and then loaning them to me for a week), and when the following Friday she discussed them with me, sharing how she had taught each book to her children, she was teaching them to me, too.
Sarah is True Blue, with capital letters. With drop caps.
Sheila McMullin came and got me late at night one night after I called her from the floor of a Walgreens, sobbing uncontrollably and in the midst of hands-down the worst panic attack I've ever had.
By then, I'd been to a neurosurgeon in Washington, DC and, when his treatment plan failed, I went to the Cleveland Clinic to see neurosurgeons there. Not one could give me a concrete diagnosis because the only thing they were sure about — convergence insufficiency — was complicated by the fact that it does not cause double vision in both eyes (which I was reporting). Everyone put me in thick reading glasses with thick stick-on prisms that made all of my visual troubles and nausea far worse (as it turned out, their prescriptions were too strong. When everyone at the Cleveland Clinic gave up, they sent me to Dr. Andrich, a vision therapist in North Royalton, Ohio. He would be the first doctor to actually understand my reported symptoms, and delve even further to ask if I was having symptoms I didn't even know were symptoms (Have you been sensitive to smells lately? What about sound? Touch? To what extent? Etc.).
Dr. Andrich immediately put me in +0.25 reading glasses and suddenly I could see text on a page and it didn't look like this). Before he came along, it was really painful for me to focus on anything within arm's length, and it was just blurry anyway, and everything beyond the length of my arm was doubled in each eye. I was extremely hypersensitive to light. Mostly, I just wanted to lie in the dark and sleep.
On the day of the Walgreen's incident, I'd returned again to GMU with Dr. Andrich's recommendation to see a vision therapist in the DC area, but I hadn't found one yet that I liked. I'd been fighting a doozy of a headache all day, without success, and when the sun began to set and people began turning on lights, my headache grew worse. Soon it was on the verge of becoming a migraine. When I realized I was out of Imitrex, I grabbed my prescription and headed for Walgreens.
I wasn't technically allowed to drive past sunset (oncoming headlights, overhead street lamps, stop lights, had previously caused actual momentary blindness, so doctors and I agreed that it would be dangerous to drive with all of this on medical records. Any accidents would be fully my fault, even if someone else hit me). But with Imitrex, if you don't take it in time, before the migraine actually comes on, it doesn't work.
Inside the Walgreens, I was to some extent blinded by the overhead lights glaring off the white floors. The music blaring caused extreme disorientation and suddenly it was too late. The music was the kicker. The migraine had landed. Desperately, I made it to the prescription window but it was barred. Closed for the evening. I began to vomit but choked it down. I began to panic, the whole store swirled around me, the walls closed in, I was hyperventilating but desperate enough to still think clearly enough to say, OK, if I can't get Imitrex I can at least get Excedrin Migraine from a shelf. I couldn't find it anywhere. That's when I fell apart. I started sobbing — I was convinced it was right in front of me but that I couldn't SEE it. Someone came to help me. I was aware that I was causing a scene. The other person couldn't find the Excedrin either. (I found out later all Excedrin had been recalled and it wasn't available anywhere in the United States.)
I was sitting on the ground because I was so dizzy and in so much pain. I gave up and actually curled up and put my head on the ground and closed my eyes. That might have been the lowest point for me in all of this, lying on the ground in Walgreens. Someone kept asking if there was someone they could call. I said "Sheila." She found Sheila in my phone. Voice mail. I said, "Mike." She gave me the phone and I asked Mike where Sheila was. I think he might have found her for me.
It didn't take long for her to drive to Walgreens, to find me on the ground, to buy me a water and some Ibuprofen, to sit with me until I felt well enough to stand up again, to cover my head with her coat and lead me to her car, to drive me home. And then she went back to her house to get her roommate, Alyse Knorr, and they went to go get my car and bring it back for me.
Where would I be without these three?
Where would any of us be without our friends?
I also need to thank my roommates — Matt Oglesby and Jackson Crow-Mickle. Sharing our lives here like this has been an amazing experience. I went from never wanting to ever have roommates ever again to signing on to have a new roommate where I'm going now (although, to be fair, she and I have over 2,000 square feet where we're living, but still, look at me being so optimistic!)!
But seriously, I want to thank Jackson for picking me up and picking glass out of my legs when I fell down the stairs and dropped the glass vase I was holding and landed on it. (Listen, when you see double, you'd better hold onto the railing when you walk down stairs. Lesson learned.)
I want to thank him, too, for so willingly filling the role of brother to me.
I've always wanted a brother. And now I feel like I have two. (And a sister, too, in Kathryne.)
Mr. Oglesby, the texts and the tweets and the notes and the chats (and, soon, the long-distance letters) have been (and better continue to be) amazing.
Kathryne, we'll always have Hot In Cleveland, New Girl, Pitch Perfect, and every movie ever made about brides, bridesmaids, and babies. Oh, and Bravo! :)
Special thanks, too, to Matt Pinney. For understanding.
I started this post wondering what might have happened if I had just mentioned the blood in my ear. That might have made all the difference at the time — I might have had a CT scan much sooner, they might have seen brain swelling or blood, I might have been made aware of symptoms to watch for. It might not have taken so long to find the right doctor who was perfectly specialized and trained to help me.
But what's done is done. It can't be changed. And in the end, it worked out fine. (Although technically, I think this is still the beginning. Maybe halfway between the beginning and the middle.)
I want to share something.
I've just finished a new book, Desire: A Haunting.
In this book, which mostly takes place in Hester Prynne's cottage, the ghost of Pearl Prynne wants nothing more than to be able to touch my narrator, hold her, comfort her.
Eventually, they find a way.
Desire is for everyone at GMU who reached out and touched me: everyone I've mentioned here already, and also Paul Fauteux, Daniel D'Angelo, Michael Joseph Walsh, A. Moriah Jones, Lucy Beiderman, Alyse Knorr, Jack Snyder, Matt Ampleman, and of course Jennifer Atkinson, Eric Pankey, Steve Goodwin, Sally Keith, Laura Scott, Bill Miller.
Special thanks, too, to Mark Cugini and Roy Kesey, who are slightly farther away, geographically.
Before Desire, there was this early little thing about a ghost. It isn't Desire, but it's responsible for starting Desire.
A woman walks into a bar and hits her head and falls down dead. Her ghost gets up and tries to go about the rest of the day. She orders a beer but the bartender doesn’t see her. She tries to hail a cab but no one stops for her — it must be the way she looks. At home, she can’t get the key to work. She tries to call her landlord but she can’t seem to manage her phone. She walks to a friend’s house but nobody hears her knocking and she just stands outside the window and watches the friend’s whole family through the parted curtains, first as they eat dinner, then as they gather around the fireplace and go about their evening entertainments, the kids playing a card game, the adults flipping through magazines and occasionally looking up toward the news on TV. Outside, our woman is cold and hungry and tired. She curls up on the friend’s front porch, waiting for morning, hoping for someone to find her before then so they can help her through this strange world where nothing is as it was and where everything is at once familiar but also so new.
This is just one of many short pieces that make up Wild Thing, available as part of the 5th annual subscription sale from The Cupboard.
I'd like to especially thank Jennifer Atkinson again, and the rest of her 79 Works class, especially Sarah, Moriah, and Liz, for encouraging me to write these during my final semester at GMU.
I'd like to thank Adam Peterson, emily m. danforth, and Dave Madden at The Cupboard for deeming them worthy of publication.
So these past few years have happened.
I came into this program expecting one thing.
I'm leaving it an entirely different person. A better person.
And now it's time to go.
My walls are bare again. Like that little turtle way up there, I'm moving forward again.
I'm very grateful to the best vision therapist a person could have hoped for, Dr. Robert Jacobs in McLean, Virginia. If you're in the DC, VA, MD area, see him first. I know I'm sorry to be leaving him and his entire team, who have helped me so much.
And although I still have a way to go in my recovery — I may always be recovering — I know that if this is as good as I ever get I'm OK with that and am just so grateful I was able to make it this far.