Perspective

I was thinking the other day about some of the projects I made in seventh grade art class. One was a clay bunny that I painted brown, only to realize that I had created something that looked exactly like a giant turd with ears.

The other was a perspective drawing of a city street, which turned out surprisingly well considering just how badly I draw. I really had fun with that assignment, probably because it involved very little actual skill beyond an ability to draw straight lines with a ruler. It was amazing to me to see how something that appeared to be so complicated was actually quite simple to create.

It was all about breaking it down and looking at it differently.

Perspective.

The teacher didn’t seem to be bothered by my utter lack of any artistic skill whatsoever, but she became annoyed when I wouldn’t give her an answer about whether or not my family would be there for the annual Open House. I hemmed and hawed and stammered and finally mumbled something about my mom being sick. The teacher stared at me for a long, quiet moment before hauling me out in the hall and demanding the truth.

I don’t know what possessed me that day. I opened my mouth and told her details I hadn’t even told my closest friends. Words I barely understood: modified radical mastectomy, radiation, chemotherapy, prognosis. I told her the truth — that my mom was scheduled to begin chemotherapy on the day of the Open House, and we didn’t know if she would be sick that evening or not. I couldn’t give the teacher a definite “yes” or “no” because I didn’t know what to expect.

“I had breast cancer two years ago,” the teacher told me, after another long, quiet stare. “And chemo. You show up if you can, stay home with your mom if she needs you.”

In that moment, I wasn’t alone anymore. My mom was no longer the only person I knew with breast cancer. With those few words, my teacher changed the way I saw my mother’s cancer, and I could breathe again. She made my world that much bigger.

She gave me dose of perspective. A way of looking at things from a different angle.

It’s no secret that I’ve been struggling with a lot of issues in recent months. I don’t like to say that I “suffer” from depression, because that sounds too passive. I “struggle” with it, “deal” with it, “fight” it, but I don’t just sit here and suffer. I hate it with a passion.

I am not, however, ashamed of it.

I’m never sure how much to say about my depression. I don’t want to be seen as a whiner, or as someone trolling for sympathy. I don’t want sympathy, and I don’t want people to walk on eggshells around me. Seriously, just because I’m going through a bad time, it doesn’t mean I need people to check up on me all the time. I’m not going to lie; there are days when my greatest accomplishment is simply staying alive until sunset. But I’m not that fragile. I’m just . . . . depressed, and doing my damndest to climb out of a very deep, dark hole.

I want to keep it secret because I don’t want to be treated differently. But I also want to talk about it because I want people to understand why I sometimes withdraw from them and want to spend time alone. Why I cry for no apparent reason. Why I can come unglued so easily. Why my temper sometimes flares up in ways that are not proportionate to the situation.  I’m asking for some patience, but not pity.

It’s all in how you look at it. Perspective.

It’s been a rough summer for me. I worked too many part-time jobs and pushed myself to the point of exhaustion, and it still wasn’t enough. I lost my dream house anyway. I ended up in the subsidized apartment building here in town, where I am surrounded by boxes and bags and piles of everything I own, and I am too overwhelmed to make the next move of actually putting anything away.

I organized my silverware drawer and I move boxes of books from place to place. I’ve unwrapped my Lladros and Dresdens and even managed to cook a real supper for my boys the other night. And I discovered that I own far too much tea, which has worked out pretty well since I haven’t been able to find the filter basket for my coffeemaker. I haven’t had coffee in a week, but I’ve worked my way through some delicious Earl Grey and other treasures for my morning caffeine.

I turned to my pastor for help. She told me this is all God’s way of telling me to go back to my husband. I told her that God must be sending mixed messages, since my ex is currently engaged to someone new and my return at this point might make for an awkward honeymoon.

I don’t care for my pastor’s perspective. She sees my situation as a punishment for my sins. I see her as a total asshole, and I won’t be returning to her church.

That’s my perspective.

Look, I am an author and a blogger. Most of the time, I manage to make people laugh. I have been so fortunate to be able to find my voice and follow my dream and all that. My kids are healthy, I have the support of a lot good people, etc. Lots of good stuff, right? On my good days, I’m able to appreciate how blessed I really am. And on my bad days, I cling to the good stuff like a lifeline, and that lifeline keeps me from going completely under.

Depression sucks. There are those who believe it’s a weakness, or a choice. Who perceive it as wallowing in self-pity or looking for attention. Who are going to read this and shake their heads in disgust.

All I am asking is that you take a second to see the world from a different perspective, and understand that depression is not a choice. It’s an illness. In the United States alone, 16 million adults had at least one major depressive episode in 2012. That’s 6.9% of the population, guys. It’s real and it hurts.

And I’m choosing to own it. I am not ashamed of it anymore. I’m looking from a new angle, seeing it as something that is not a weakness, not a fault. It’s treatable, and I can do something about it. There is hope.

I am Amy, and I am being treated for depression.

Adventures of the Amoeba Squad

The memory that haunts me is more of a composite memory, really. The events all happened when I was so young that my mind has sort of squashed them all together, kind of like a memory meatloaf.

It involves the summers I spent as a child with my aunts at their cottage on Lake Michigan. The Aunts were my father’s four sisters who never married, never lived alone, never made a move without first consulting each other.  My father was not on speaking terms with them for most of my formative years, and my sisters and I secretly referred to them as The Amoeba

My aunts had no children of their own, but they were firmly convinced that they were experts at child-rearing.  In all matters of discipline, education, nutrition and entertainment, they knew it all.  God help anyone who dared disagree with the Amoeba, which also explains a lot about why my mother’s relationship with them wasn’t all that terrific, either.

Aunt Marian, for example, couldn’t see the nutritional difference between sugary cereals and a candy bar, so we routinely ate Snickers bars for breakfast. She believed that dairy products could soothe an upset tummy, which meant that we ate ice cream between bouts of vomiting when we had the flu.

I cringe now that I’m a mother, but oh, man, did I love the food at my aunts’ house!

The Aunts also had some strange beliefs about what was and was not appropriate for children.  Actually, they had some strange beliefs about a lot of things. Aunt Verna believed that douching with warm Pepsi could prevent pregnancy, so all pop served to teenage girls in that house was served on ice, thank you very much.  She saw that as her way of preventing teenage sex. As teenagers, my sisters and I loved to come home from dates and make a big show of pouring ourselves a big, tall glass of warm Pepsi, just to mess with her mind.

But the memories that haunt me don’t involve dating, douching, or Pepsi.

Not just for drinking anymore.
Not just for drinking anymore.

My aunts were addicted to police scanners.  They were four of the nosiest people in the world, and they discovered scanners about the time they realized that their nineteen sets of binoculars and two telescopes just weren’t bringing in enough information.  They had a scanner in the living room, a scanner in the kitchen, and Aunt Marian had her own personal scanner in the bedroom.

They memorized the police codes, and they knew precisely when some juicy, gossip-worthy event was taking place anywhere in the county. And if those events took place in the middle of the night, the aunts saw nothing wrong in waking us up and taking us for a ride to the scene in the trusty family station wagon, also known as Wag, the unofficial eighth member of our tribe.

“Up and at ‘em, Girls!” Aunt Marian would crow. “There’s a fire at the old five-and-dime!” or “They’ve found a body down by the marina!”  We’d stumble into the clothes she tossed us and wrap up in our matching white windbreakers – yes, we all seven wore matching white windbreakers everywhere we went. On foggy nights, I think we probably traumatized quite a few other spectators when we materialized out of the gloom like some demented Amoeba Squad.

It seems like there were always bodies being hauled out of the lake.  That sounds pretty grim, but it never seemed that way to me as a kid.  My aunts had made it abundantly clear to us that the water could be dangerous when not regarded with the proper respect and caution.  Drownings were a part of summer life at the beach.  Boats capsized, teenagers were overcome after diving from the pier, little children wandered away from parents.  It was just something that happened, and my aunts believed that exposing us to that ugly truth was an appropriate way of teaching us to respect the water.

In retrospect, I shudder to think of the things we saw. To a certain extent, I can understand my aunts’ fascination with drowning, because two of their brothers were killed in a boating accident in the 1950’s, but I still cannot begin to comprehend the logic of taking three little girls along to stand in a crowd to see a body loaded up and taken away.

The night I remember most vividly, we waited on the pier amid a growing crowd for what seemed like hours.  Rumor had it that the body had been found a few miles out and they were having trouble retrieving it.  It had been in the water for quite some time, they said, and was so badly decomposed that it was impossible to determine gender at that time.  I don’t know what standard procedure is in a situation like that, or whether any of the rumors were true, but the general consensus was that the body was so far gone that it couldn’t even be picked up out of the water; it was said that the Coast Guard had to scoop a body bag around it and drag it behind the boat.

I strongly doubt that’s what really happened.   But I stood there with the rest of them, clustered around the North Pier’s old white lighthouse that’s been gone for almost thirty years now.  We craned our necks and murmured theories about who it might be, and every once in a while someone would shout when they thought they saw a boat somewhere on the horizon.

I don’t think they ever actually brought a body in that night.  Or if they did, I have forgotten the details.  I remember giving up and shuffling back home, where we brushed the sand from our bare feet and hung our seven white windbreakers on seven hooks before crawling back into our beds.

We were terribly disappointed, and that’s the part that haunts me.  A human being, someone’s son or daughter, died in Lake Michigan, and we were disappointed because we didn’t get to see the body dragged out of the water.  A life ended.  Somewhere, a heart broke and a soul mourned the loss of a loved one, and I was part of a group of ghouls watching, waiting to see the gory results.

I remember that night every time I drive past a car accident and see the gawkers slowing down, or when I see a house fire on the news with clusters of onlookers waiting to see if anyone died.   I feel that same sense of shame, and I force myself to look the other way.

The memory that haunts me is the memory that makes me turn away from watching somebody’s pain, someone else’s loss, because I never want to be part of that crowd again.  Not even if I could still fit into the old white windbreaker.

***

This post is part of Finish the Sentence Friday, in which writers and bloggers finish a sentence and “link up” their posts. This week’s sentence was “The memory that haunts me is . . . ”  

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