I’d been leaving home in one way or another since I was eleven–had been living with boyfriends off and on since I was 15–but at 18 had surprised everyone, most of all me, and got into a decent college and left the state.
What’s more, I went to a Quaker college in Pennsylvania, which meant I was surrounded by the kind of squares whose parents loved them and whose idea of fashion was Dockers and college logos. The music was Cat Stevens and Jimmy Buffett, the colors were grey and that green that has so much grey in it that it might as well go ahead and be grey. And I just about lost my mind.
I never really came around on that school socially–in my senior year, I was the butt of a class night joke in which they insulted my boyfriend’s taste in women–but that first year I hated the tyranny of their grey-greenness with such a punk-rock heat that they hated me with an equal fervor.
It was probably the least grey-green thing about them.
But I had been told by my grandmother that if I didn’t attend this particular school I’d be dead by 27. She told me six months after she died, which is how I knew she meant business. She hadn’t been that involved in my goings-ons while she was alive.
And sure enough she was right. Because the summer after my first year of college, I returned to Boston, certain that my grand experiment in education had been for naught and that my parents couldn’t really be that bad. I mean, didn’t everyone with a personality think they had terrible parents at one point or another? Weren’t these bland, beloved kids living proof that you needed to be raised a little rough if you were going to have an edge?
And then I went home and got walloped. Because actually my parents were worse than I’d let myself remember and I realized in one big wave that the reason I’d hated the kids at my school was that derision and abuse wasn’t part of their daily vocabulary so they’d seemed like Mister Rogers to me.
And understand that as a three-year-old I’d already found Mister Rogers implausibly soft because I’d never experienced loving-kindness first-hand.
And so the first time my father started in on me again while my mother hummed and looked at the ceiling o dear you and your fathah just don’t get along why can’t you just make dinnah and I slammed upstairs and he followed right behind me hand raised belt unbuckling because this is my house and there’s nowhere I don’t get to go and I felt the world fall right through my stomach because what had I done coming back, Jesus.
I was stuck for good, I was sure of it.
So I stopped seeing colors.
Stopped being able to digest food.
Stopped being able to feel the right side of my body.
And then I developed this headache that felt like a meat grinder for my brain 27 hours a day and had me throwing up on the hour.
And when I was down to 87 pounds and greyer than green I finally wobbled into the doctor’s office where they assumed I was having a stroke or had a brain tumor.
You’re just vain and crazy, my father said.
Jesus what do you want me to do about it, my mother said.
But you know.
I was just Freud’s last case.
The case of Lisa R.
Well, that was a really bad summer. Finally I called my friend Eleanor who’d been my professor the year before and told her I wasn’t coming back to school because I was probably dying.
Listen, she said. You’re coming back. You can’t stay there or you really will die. You’ll have to do therapy until you’re dead probably, but I will make sure you are ok.
And of course those words ring too loudly in my ears thirty years later, since she did make sure I was okay.
And then she killed herself.
While we both were in therapy.
But that’s a different story, even sadder than this one because there’s no happy ending. This story is that my own family threw me under the bus but people I didn’t know–people I didn’t even like–saved me.
Back at my college, they nurtured me as I’d never been nurtured. They let me turn in papers late until the words stopped blurring on the page. Bought special food until I could digest normally again. Found money to pay the bills I now had to cover on my own. Found an off-campus therapist. Even found a ride to the off-campus therapist.
And I healed enough to graduate in four years with my class and move to New York City, which was my biggest dream of all.
Oh, I still lived in fear of losing my mind and body again–of landing back in that familial black hole–and so I kept materializing my worst fears and ending up sick and homeless because when you’re that afraid of something the universe feels your obsession and assumes it’s something you want so it keeps giving it to you.
But even when I had nowhere to go I never went back home and people I didn’t know kept saving me. Kept finding me places to live, making me supper, giving me hugs even though I thought all human contact was about violence or sex and so I feared it all.
And slowly I became This Woman.
But I never forgot that fear. That I would have nowhere to go. No door to close on the world. No one to save me if I didn’t sing for my supper.
For a long time I held on to bad jobs because I needed to make sure I was safe. Bad lovers for the very same reason. Eventually I assumed I was safe enough to try to write, and then this last week–
Well, the black hole smelled just like I remembered: rotting food and cat shit. Dirty dirty laundry.
I couldn’t breathe again. Couldn’t eat or see colors.
So I did the thing this most feral of alley cats had been taught never to do.
I showed you my underbelly.
Some of you I’ve never met. Some of you I’ve known superficially for forty years. Some of you I met at jobs or schools I hated. Some of you I only know online. Some of you are lifelong friends I talk to every week. Some of you are dear pals and colleagues I never get to see. Some of you watched me rail on NY1. Some of you I only met for one momentous evening.
But you know what you have in common? You loved me out of that black hole.
Sent what you could: money, jobs, clients, prayers, light, advice, insight, solidarity.
So so much love.
The day I sent out my SOS, I got a last-minute lecture gig upstate. And was so shaky and sick from fear and worry that I started crying at the gas pump when I realized I didn’t have enough credit left for my card to work.
A guy I’d never met filled my tank. Drove off before I could make a fuss.
A few blocks away a dude appeared at my car window and shouted, DON’T BE SCARED, HON, I’M JUST CLOSING YOUR GAS TANK. And jumped back into his idling truck as the light changed to green.
On the highway a motorcyclist roared dangerously close to me–and pulled out the side mirror I hadn’t even noticed had been pushed in.
Really, I was in no condition to be driving, let alone lecturing in front of an auditorium of movie-goers. But I needed money desperately so I did it and was received warmly. Because if there’s one thing you learn when you have no safety nets–
And the universe shows you how.
As I write this, I have enough money and work lined up to breathe again. To feed myself and Grace. To pay rent. To find steadier and better gigs. To finish my book.
Over and over in this life I am reminded of all we really need to know. Which is that while we each need to stand on our own, we’re never truly alone.
And even when we are orphans in our own homes, we are beloved children of the universe.
Now there are only two more words that need to be written tonight:
I’ll write them one more time.