Jul 19

The Rev. Dr. Dr. Judith Crossett, Professor Emeritus

Edited and slightly expanded, these are the extemporaneous remarks I made about my mother at the 2019 University of Iowa Department of Psychiatry retirement party last month.

My mother was working on her dissertation for a PhD in English when I was born but was already casting about for something else to do. At her postpartum exam, she decided to become a doctor. How she came to that decision is her story to tell, but after she had me she finished her dissertation, got her PhD, and then she went back and took all the pre-med requirements she’d missed as an English major. She started medical school when she was 32 and I was three-and-a-half. She became a single mother halfway through med school when my dad died by suicide when I was five-and-a-half, but she finished, did her residency, and went on to the career you’ve heard about.

There were not a lot of female medical students in the early 1980s, when my mother was in medical school. I believe her class was only about 30% female. As you know, med school classes are now routinely over 50% female. There were even fewer mothers, if any, and I would warrant she was the only single mother in her medical school class. As a child I knew many people whose parents were doctors, but I knew only one other doctor mother.

And yet it was a cool way to grow up. I got to spend a lot of time at the hospital and check out all the nifty equipment. Once I volunteered to let everyone look in my ears through a new machine that required you to lie on a table while they lowered a giant piece of machinery down on you—all the medical students were too scared to try it out.

One Thanksgiving when I was six or seven my mother was on call, so we spent Thanksgiving at the hospital. That meant I got to eat at the hospital cafeteria—which, as you may know, means you get to choose your dessert first, and you get the mashed potatoes that come out in a perfect circle from an ice cream scoop. The nurses let me draw on the white board, which was a novelty back then, and type a story on the computer, another novelty in the mid-1980s, and they made me popcorn. I got to sleep on a Murphy bed, which I am afraid means my mother, whose bed it was supposed to be, got no sleep at all, as I was a restless sleeper and kicked in my sleep, but I had never slept in a bed that folded out of a wall.

I could tell many more stories like that, but I didn’t just come here to talk about being the daughter of a psychiatrist: I also came because I am a psychiatric patient and have been for twenty-two years. I have what we now call treatment resistant depression. But I have been lucky, as all your family members have been and will be lucky. When I was twenty years old and it was 8 pm on Christmas Eve and I needed to talk to a psychiatrist, my mother was able to get Dr. Barbara Struss on the phone to talk to me, and she was able to get me an appointment with her for the morning of the day after Christmas. Because of my mother’s connections (and income), I have been able to see, often on short notice, such amazing practitioners as Dr. Struss, Dr. Sharon Koele, Dr. Peggy Baker, Dr. Laurie Kenfield, and many others.

But not everyone has those advantages—in fact, most people don’t. And some people don’t have any access to those doctors and services at all. I know that because I work at a public library, and I see those people every day. We had a patron who was terrified she was going to look up child pornography. She would call us multiple times a day asking if this or that site contained child porn. She lost her job at a big box store—unsurprisingly—for obsessing over this question. We see paranoia, depression, obsession and compulsion, anxiety, and other hallmarks of psychiatric illness from people who don’t have jobs, much less health insurance or connections, every day. While it’s true that the Free Mental Health Clinic may help provide excellent training to medical students and residents on helping just such patients, its real purpose is to help those patients—those patients that we—or our insurance industry—have decided are not worthy of our help. I’m very proud that my mother had a role not only in founding it but in ensuring its success over the years.

In addition to being a very privileged psychiatric outpatient, I’ve also on two occasions been a psychiatric inpatient. Now I know from talking to my mother that in reality your psychiatrist spends more than five minutes a day on your case: in addition to talking to you, they talk to members of your treatment team, write daily progress notes, and keep a close eye on what is happening to you. But what it feels like when you’re an inpatient is that your doctor talks to you for five minutes a day and that’s it.

But your nurses! Your nurses are there when you wake up in the morning. They are there when you go to bed. They’re there when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t sleep. They’re—[interruption due to applause, so I’m not sure what I was going to say next]. Basically, the less money you make on the psych ward and the more time you spend with patients, the more respect you get from those patients.

My mother started her speech by quoting the maxim that every encounter is therapeutic. It can be, and it should be, if you choose to make it so. I know that she’s been making that the case for patients here for decades, for, as I always tell her, whatever she felt she may have lacked as a medical student and a resident by not having started out life wanting to be a doctor, by not having majored in biology or chemistry, I think that she more than made up for for her patients by having lived and experienced life. She has been a better doctor because of being a single mother, not despite it. I’m very proud of her today and always.

Jan 18


2017 was the year that people started telling you to call your senators. If you had already called them, you should call them again, and again. It was unclear how many times you needed to call them, or whether any number of times would be sufficient. It was possible that you could devote your life to calling them and it would not be enough. And indeed, how could it ever be, when the news kept coming, fast and terrible?

It was the year I began to be afraid to look at news alerts on my phone and yet could not look away from them. It was the year that the question on my psychiatrist’s diagnostic survey about how often you felt something awful might happen no longer seemed as though it belonged on a psychiatric questionnaire. Awful things were happening every day—US citizens were denied entry into their own country; refugees were turned back at the gate, white men gunned down scores of people gathered in public places and marched with burning torches; women seeking legal medical procedures were told by the government that had legalized those procedures that they were no longer available. Who in their right might did not believe that something awful was about to happen?

It was the year when information began to disappear, when data scientists began to save things we had always believed our government would keep secure, when librarians began to wonder if government information was something we could still tell people to rely on.

It was the year I lost my keys and my driver’s license, when cash was stolen twice from my wallet and medication from my home, the year I lost six days of my life to a psychiatric ward and another to an accidental overdose on antipsychotics, the year I went to get an abortion and learned I’d already lost the pregnancy.

It was the year that my mother moved into my house with all her earthly possessions and the year my son started kindergarten and an SSRI.

It was the year my son ripped up books and broke windows, the year I wore long sleeves all summer to hide the bite marks on my arm. It was the year men were everywhere found to have harassed and groped and raped women and when others began to pontificate on the nature of toxic masculinity or argue that the crimes of some men should be overlooked in order to preserve the good work they had done, and I began to wonder if it would be possible to raise a white son not to do these things. It was the year that people yelled a lot and the year that I began to lose my faith in the ability of words to convince people of things.

The other day I found one thing that survived the year: a book called Ant and Bee and the ABC, an English book for “tiny tots” that once belonged to my mother. In it Ant and Bee lose their hats and go looking for them in a place called Lost Things Found in Boxes. There is a box for each letter of the alphabet, and they look in each in turn, looking for their lost hats, but there lost hats are not there. Not in Box J with the jack-in-the-boxes or box E with the elephants; not in box Q with the queens or box L with the lions. Spoiler alert: their hats are in the last box, the box that comes after all of the alphabet, a box called Box Funny Things. In the end, they get their hats back and give them to each other, because Ant’s hat fits Bee better and Bee’s hat fits Ant’s better, and they go on to have many other alphabetical adventures in further books.

My house is still full of unpacked boxes. Perhaps when I unpack them I shall regain some of the things I have lost: for of course the last thing that came out of Pandora’s box was hope.

Dec 17

On Garrison Keillor

There are a lot of Garrison Keillor haters on my Facebook feed. I knew that was true even before he was cut loose by Minnesota Public Radio due to allegations of sexual harassment, but needless to say the past few days have been a Keillor-haters festival. I keep almost posting “I hope all you Keillor haters are happy now,” but I try not to get into arguments on the internet.

Let me be clear: I write this not to excuse his actions nor to doubt them. It is not particularly surprising that a man has made unwanted advances on a woman, particularly a man who has been married and divorced as many times as Keillor has, particularly a man with the kind of status he has achieved. If the past few months have taught us anything, it is that such behavior is the rule, not the exception. That powerful and popular men are now being taken to task for it is amazing and gives me some faint hope that perhaps the men who are not so powerful or so popular but whose actions are every bit as egregious as those of Harvey Weinstein, Louis CK, or Matt Lauer may also see justice, although I have my doubts.

I write here not to defend Keillor’s actions — or really to say much about them at all, except that I strongly suspect MPR has more information than has been made public.

I write instead to defend the work. If you hate Garrison Keillor, you should stop right here, for I doubt anything I say will convince you otherwise. But in dismissing his work you are also dismissing mine, for so much of what I know about writing, about storytelling, about loyalty, about humor, and about love comes from his work.

I heard Garrison Keillor on the radio before I knew what a radio was. When I was very young we lived in a town without a supermarket, so once a week my mother and I drove twenty miles to get groceries and do other errands of the sort one could do in the city. These trips were largely dull for me, for what two or three or four year old enjoys going to the dry cleaner, the grocery store, and the state run liquor store? (The last of these was particularly dull, with its harsh light and its rows upon rows of bottles.) But as we drove back to Mount Vernon, my mother would listen to a man telling stories on the radio. Gradually I began to recognize his voice and to know a bit about the place he talked about and the people who lived there. The first monologue I remember talked about a dentist who had let his teeth go bad to make his patients feel better.

Later we moved to that town with the grocery store (the store I still shop at, in fact), but we still listened to the man on the radio. In grade school my best friend and I acquired — perhaps by stealing them from my mother or grandmother — the first set of tapes of Lake Wobegon monologues, and we listened to them over and over and over, particularly Spring, as “Me and Choir” was our hands-down favorite. Ninety percent of what I know about comic timing comes from that single monologue (for the remaining ten percent, I’ll give credit to “Alice’s Restaurant”).

To this day she and I can quote entire scenes from those stories and cap each other’s quotations. They are a shared language as sacred as any sacred text. In junior high we attended the 4th Annual Farewell Performance in Iowa City. In high school my mother took us to see the short-lived interlude, American Radio Company of the Air, before Keillor came to his senses and brought A Prairie Home Companion back.

In college I met a woman who could quote from A Lutheran’s Guide to the Orchestra while waiting around for orchestra tryouts. She organized a group of us to go down to New York City to see one of the December performances at Town Hall each year. When I got back to the Midwest for break, I’d go visit my old friend in Minneapolis and we’d see the show at its home at the Fitzgerald Theatre in downtown Saint Paul.

There were many years when the show was not as good as it once was, years when l listened largely for the music and years when I cringed at some of the skits (“Ruth Harrison, Reference Librarian,” I’m looking at you). But even then there’d every now and then be a glimmer of some of the magic of “Storm Home” or “Gospel Birds,” some of the sad majesty of “The Royal Family,” some of the family dynamics that make “The Tollefson Boy Goes to College” so perfect and so poignant.

Keillor is at his best in front of a live audience. His books fall flat, even when he reads them out loud — he needs that interaction of talking to people from an empty stage, looking out at them past the bright lights in the dark. Sitting in those audiences is a privilege I’ll never forget; listening (and listening again and again) to the recordings is something that never fails to bring me back to the seasons of my childhood, the way that leaves collaged themselves around you in the fall, the way that snowflakes caught on your mittens in the winter, the way the world seemed open and full of possibility in spring.

Early this week I posted Claire Dederer’s stunning essay “What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?” Her questions are my questions, and her answers are mine. I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know.

But I do know that if it hasn’t happened to you yet, it will: you will love a man’s work and learn that its creator has done a terrible thing. And then you will have to figure out what to do.

I don’t defend my conduct. I explain it,” said Oscar Wilde. I cannot defend Keillor. But perhaps I have explained a little about what his work has meant to me.

Jul 17

On Wilderness #52essays2017 no. 19

When my great hero Edward Abbey lived with his family in Hoboken, NJ, he wrote that “we had all the wilderness we needed.” I think he was lying. Notably, he did not remain in Hoboken, NJ (nor with that wife and family — I think she was wife number two, but with five of them I get confused — he’s not my hero in all aspects of his life) but rather went back out west and settled in Utah and Arizona, disappearing often into the desert and coming back to town to write and teach.

I live in Iowa and I have nowhere near the wilderness I need. I can’t track down the source, but I once read that Iowa has less uncultivated land than any other state in the country, and I believe it’s true: everything here that isn’t a city got turned into farmland, most of it now firmly in the hands of Big Agriculture and Monsanto. Much of the country here is very pretty, but it’s not wild.

I have days (and this is clearly one of them) where I think leaving the West was the worst decision I ever made. When I first heard of Meeteetse, Wyoming, I was sitting in a library in Franklin Park, Illinois scrolling through librarian job ads. I looked up Meeteetse on Google maps and saw it there, a tiny speck of a town just miles from the edge of the Shoshone National Forest, and I was sold. It didn’t matter that I was only halfway through library school: I was going to apply for that job. I was going to escape the smog and the traffic. I was going to ride to the ridge where the West commences and gaze and the moon until I lost my senses, and that’s what I did.

I used to lie on my back at night and gaze up at the stars — on a clear night — and most of the nights are clear in the high desert — you could see the Milky Way from my yard. On weekends I’d pack up and head out for the National Forest. Drive thirty minutes, hike a few miles, and then you were in the Washakie Wilderness, 704,274 acres touching three counties where no motorized vehicles were allowed and you could hike for hours or days without seeing another human being. I’d see moose back in there, and bear tracks, and sometimes I’d feel bad for even the impressions my hiking boots made in the land, feeling I should leave it untrammeled for the creatures whose home it was.

That’s the strange thing about wilderness: people don’t really belong there. Humankind’s dominion over nature is so complete that it’s antithetical to our sense of ourselves to say there are places where we should not go, or visit only briefly, places that belong to bears and birds and wolves and lodgepole pines. And of course a lot of people don’t think that, often especially people who live near those places, who resent that people in New York and California have more say over what happens to the land they live by than they do.

People say the West begins at the 100th meridian, or where the rainfall drops to less than ten inches a year. I say it begins where there’s more federal land than there is private property. And it’s there that I face the great paradox of the wilderness: it was saved by people who’d never set foot in it and probably won’t. The people who voted for the Wilderness Act and the Endangered Species Act mostly don’t come from places where there is wilderness or endangered species — there aren’t enough people in most of those places to provide for more than one or two House votes per state, and many of those votes, like many of the people they represent, resent federal wilderness protections. Somehow people convinced those men (and they were mostly men) to save land they’d likely never seen. I am forever grateful to them.

I started this essay by quoting Ed Abbey. I read Abbey long before I ever had a child or before the full brunt of what it means to be female, and especially a mother, came to bear down on me. I have a harder time with Abbey and many of my other heroes (Charles Bowden comes to mind, as does Jack Kerouac) now because their adventures were largely possible because they skipped out on the duties of parenthood, and they are celebrated for it in a way no woman ever would be.

A year or so ago I was trying to do an interview with the author of a wonderful book about Ed Abbey, but I abandoned it because I couldn’t make it stick together. I couldn’t get over my own resentment of someone who was still free to “crawl, on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbrush and cactus” until “traces of blood “ began to mark his trail. I don’t get to do that anymore, and it will be many years before I can again. All that is fodder for a very different essay, but I wanted to acknowledge it here as part of the thing I want and can’t have, due not only to geography but also to fate. In the meantime, I keep my topo maps on the top shelf, waiting for the day when it will be time to get them down again.

Jun 17

On Springsteen #52essays2017 no. 18

During the worst of my anxiety this spring, I had a panic attack at every red light. There are seven stoplights between my house and my work, and one of them I go through twice due to daycare dropoff, so there were sixteen times a day when I might start to hyperventilate in my car and wonder if I was going to hit the gas and ram into the car in front of me. The only way I could get through was to count the seconds of each stoplight. I learned that the longest one was a minute; most were only 30 or 45 seconds. Knowing how long I had to stay there made it bearable.

After I got out of the hospital I no longer had that panic at stoplights, but I still had panic in the car, and the only thing that got me through was listening to “Thunder Road” on repeat. As a friend of mine said, there are worse coping mechanisms. In a future essay I’ll talk about why that in particular is such a brilliant song, but for now I want to talk about Springsteen more generally, because his music has helped me out so much in the past few months.

I moved from “Thunder Road” on repeat to Born to Run in its entirety, and then to Darkness on the Edge of Town, and, of late, Tunnel of Love.

I didn’t like Bruce Springsteen when I was a kid, because all I knew about him was that Ronald Reagan used “Born in the USA,” and, like Reagan, I hadn’t actually listened to the lyrics of that song. So I was a Springsteen late bloomer, coming to him only in graduate school, acquiring albums as they showed up at the public library or as I found them as cassettes at Goodwill.

In the summer of 2002, my friend Meg, dead now these five years, spent a month on the psych ward, where I’d visit her every day and bring her coffee (in those years the psych ward wouldn’t serve you caffeinated coffee from the cafeteria, though they’d let you buy Coke and Mountain Dew at 8 pm, but people could bring it in for you). One day she got a pass and we went out to a movie — Minority Report, I think. I had a tape in my car that was Darkness on the Edge of Town on one side and Born in the USA on the other. “This is the all Springsteen all the time car,” I said to her, and she approved, though the Boss himself once gave her a Heineken backstage when she was fourteen, which isn’t the sort of thing a recovering addict normally approves of.

I used to play “Tougher Than the Rest” for my grandmother and tell her it was the most romantic song I’d ever heard. “Well,” she said, “it certainly says I have flaws and you might too.” I think she was still a fan of the songs of her youth, which were a little realistic, to my mind, but we all prefer the music of our youth.

At my tenth high school reunion someone handed my friend Tim a stack of quarters and told him to pick music from the jukebox. “Come with me,” he said, and we started flipping through the albums. I was going to vote for “No Surrender” when we got to Born in the USA (“We learned more from a three minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school”), but he said “I suppose we have to play “Glory Days.” We agreed we had to, even though it was so corny. Thirteen years later I find it less corny, perhaps because I am now a single mother like the one in the song, and my social life consists of a beer now and then after my kid is in bed.

I used to think there was something wrong with loving things that so many other people loved, but I’ve gotten past that as I’ve gotten older, and thus I feel free to love Springsteen with abandon. I’ve listened to “Promised Land” while driving through the Utah desert and argued about the lyrics to “Racing in the Streets” with someone from Pennsylvania/New Jersey. I’ve come to understand that Reagan was as wrong about Springsteen as he was about everything else. I’ve used the phrase brilliant disguise in an essay and made someone think it was mine (I ‘fessed up). I’ve listened to the more recent albums and loved them, too, which is a rarity — most artists don’t have that much staying power.

I measure my love for my son against Janey’s love for hers. I measure the men I meet against the narrator of “Tougher Than the Rest.” I measure patriotism against “Born in the USA” and defiance against “No Surrender.” Whenever I drive fast I hope that the two lanes can take me anywhere, and I’m ready to take that long walk, even if the ride ain’t free.

May 17

Swimming #52essays2017 no. 17

When I was a child the locker rooms at the outdoor pool in my town were open to the air so that, we imagined, the occasional balloonist or low flying plane looking down could see us all changing in and out of our swimsuits. I was five or seven or nine and didn’t care or know to care, and neither did the old hippie ladies who walked around stark naked with sagging breasts and mounds of pubic hair. This was the early 80s, so they weren’t very old hippie ladies; they just seemed old to me, and certainly they were older than the teenagers who shrieked and wore bikinis and never seemed to get in the water.

I did not learn to swim until I was seven, at a camp in Maine far away from Iowa, in a cold clear sand bottomed lake, so my early experiences of the pool were just of splashing around in the shallow end. You’d go and put your clothes in a wire basket with a number on it, and they’d give you a pin with the same number that you’d pin to your swimsuit and use to retrieve your belongings when you were done swimming. The walls of the locker rooms were painted cement blocks, and the shower area was just a big communal square.

Later in my childhood the place was remodeled, and they put on a roof, and actual lockers, and some private stalls, but I’m grateful for that early experience of the open air and of seeing everyone’s bodies and knowing from an early age that swimming was not just a pleasure for the fit and thin.

These days I swim laps at the rec center in the city where I work, across the street from the junior high I would have gone to had I lived here in junior high, where one of my high school classmates now teaches. I swam many laps there while I was pregnant, as the water was the only place I felt good. Around seven or eight months the nurse midwives told me to go do handstands in the pool to flip my baby, who was breech. I’ve never known if handstands in the pool actually does anything to flip a baby or if it’s just something you tell pregnant women to do so they can feel they are doing something. At any rate, I’d waddle in my maternity suit under the panicked eye of the teenage lifeguard, who clearly thought I might be about to give birth at any moment. I’d get in the water and feel better again, immediately lithe and strong and all the things I didn’t feel on land. I’d swim down to the shallow end, do a few handstands, swim back, and repeat the whole exercise.

Junior high students all have to complete a swimming PE unit, and they walk across the street and huddle in the locker room, equally self-conscious about their own young bodies and somewhat frightened at the bodies of the rest of us in the locker room, where most of the other women are even older than I am. I used to be self-conscious around them, too, till I thought about the old hippie ladies of my youth and decided I was going to be one of them, too.

I am not a fast or particularly good swimmer. I do a lap of crawl and then a lap of breast stroke and then back to crawl, and most of the time when I swim crawl I don’t bother to kick. I’m not sure, therefore, how much exercise I actually get from swimming, but I think of it less as exercise and more as a meditation. It forces me to regulate my breathing, in and out in time with my arms and legs, and it forces me over the same ground again and again. I don’t wear my glasses when I swim, so all I can make out is the giant black line marking the lane of the pool, and even that is fuzzy and far away. The sounds around me fade away and I’m just a machine that swims back and forth and breathes. I don’t worry that the swimmers around me are faster (they usually are) or that the life guards are fitter (they always are). I just swim.

The pool where I swim now is also used for high school swim meets, and there’s a giant board with the record holders for each stroke and length, or however they divide up the races at swim meets. Until just a summer ago, two of those spots were held by a guy I went to grade school with and am friends with on Facebook now, and it always pleased me to see that his record still stood twenty years later. Last summer, though, his name came down, replaced by a new one. I was there the day a guy was painting over the sign. When I got out of the water I went over to him and said, “Hey, I knew the guy who’s name your painting over.” “Huh,” he said, not caring, because this was just his summer job, and he didn’t want to talk to middle aged women who’d just gotten out of swimming pools.

Now I know none of the names on the board, but I go back again and again, making my own sort of record, knowing that I am proud of my body as it swims, and no one can take that away from me.

Apr 17

Fears #52essays2017 no. 15

I’m afraid of listening to new podcasts, even when they come highly recommended. Sometimes I’m even afraid of listening to new episodes of podcasts I love, and so I listen to old ones instead. I’m afraid of the pieces of paper on my desk, and I’m afraid of sorting or organizing them because I might lose one and thus forget the book I’m supposed to order for someone or the phone call I’m supposed to make. Sometimes the piles just sit there for months and months, and then I’m afraid of them because they’ve been there so long and everyone will think I’m crazy if I bring them up now. Of course I am crazy. I have a hospital record to prove it.

I’m afraid during thunderstorms and wish someone would hold me, but I’m not afraid of tornadoes. I’m often terrified to drive but I’m not afraid of flying. I’m not afraid of public speaking but I’m afraid to call my friends.

I’m afraid of making plans for my son because he so often doesn’t like them, and how do I explain to another parent that my kid refuses to play with their kid all of a sudden when they played together so well last week? I’m also afraid of being alone with my child because I don’t know what to do to keep him occupied. I am 41 years old and my brain doesn’t occupy the space of a five year old’s mind very well.

Most of these fears are a daily presence. They form the basis of my self talk and shape my waking hours. When I take enough medication, I’m still afraid but the fears don’t bother me as much, sort of the way they say morphine doesn’t ease the pain; it just makes you not care about it.

It’s hard, because I am, for instance, afraid of feeding my child because there are so few foods he eats and they aren’t consistent, and it’s not feasible to take him out for a stripey grilled cheese sandwich at Panera for every meal. Once I made him a grilled cheese sandwich at home and he rejected it because it didn’t have stripes. Then I found a grill so I could make a striped grilled cheese sandwich and he rejected it because it was only supposed to have stripes on one side. Today he said he’d eat one with no stripes and he did and I nearly died of shock.

I would give almost anything not to be so afraid. My right foot? Maybe. I could limp along on crutches if I weren’t so afraid. But trades don’t work like that. I can’t give up a body part to be rid of part of my mind.

What worries me most is that my son has inherited this trait from me. At night we lie in bed and he asks me questions about all of his fears. He walks in behind me when we go places so he can hide behind my back. He is anxious, but he can’t tell me that, so he throws things and screams and hits. I do my best to help him with early interventions, but I worry he will end up just like me, and I wouldn’t wish this on anyone.

When I was in graduate school my friend said if she could just get migraines like Joan Didion’s migraines then she’d be okay. She could write essays about them. I used to read The White Album and Slouching Toward Bethlehem again and again so I could read about how she’d call her husband to ask for the time because she never remembered to pack a watch, about how afraid she was to ask the assistant district attorney anything and thus relied on observations to tell her stories. If I could have fears like Joan Didion’s fears, I could make them into art.

But in my experience ailments are not art; they are impediments to it. Mental illness may have an association with creativity, but it’s hell to live through for the sake of creativity.

I write about my fears from a position of privilege. I won’t lose my job as a result, and if I lose friends, well, I am not sure they were my friends to begin with. I am likewise lucky in my family, who have not disinherited me yet, for all that I sometimes write about things they might wish I wouldn’t.

The wind is blowing outside my house right now and it’s cold and wet outside, and I’m afraid of another long day indoors tomorrow. I’m afraid that I won’t remember ever what it’s like to be happy or remember any of the things I used to like to do. Right now I’m afraid of even the simplest of matters: I’m afraid to cook an egg because it seems too complicated. I bought peach yogurt in addition to my usual raspberry and lemon and I’m afraid to try it. I’m afraid when I look at the books on my shelves because I know I read most of them at one time but I can’t remember when I had the energy and attention to do such things.

I am afraid, in other words, of living, but life still goes on.

Apr 17

The Psych Ward, Nineteen Years Later #52essays2017 no. 14

Yet why not say what happened? —Robert Lowell

12 April 2017

There’s a paperclip on the floor of my room and I’m oddly thrilled by it — it must be contraband. I’m tempted to leave it there just to see if anyone notices and what they’ll do.

I have my own room here which makes it an improvement over the UI, but I have to share the phone with everyone else on the floor, but it’s a cordless (of course — we might strangle ourselves with a a cord), but at least I can take it to my room, but then I feel bad for hogging the phone. I think it has call waiting, but I was too scared of pressing the buttons to find out.

My Stitch Fix is supposed to arrive Friday and I won’t be able to respond because I’m here. I sort of look forward to the email I’ll send them. Dear Stitch Fix, I couldn’t respond to your latest styling of me because I was on the psych ward. I’m imagining now a whole line of styling tips just for the psych ward. Wear your ankle boots in but then realize you’ll have to exchange them for slippers. How do you accessorize scrubs? So many questions.

My handwriting has really deteriorated. I wonder if I’ll be able to read this later. My hand hurts from writing, too. Out of practice of a side effect of the depression or the drugs, who knows.

I wish I could open a window.

13 April 2017

It is so strange not having the internet. Did I say that last night too? Well, it is still true. There is some internet here — a computer with a web browser — but no internet where you can talk to people. All those sites are blocked. I haven’t tried it yet to see, but I’m sure it’s true. And I can’t think of what else I’d want to do online other than seeing what everyone is up to. What’s going on in the normal world while I’m here.

In half an hour there’s movement group and I guess I’ll go. There’s nothing else to do here but read or write or knit, and I can’t concentrate on reading. I wonder if they’d let me have my laptop to write on. Maybe, but not in my room I’m sure, and I don’t know how easy it would be to write in the dayroom.

Fashion report: today I’m wearing skinny jeans paired with a navy Loft t-shirt and my burgundy Madewell cardigan. And slippers.

I wish my hand didn’t cramp so horribly while writing. Maybe it will get easier if I keep doing it. I can only hope.

Movement group at 10 and then time to kill and then lunch and then time to kill and then coping skills group, which sounds awful (worksheets! worksheets!) and then time to kill and then my friend comes and then Mom and Peter come and then time to kill and then bedtime and that will be another day here.

Mom says more than a day and less than a month is how long I’ll be here. I hope it’s a lot less than a month. This place is comfortable but horrible. Fifteen minutes until movement group.

I brought four books with me and I already finished one — I was rereading The Hero and the Crown. I brought Fire and Hemlock too, and the book discussion book (Station Eleven) and What the Living Do. I was listening to Station Eleven and thought I could do that here while knitting but of course I can’t because it’s on my phone and I can’t have my phone.

It is nice not to be responsible for any email. I wonder how much I’ll have when I get out. I wonder when I’ll get out. I wonder if I’ll be any better. I can’t quite imagine it. I wasn’t better when I left the psych ward last time; I just wanted to leave so I pretended to be better. What if it’s all just pretending? What if everyone out there is just pretending to be well and we’re all in the depths?

It takes a long time to write things by hand. Even writing like this, with little care for how the letters come out.

There’s some gunk in my sweater and I just had it cleaned. There are also several holes in it and I just got it last year, so I guess Madewell isn’t necessarily made well, or maybe I’m just careless with my clothes and go moths. That’s likely, really, if I’m honest with myself.

I should ask Mom to bring me shampoo. My hair is starting to smell.

Seven minutes till movement group. I’m a clockwatcher now.


I wasn’t supposed to have the phone in my room and then I got criticized for being on the phone for too long. One of their suggested activities is call a friend, but apparently there are limits. I will have to learn them so I can squeak by just under them. I should call K tonight but I’m afraid to use the phone now so I won’t. I’ll just hide in my room. And with any luck I will sleep.

But the rules, God, the rules are so much like high school. Don’t be where we can’t see you. Fifteen minute checks. Lights you can’t turn off. I’m waiting for them to tell me I can’t block the bathroom light with my chair. Just take that from me, I want to say. You’ve taken everything else.

My friend came to visit and brought me a stack of New Yorkers — I only asked for two. Then Mom and Peter came for a much shorter time — just enough for Peter to do a little Lego. Peter brought me flowers and all his drawings from playhouse. I’m so sad I can’t take care of him.

This narrative is descending rapidly in to journaling, dreaded word. I must do something about that, try to work in a phrase as good as glib martyr.

My Stitch Fix box came. Peter was very proud that he carried it into the house for me. I sort of wish they’d brought it, but there are no decent mirrors here, so it’s sort of beside the point. It’s almost monastic here except that of course they do allow the TV to be on seven hours a day.

I really hope this trazadone helps me sleep. I woke up at four this morning and never did fall back asleep. I’m weary but not tired or sleep.

It takes 55 laps of the hallway to make a mile. 55. I can’t even.

I miss Peter. I even miss the cats. But I have to be here, in this country as far away as health.

16 April 2017, nighttime

I didn’t write at all yesterday — I felt better and I didn’t seem to need it as much. Plus the group here has really coalesced so I’ve been hanging out more. We rated all the psych wards we’ve been on and decided this one is the best despite the lack of phones. Tonight we watched Dirty Dancing.

Yesterday afternoon I got a pass to go out with Mom and Peter and we bought flowers for the garden and new shoes for Peter and I went home and opened my Stitch Fix.

A came to visit today and I made her do some of the puzzle. We’ve been on a puzzle kick but I am terrible at them. Then another friend came and I had a pass so we went for a walk all the way up to the cemetery and then we went to Oasis and I actually ate.

Tomorrow I get to go home.

19 April 2017, on the outside

I got home on Monday afternoon and I’m still not used to it. I’m back to work but just part time, four hours a day, which seems like about all I can handle. People were trading numbers on the ward the last day I was there and I gave mine out but didn’t get any, so I hope some people get in touch. I feel terrible for the people who are still there when so many of us were leaving.

It’s strange and overwhelming being in the outside world. I can do anything I want but I often don’t know what to do. I’m trying to set a goal a day the way the nurse told us to, but I still refuse to say affirmations in the mirror. The classroom in the ward where I had my intake had a whiteboard with a big list of affirmations — Be kind to yourself, I <3 you, Don’t give up, I’m here for you, One day at a time. In the middle of them was a smaller list: Ambien, Lunesta, Sonata. “I can think of a lot more sleep meds than that,” Mom said.

The social worker made my next appointments with my psychiatrist and my therapist for me, so I don’t have to do that. Mom is going to to stay home from choir tonight to help me with Peter.

Everyone wants to help and I don’t know what to tell them to do. I have to put Peter to bed and get him up (well, really he gets me up) and take him to playhouse. The day to day isn’t really something people can help out with. I wonder if people would take him on the weekends more.

I do feel better than I did when I went in. It’s not a rebirth — you don’t come out to everything shining and new. You come out to your same old messy house and all the same problems you had before. But I’m no longer panicking at stop lights, and I’ll take that. It’s a start.

Apr 17

The Birthday Photos #52essays2017 no. 13

The pictures are from my seventh birthday and they make me cry. My mother found them the other day and originally thought they were from my fifth birthday, so she labeled the one she posted on Facebook that way. I looked at it and thought that was the last birthday I had while my father was alive. But I didn’t remember my father there for that birthday, and he’s not in any of the pictures. (Neither is my mom, but she’s rarely in the pictures — she took most of them.) Later my mother decided it was actually my seventh birthday (perhaps the label on the pictures tipped her off—they are labeled 5TH BIRTHDAY, but someone crossed out the 5 and replaced it with a 7), and then I thought that is a birthday when my father was dead.

It’s a little ridiculous that my reaction to the photos has nothing to do with me and everything to do with my father. In fact it was a wonderful birthday. Three friends came and got along, and we had a magician, a medical school classmate of my mom’s who did magic on the side. He pulled things from our ears and made them disappear, and to this day I’ve never seen a better magic show, maybe because that one was so small and happened right in front of our eyes. It was a good birthday, as all my birthdays but my sixth were, and my mother made it happen. But it’s hard now for me to look at any picture of my childhood and not measure it against my father’s presence or absence.

In a few short months my son will be five-and-a-half, the age I was when my father died. It’s like a clock counting down to that date, and the closer it gets the more I expect something awful to happen, though that makes no more sense. But I can’t help but look at him and wonder what he knows, what he remembers, what he will remember of this time.

The worst thing anyone has ever said to me is that it must not matter so much that my father died because I was too young when he died to remember him. Multiple people have said this to me, people who apparently remember nothing of being three and four and five. I pity them. I have so many memories of my father and of that time. I remember fishing for leaves with him off the limestone wall that marked the border of the college where he taught. In my memories it is always autumn there, as is appropriate for a small liberal arts college with old brick and stone buildings. My father always wears a long sleeves and a coat and tie and smokes a pipe, just like a professor in a book or a movie. I remember riding in the way back of the station wagon with my friend and my father saying pollylops and ephelants and giving us the mayonnaise jar full of peppermints and lemon drops, as many as we wanted, and we always wanted some of each. I remember watching tennis on television with my father as he sat in his Swedish modern chair, his pipe rack by his side and the black and white TV balanced on an end table across from his chair. Don’t ever tell me I do not remember him.

The first photo ever taken of me is actually a photo of my father. He is carrying me out of the hospital on a snowy night. My mother walks a few feet behind him. For years I assumed she must have taken the photo until the day I realized the dim figure in the background was her. It’s hard not to read that photo as symbolic: my life has been defined by my father, while my mother, who did all the work, is relegated to the background. If I were to stage a photo of how my life has actually been, my mother would be carrying me proudly, and my father would be a dim shadowy figure lowering behind. But that’s not the photo that was taken, by whomever took it — my grandmother? — and even though my photo is truer to my life, the actual photo has had its influence.

It’s hard for me not to imagine how my life might have gone if my father had lived. I know my parents would have divorced. I know in reality I would have grown up to argue with my father horribly, for he was, as one of his students described him to me, a Neanderthal in his beliefs (though I hear perhaps the Neanderthals were more advanced than we are). But it’s hard not to imagine the good times, the things we would have shared. Perhaps I would have grown up to love watching tennis and football. Perhaps we would have done translations together. Perhaps I would have applied myself more under his eye.

It’s no good to speculate, but it’s hard not to. In the meantime, the photos watch me watching them, daring me to look and see.

Mar 17

On Knitting #52essays2017 no. 12

My mother and I learned to knit from a book called Knitting in Plain English. She got it first from our local branch of the Indianapolis Public Library and later bought a copy. I remember her showing it to the woman at the knitting shop, who attempted to dissuade her from the purchase. “It’s a very basic book,” she said, but my mother was undeterred. She bought the book, and we taught ourselves knitting from its instruction. Later we made one of the beginning projects in it, a shawl, all garter stitch, which we gave to my grandmother for Christmas that year. I mocked up a tag to go with it about how the variations in the knitting were part of the beauty of the handmade garment and should not be considered flaws. Our gauge was all over the place in that shawl, sometimes tight and anxious, sometimes so loose as to make mesh.

We still have the shawl, and the years have been kind to it, stretching out the tight spots and shoring up the loose ones till it almost looks as though it had been knit by a single hand instead of a couple of people working at cross purposes.

My mother still knits: she is a knitter, the kind with a yarn stash and a dozen projects going at once, the kind who has special bags for carrying around socks she’s knitting and who goes to conferences and conventions of other knitters and stops at farms to see sheep and sometimes attends sheepdog trials. She first learned to knit while she was pregnant with me and the knitting got mixed up with the morning sickness and she thought she’d never do it again, but for some reason when I was in junior high she decided to get that book out of the library.

I can knit but I don’t. I’ve made a handful of things over the years, mostly scarves and hats, although once I knit a doll sweater, doing the sleeves on four points and feeling very proud of myself. I can hardly imagine taking on such a project now. For years I’ve proudly said that I don’t knit at all, some sort of latter day rebellion against my mother’s obsession.

But lately I have been knitting. I have been knitting hanger covers, a slightly ridiculous project but one that uses up bits of yarn too small for anything else. I’ve been knitting hanger covers to deal with my mood disorder.

It started last fall when a drug I was taking gave me akathisia, making me feel constantly as if I’d had too much coffee, only worse. I wanted to jump out of my skin, and I was desperate for anything, anything that would calm me down. My mother suggested knitting. I tried it, and it worked, at least a little bit. During the few weeks I was experimenting with that drug, I made three hanger covers. Then we gave up on the drug and my need to occupy my hands stopped.

Recently, though, this latest bout of anxiety and depression has left me unsure of what to do not only with my hands but also with my whole self. In the evening after dinner I clean up and then wander the house, unable to read, unwilling to watch Paw Patrol with my five-year-old son, incapable of thinking of some other way of occupying myself. The other night my mother again suggested knitting. I tried it, and it seemed to work: I had something to do, at least.

It’s not a cure for depression by a long shot, and I may end up with every hanger in the house covered before I’m done with this illness, but it’s keeping me sane, at least a little bit.

Of the many books about knitting my mother has purchased over the years (the original one is long gone — it was, in fact, quite basic), the only one that’s caught my eye is one called No Idle Hands, which is a social history of knitting. I’ve not read it (and thus I apologize for discussing a book I haven’t read), but it deals with a concept I’ve read about elsewhere, that women are rarely truly idle. We fold laundry while watching TV, iron while listening to the radio, knit socks for soldiers while sitting by the fire in the evening. Of course no one knits socks for soldiers anymore (and I can’t remember the last time I ironed something), but the pattern still exists. It’s hard even for me to feel idle at home. I always feel I should be doing something, and that feeling worsens when I’m depressed.

For now, though, my hands are not idle, and for that I am grateful to my mother and to whatever impulse led her to that book so long ago.