Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Curious Effect of Vincent D'Onofrio

Fellow OSer Beth Mann made an interesting comment in my last post about my marathon viewing of Law & Order: Criminal Intent during a stretch of bad pain. She said, “If you're going to go for a Law and Order marathon, try not to make it Criminal Intent. Vincent D'Onofrio has a strange effect on me over time.”
Even though she didn’t get into specifics, I knew exactly what she meant. There is indeed something odd about Vincent D’Onofrio, and I understood her warnings about him on a visceral level.
No one would argue that he’s a talented actor, and I can remember feeling excited when it was first announced that he was joining the Criminal Intent cast, as I’d always been a fan, as far back as his first Hollywood role as the overweight, unbalanced recruit in Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, for which he’d gained 70 pounds.
Yet what makes a constant diet of him so troubling, as Beth so keenly observed?
When he first made his appearance as Det. Robert Goren on Law & Order: CI, he was all ticks and twitches, bending this way and that as he interrogated suspects, clearly attempting to carve out a memorable character who was the quirky genius with odd habits and a knack for solving the case.
The ticks bothered me, but as with all new and promising shows, I try to give them a little time to find their stride, and in time, D’Onofrio did seem to tone down the affectations and get more to the heart of the character, especially when the writers began to explore his history with his schizophrenic mother and drug-addled brother.
It wasn’t until close to the end of his tenure with the series, however, that these more human elements entered the show, so for years, we watched him play Goren as the quirky detective guru—attractive and brilliant, but somehow inhuman, and therein lies the rub.
Whenever I’ve seen Vincent D’Onofrio in any television show or film, there is a strange lack of heart, and thus a peculiar hollowness seems to permeate every character. He’s there but he’s not there, and he’s certainly not interacting with his cohorts, who I imagine must find him a challenge to work with. I once heard Antonio Banderas comment that Angelina Jolie was one of the most generous actresses he’d ever worked with, yet I can’t imagine anyone saying this about D’Onofrio.
While he says his lines to perfection, and his characters are keenly observed (he’s been called “an actor’s actor"), it’s as though he’s playing to himself in each and every role; it doesn’t seem to matter whether anyone else is in the room or not. Even when he played the romantic lead with Renee Zellweger in The Whole Wide World, the chemistry just wasn’t there, and this was with a woman he supposedly had a real-life affair with.
Perhaps not coincidentally, his characters are nearly all attractive loners, and Beth is right. A steady diet of these people, be them on TV or in real life, are a danger to those psyches that seek out connection, for while the loner can seem the strong, silent type, very often he’s just too afraid to speak the truth about himself, and cowardice is frustrating indeed. He wants to draw you in for company and amusement, perhaps even adoration, but he doesn’t really want to give anything in return, and he certainly doesn’t want you to get to know him.
When D’Onofrio began to withdraw from Criminal Intent, sharing the lead duties with actor Chris Noth, it was obvious that his stifled soul was beginning to devour him, exemplified by all he began to devour. As the years passed, the sleek movie star slowly turned into a pasty, overweight, tortured version of his former self, which the writers cleverly worked into the script, a development I’d like to think helped him work through some of these demons.
As for myself, I have to question what draws me to these characters, and to people like this in real life, as I’ve become involved with them at my own peril. Early on, I suppose there was the part of me that thought I could save them, until I began to realize that many of them don’t want to be saved. They prefer to remain distant, resting on the laurels of their talent, there for you to admire but never really know, comfortable on their pedestals that are always just a little bit above you.
But if these loners have any soul at all, the artifice just can’t last, and they do end up paying a high price for the costly walls they build around themselves. In D’Onofrio’s case, aside from the loss of his Hollywood luster, he succumbed to what the press said was “exhaustion,” and he slowly had to retreat from the show. I suppose we’ll never know whose idea that was, his or the show’s producers.
I’ve seen it happen to other creative types, too. John McCrea, the lead singer-songwriter of the rock band Cake—who could write killer melodies and clever lyrics galore in the late ‘90s—got so deeply mired in irony that by the time he wanted to be taken seriously as a songwriter, it was too late. Old fans like myself had become weary of the hipper-than-thou stance, to the extent that by the time he’d realized his mistake, we were long gone.
Years ago, a friend handed me a magazine article about D’Onofrio, and I’ll never forget the strange reaction I had to it. There it was…a full feature on him, along with a one-page photograph, and for some reason, it actually felt awkward to hold the piece, as if it was the strangest thing in the world that there would be an article about Vincent D’Onofrio. I just couldn’t imagine him wanting to ever do something like that, and it was as though I could feel the hostility in just holding the paper in my hands.
My drummer friend, Jagoda, was there to witness the moment, and mentioned how he couldn’t stand the guy. Apparently, he had been in a theater house band for an off-Broadway show that D’Onofrio was starring in, and he said it was a completely forgettable endeavor until the last night of the show’s run, when the understudy took over the lead role. Jagoda said that the understudy completely transformed not just the role, but the whole show, bringing a humanity to the character that D’Onofrio had completely missed.
I didn’t bother to read the article, but for some reason, I’m still hooked on the Criminal Intent reruns. The show may be committed to film, but that doesn’t stop me from hoping that maybe something will change, that maybe Det. Goren, and by extension Vincent D’Onofrio, will expose his soul after all.
So close do guys like him keep their cards to the vest that even saying something like that sounds like heresy. Hmmm. I’ll have to think about that one.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Another Day in My Pajamas

Make no mistake—no matter how much one thinks he or she has accepted being in a state of chronic pain, the bad days cause reflection on those that were better, before the unacceptable occurred and we were unalterably changed forever. 
And it’s on those days that I realize that at my core, I’m still just so profoundly sad about it all. While being in pain has unquestionably deepened my compassion for all living things and has perhaps made me more human in many ways, I’m still just so fucking angry that this is how my life has turned out, and it doesn’t look like anything is going to change—certainly not in the short run.
Maybe I’m blue because I’ve undergone yet another change in my pain medication regimen, and I sometimes feel like I’m sleeping around the clock. Even though I’ve attempted in the last month or so to take steps back out into the world—like joining a gym, joining an internet dating site, painting up a storm in preparation for an exhibit and going back into therapy—the bulk of recent weeks has been spent in front of the TV set, where I get to watch other people have lives, which in turns reminds me of who I used to be before this trial set in.
I suppose my gentle forays out into the world haven’t been going so well, which is just adding to my frustration. At the gym, it can feel like a herculean effort to do just 30 minutes walking on the treadmill, I rarely check the dating site as I just can’t imagine myself being the flirty girl anymore, and my painting has hit a creative wall. And as for therapy, I’m experiencing something I've never experienced before with previous professionals, as this new therapist has an extremely spiritual bent.
On the one hand, I could say that she’s a perfect pairing for me, as the reason for my crippling depression when the pain struck in ’04 was complete spiritual devastation and the total unraveling of my faith. But such a statement would imply that somewhere deep within I believe some type of magic is at work—that this person has come into my life for a reason and that there are no accidents.
That’s certainly what Glori (my therapist) believes, and at times I find myself getting angry at her for such crazy statements. The old arguments erupt—like why would any loving creator allow such suffering in the world, not just mine, but anyone's?—but I suppose I’m tired of hearing those tapes run in my head, which is a lucky break for Glori, as I’m more open now to hearing what she has to say than I would have been, say, three years ago.
Oddly enough, my reasons for entering therapy again have had nothing to do with spirituality, but rather have been an attempt to get to the core of my intimacy issues with men. It’s a complete coincidence that Glori has this spiritual slant to her work, which seems to have superseded my original intentions, at least for the time being.
She’s an extraordinary woman who speaks five languages fluently, has studied the kabala for over 30 years, and is well read on nearly every religion that exists, so when she speaks, her words carry a certain love and authority that can be soothing, even if I don’t necessarily believe them.
Glori believes that in order to deepen our humanity, we must go through these trials, and the further down they go, the further we will ultimately rise. This is life’s cycle, she says, and if it didn’t happen, we would become stagnant. In a sense, I can tell she believes that my pain is a type of gift, in that I now can connect with all suffering in the world and thus be a force for good, should I accept the assignment.
It’s certainly a nice thought, but hard to comprehend during the days I feel so utterly useless. Today, for example, is yet another day I’ve yet to get out of my pajamas. This new medication is so strong that I woke up with a borderline migraine headache and nausea. I’ve been taking considerably less today, which means the pain is greater, all while I watch a Law & Order: Criminal Intent marathon.
The only way I can think of to make use of today’s particular trial is to write about it here, in the hopes that someone else who is suffering will read it and not feel so terribly alone.
I see Glori again on Tuesday. As I write about her, I’m reminded of the positive affirmations she gives me to say, none of which I’ve done.
I do have a favorite though, which comes from the Hawaiian HoOponopono religion, and it’s one we’re supposed to say to our creator as a way to take responsibility for our lives. It goes like this:
“I love you. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you.”
When I feel lazy, useless, jealous, or whatever, it does have a certain power to it that soothes me. Maybe I’ll pull out her affirmations tonight and give them a spin, although my exhaustion level makes even the utterance of words feel like lifting weights.
I’ve got to try, even though I’m so fucking sick of trying. Maybe what I need is just a good cry.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Smashing the Bell Jar, Once and for All

I recently saw a 2009 interview with the stunningly talented pop sensation Lady Gaga and was aghast, not only because of her genius and creativity, but because this poised, wise, already-an-icon diva is just 23 years old—basically at the beginning stages of her career, with something like 15 million album sales already to her credit.

As Gaga would be the first to probably tell you, the number means nothing, as music is her religion--something she would create regardless of whether or not she succeeded. Instead, she says, it’s the spirituality of her pursuits, and the creative and joyous outlets that go with it that provide her with the necessary inspiration for continuing—the writing, the recording, the videos, the live shows, and most important, the fans.

Years ago, I might have felt envious of this startling young woman, as I, too, was a performing songwriter in the mid-90s and early 2000s, right up until the time I became too ill to continue, and thus had little to say in the form of a pop song anymore.

With the tens of thousands of talented musicians out there hoping to make it in the music business, I suppose I didn’t fare too badly during my heyday, although my career didn’t begin to scratch the surface of the commercial success of Lady Gaga. I've talked about my former career in other posts and so won't repeat myself here, but the upshot is that while I carry no sadness or disappointment about my songs not finding a home in the earthly catalog (and thus on people’s MP3 players), I do feel a type of ache when I witness the vitality of artists who come from a happy home. If I envy anything, it’s the abundance of unencumbered fun they have in bravely expressing their true essence in all they do, having a type of faith that their creativity and love from others will provide a bedrock of strength and a cushion of comfort when life's challenges erupt.

When I think back on when I was 23 years old (I’m now 51), I remember that as the year that I first went into therapy. It happened out of absolute necessity, as the band-aids that had been holding my psyche together since college completely collapsed after my reading of Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which believe it or not, sent me into a freefall of anxiety and depression so bad that I remember telling my mother one night while sitting on the edge of my bed that I literally could no longer move.

I was frozen solid in position, so paralyzed by the constant criticisms of my father over the course of my entire life that the moment had finally arrived that I just no longer knew which way to turn. I didn’t understand it at the time, of course, but now I see it. And so did my therapist that very first day I sat in her office, who told me at the end of the session that my issues were with my dad, an opinion I completely disagreed with at the time, as everyone knew he was a great guy, and the problem was my insane brain, not him.

I’m not sure what drove Sylvia Plath, but we both obviously ended up in the same place, and the image of being stuck in the bell jar terrified me. I saw myself as a carnival sideshow--a creepy deformed contortion of a human being, as if someone had placed me in the jar as a baby and left me there to grow within in it, ultimately becoming too large to ever get out of the jar's small opening on my own. Even though the image was just a metaphor, it felt strikingly real, and a seething claustrophobia set in, gripping me with such terror that I ultimately became paralyzed on that bed, drained of all energy by absolute, suffocating fear.

What also terrified me was that Plath's book was no ordinary book--it was the beginning of the end, in a sense, in that the issues she so beautifully dealt with in her novel, the issues I so readily identified with, were the exact issues that were to kill her off years later when she took her own life. Talk about being freaked out.

To compare that 23-year-old person with today’s 23-year-old Lady Gaga is a study indeed on the influence of our parents, which was made all the more clear by Gaga’s endearing comments on the wonderful relationship she has with her own father, who supports literally everything she does, as does her mother. “He gets me,” she says, and if there was ever a thing about her that I would envy, that would be it right there.

It took me a full two years to admit to my therapist that what I wanted to be in life was a musician, and took another ten pick up a guitar and begin writing music in earnest. When it came, it poured out of me with a creative zeal and necessity that Gaga has most likely been feeling nearly all of her young life. It took me 12 years to pick up that guitar, and took many more to feel worthy of just being alive.

I realize that the job of any artist is to document his or her journey, no matter what it may be, and I’ve done that to the best of my ability. What a waste, though, to have had to do so much work just to get to Level Zero, to get to the blank canvas on which to begin creating.

But is “waste” the right word? Nothing is wasted if you can use it somehow to help others. I used to feel a certain bitterness about the added weight I knew I was carrying around that others weren’t, but to indulge in that feeling would be the real waste. Years ago, my depression wouldn’t have allowed me the choice to give up a negative feeling. But I have that choice now, and I’m grateful.

Even as this chronic pain continues as I write (no doubt the lingering scar from my stressful past), I feel happy for and inspired by Lady Gaga, thrilled that I’m so completely out of the bell jar that I’m even able to be inspired. I still can’t muster up a new song, but I am painting and writing, and excited to start flamenco classes again in September (if I can afford it).

When I first entered therapy with those terrifying visions of being so trapped in the jar, I wondered how in the world I’d ever get out of it. It never once occurred to me back then that there were those out there who would have compassion for me, who would help me get out of it, who would do whatever it took to break the glass to set me free.

How wonderful for the Lady Gagas of the world who know that compassion from Day One. They know they can count on it as they embark on their life’s journey.

I’m still a bit suspect, but enough already. This lack of faith is starting to get old, frankly. Evidence is presenting itself everywhere these days that it's time to begin trusting again. While the bell jar glass has been shattered, it's up to ME to step out of its remains and begin walking the earth.

For years, I was so afraid to move. Thanks Gaga, for inspiring me to dance.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Faith, Art and Power Ball

It’s been so long since I’ve made an entry. In re-reading my last post, it’s inspiring to report that my apparent acceptance of this chronic pain has had a lasting effect, one that has produced a stretch of creativity I haven’t had in years.

My new apartment is exploding in colors, with the walls recently painted purple and light moss green, and new paintings hanging everywhere. I’ve also been experimenting with a new painting technique, whereby I stencil antique lace patterns on a canvas, then embellish them with images and pastels that work within the shapes. And I’ve been creating dozens of my baseball card-sized paintings that feature my little glamour girlies as exercises in color and composition.

I’m even getting up at the crack of dawn, excited about the day, and about the morning in particular, when all is quiet, except for my cat, who is beyond excited herself at the prospect of her favorite wet food so early in the day.

Yet the pain persists, and during the past few days has been worse than it’s been all spring and summer. The other day I was helping my friends move and I forgot to take my second dose of daily pain medication, which perhaps was the mistake that set off this new round of trouble. When one suffers with pain, it’s important to stay ahead of it by taking the meds before the pain seriously sets in, as once it starts, it’s much harder to bring down.

Yet something has decidedly changed in my response to chronic pain, and I’m a little baffled by it. During the past few years, a new round of screeching pain would have sent me reeling in sadness and a sense of defeat, but something in me has indeed changed as I find myself annoyed by it, of course, but somehow unperturbed by its relentless pursuit of my soul, which is what it felt like for so long.

I’d like to say I’m not letting it in anymore, but that would be lying a bit, as the fear pain brings on is very real—the fear of what’s really happening in my face and jaw (is the bottom-line condition getting worse?), the fear of what all these medications are doing to my body (can my compromised liver handle them?), and the fear that, well, I somehow may die of all this, and I’ve no idea why I fear that, frankly. If there’s an afterlife, great, and if not, well then I won’t know about it, will I?

There are still moments in the day, too, where exhaustion overcomes me, probably due to the meds, and my life can continue to feel like an endurance test. I also wonder if this creativity burst is a true personal achievement, or the result of me recently cutting my Zoloft in half, in which case I could be experiencing a touch of hypomania (which has occurred in the past) instead of a divine insight that has produced a creativity spurt.

While antidepressants can be lifesavers when our brain chemistry results in profound depression, they can also tend to trim off ALL extremes—not just the lows but the highs as well. And they can affect our mojo, which is why I can’t remember the last time I had a sexual thought. I must confess that’s been the real reason I’ve decided to go off Zoloft, as how in the world will I find romance in my life if a bowl of ice cream seems more exciting than a passionate kiss?

Yet the decrease in Zoloft can’t account for the slow return of my faith, which has perhaps surprised me most of all in recent months, particularly since the whole notion of God as I understood him for so many years has had nothing to do with it.

When my life fell apart in 2004, I now wonder if my sense of shattered faith was really just the beginnings of a long grieving process for a loss I just couldn’t accept—the loss of a pain-free, healthy body. As I was raised to be so damn perfect, even an imperfect body was so unacceptable to me, as I could no longer be the achievement-oriented Mary Ann, who defined herself so completely by her accomplishments.

Pain has been a cruel teacher, but the lesson has nevertheless been learned that accomplishment should be the by-product of a life well-lived, not the goal. There’s certainly nothing new about that insight, but it’s new to me, and also liberating, as finally it’s just okay to enjoy the day for no damn purpose at all.

One of my biggest pleasures in life now is going to the dollar store with my mom and loading up on gifts for my 3- and 5-year-old nieces, who think us the greatest nana and aunt of all time, due to our apparent bottomless treasure chest of water pistols, angel wings, and beautiful jewelry sets, all compliments of Dollar Daze house of goodies.

What I love, too, during these outings with my mom is our hilarious bickering, which is much like that of comedienne Kathy Griffin and her mom Maggie on My Life on the D List. My nutty mother simply can’t resist telling me that a stop sign is coming up, to which I’ll reply, “You mean that red octagon shape with the letters S-T-O-P on it?” It goes on like this during our travels to the food store, post office, and of course, the liquor store, where much like Maggie, my mom buys the cheapest white wine on the shelf, not because it’s a bargain, but because that’s the one she likes.

If anyone had told me 15 years ago that these are the things that would bring me the most happiness in my life, I might have looked at them with a befuddled stare, as the ambitious Mary Ann back then was the destined-for-greatness singer/songwriter, which I now know had about as much chance of success as me winning the multi-state Power Ball.

Tens of thousands are called in the entertainment field, but few are anointed for that kind of accomplishment. In no other field is sheer damn luck such a component of whether or not one succeeds. If you’re an attorney and you work hard, you’ll do well. But even if you write the greatest songs of all time, whether or not anyone hears them on a large scale is largely out of your hands, no matter how hard you work at it.

Am I proud of my songs? You bet. But do I care that they didn’t land on the top of the charts? I care only in the sense that I believe my songs would have been a good and true addition to the pop canon--something that would have made people happy. But like all things, to dust, too, they will return, just like all the hit singles and albums that did make the charts, and I’m fine with that.

I’m fine with a lot these days, it seems, no doubt fueled by this wonderful creative phase. Nothing makes me happier than to feel like painting is a way to goof off--a naughty thing I’m doing when I should be doing something more serious, like earning money, of which I have none, by the way. Never in my life have I been this broke, but never in my life have I felt this curiously content, pain and all.

Geez, I hope this isn’t hypomania. Every morning I say a prayer I learned from the teachings of Florence Scovel Shinn, a woman who wrote in the 1920s with such incredible wisdom. I pray, “I give thanks for my perfect health, my perfect wealth, my perfect love and my perfect self-expression, under grace, in divine ways.”

The first part is said in the present tense as a way to feel gratitude, even if those things haven’t manifested in my life yet, and the last part is said in a way that reminds me that I want those things only as the universe intends me to have them.

Either my prayers are finally working, or I’ve simply stumbled into a better time in my life, which is okay, too, as I’ve no problem with the notion of a little bit of luck. Maybe it’s time to play Power Ball.


Artworks here are posted in my Etsy Shop for just $9.99 each.
Apologies if this isn't OS protocol, but as winning the lottery is highly unlikely, I can't resist plugging these little beauties. Remember, they're originals! :)


Saturday, March 27, 2010

Slamming My Guilt, With Good Results

I had a big insight.

There I was on Thursday, experiencing one of the worst pain days I’ve had since this whole ordeal began six years ago. Absolutely nothing I did worked to ease the burning and aching in my face, so I did the only thing that I knew for sure would bring me any relief, however slight it would be, and that was to take more pain medication. But with that decision came the usual overwhelming sense of guilt--that somehow I was being weak, was copping out and dropping out of life, disgusted at my fate.

The tears came easily that day, initially having been set off by a newsletter I regularly receive from author Annette Colby, a doctor who specializes in matters of the heart and soul, and who I’ve spoken to once on the phone and have had multiple email conversations with in the last two years or so. Her topic that day was a ten-step plan on how to bring more love and joy into your life, and it brought back such poignant memories of the happiness I was feeling before all this began.

I wrote to Annette to thank her for her words, as they’d set off the tears, for which I was grateful. I needed something to crack through the tension I’d been carrying that day, and was so thankful for the release. Annette responded with her usual compassion and wisdom, and then said something I didn’t expect. She said that if I needed to take the pain medication, it was a complete waste of energy to feel guilty about it, and that if and when the day came that I decided to stop it, I would, but until then, I should simply enjoy the relief it brought.

While this might sound obvious to some, her words truly altered my state. For the first time I can remember during the past six years, I decided that just for that day, I wasn’t going to feel guilty about any decision I made in order to cope with my pain, whether it be painkillers, cigarettes or wine. I saw very clearly that what I deal with on a daily basis is beyond what most people can even imagine, so why should I be judging my behavior in order to cope with circumstances so completely beyond my control?


Day in and day out, I live in such unchartered territory, which is why I’ve found so little solace in therapy or in programs like AA or rehab, where two years ago I did a two-week stint to get off the pills, only to find myself in agony again once I got home. The rehab experience was awful--not anything like one sees in shows like Intervention, as I was treated in the same punitive way that so many of these more ordinary places treat addicts--that we’re diseased degenerates who can’t be trusted and thus must turn over our lives to a supposedly loving god who will set us free if we just surrender our will.

While this approach may work for some, and I do respect it (despite my cynicism about that treatment center), for the addicted pain patient, this program just doesn’t work. No amount of steps or surrender did a single thing to alter the awful conditions of my life, nor did this loving god, who from what I can see, has dispensed far too much suffering upon this world to be taken seriously.

I suppose this is why I found Annette’s words so comforting, as she was putting her trust in ME--that I was the only one who truly knows what’s best for my pain, and therefore shouldn’t feel guilty about the decisions I make.

And so, for the rest of the day, I did whatever it took to bring me comfort, and a surprising thing happened. Without all of my energy being eaten up by pain and, more important, guilt, I felt a certain joyousness about life return, and I was shocked.

Suddenly, my thoughts turned to my art studio, which I’ve been attempting to organize ever since I moved into my new apartment here on Feb. 3. I couldn’t believe how effortless it felt to just go in there and start moving things around, as I was now eager to get started on a new painting. And every time I felt guilt begin to creep into my consciousness, I would say out loud, “Stop it!” and indeed it would just go away.


Curiously, two other things happened in previous days that perhaps laid the groundwork for Annette’s words. The first was a book I found literally in someone’s trash, titled simply enough, Meditation, which recounted meditation techniques by a famous instructor named Osho. There are descriptions of about 100 different meditations, one of which is for smoking, in which Osho describes the plight of a troubled man who had chain-smoked for 30 years, and had come to him looking for guidance on how to stop.

Surprisingly, Osho told the man that he should NOT stop, but instead smoke every cigarette with complete attention and consciousness, as it was the thoughtless, automatic behavior that was the problem, not the cigarettes. If the man continued to smoke, Osho told him to just enjoy it, as what did it matter if he lived a shorter life as a result, but if he stopped, Osho said it would happen effortlessly, and of course, it did. In short order, through conscious meditation on his smoking, the man soon saw the insanity of his behavior, and he was able to quit.

The second occurrence that alerted me to the destructive power of guilt was a few web sites I stumbled upon completely by accident that challenged whether or not Jesus Christ ever actually lived, as apparently, there’s absolutely nothing in the historical record about his existence. Yes, there are the gospels, but supposedly there’s nothing else--no stories written by the historians and writers of the time about this man of miracles, no record of his execution by Pontius Pilot--stuff like that.

I know so little about this subject that I bring it up not to invite debate, but to recount the curious effect it had on me. What if Jesus Christ never did exist? What if he was nothing more than an archetype created by the collective unconscious in the same way other deities have been created over the course of history, like Zeus? It’s indeed a fact that Christianity isn’t the first religion to speak of virgin births and resurrections, so what if the indoctrination I received as a child (which sometimes fills me with superstition to this day) was all a fabrication?

Over the course of the next few days, I could see that my guilt was also born of fear of sinning against this god of my childhood--that I was living an evil existence, even though the circumstances of my life were not of my own making.


So what’s the upshot of all this? Well, yesterday was probably one of the happiest days of my life in the past six years. I treated my pain as I saw fit, fully willing to accept any consequences of my decisions, and I did not allow myself to feel any guilt whatsoever about my actions.

And with that came joy. When I went to bed last night, I was so eager to wake up this morning that I actually couldn’t fall asleep, as if I were a child tossing and turning on Christmas Eve.

While having my morning coffee today (coffee being yet another thing I’ve been berating myself for), I eagerly jotted down a list of things I want and need to do today, and instead of it feeling like a weight, the list feels like, well, a life.

There’s nothing extraordinary on it--just ordinary tasks to do on an ordinary Saturday--and for once, I’m actually looking forward to starting my day.

I can’t remember the last time I said that.


Sunday, March 21, 2010

Quitting Smoking: An Existential Review

HELP!!! I’M DYING FOR A CIGARETTE!!! I’m having an operation next week, and in order to not develop complications, I must stop smoking and drinking TODAY. ACK! This is worse than when I got my nose pierced last week! This is worse than that time I screwed up my haircut and ended up shaving my head. This is worse than the night someone stole an entire wheel off my ’79 Chevette and left the back axel sitting on a cinderblock.

At first, I thought I could stop this coming Monday (I'm writing this on Saturday), but then the doctor upped the procedure date late yesterday afternoon, which means I have to stop TODAY. So last night, after having my final smoke and sip of wine, the cigs went down the toilet and the wine went down the drain, and now I feel like a crazy person who’s ready to run out onto the main drag here in my pajamas and see if I can grub a smoke from some passer-by.

Why didn’t I save just one cigarette??? At first, I put the pack under the faucet, then threw them in the garbage, but I knew it would drive me insane this morning to see beautiful, wet cigarettes in my trash...so close but so far...so I pulled them out and flushed them down the toilet.
Out of sight, out of mind, right? NOT!

Oh, what I’d give for one right now. I’m tempted to go buy a whole pack just so I could have one more, and then I’d throw the rest away, but luckily I’m too cheap (and too poor) to do that. Let’s see...did I leave a stray cigarette around somewhere? Is there some gross butt sitting in a random ashtray that has one last drag in it?

Of course, I’m drinking my morning coffee here, which is making the torture worse. Caffeine and nicotine go together like...well, caffeine and nicotine. They provide that one-two morning punch that’s like no other...that blast of energy and goodwill that puts a rosy glow on the whole world, before reality comes crashing back that I’ve got bills to pay, work to do, and an aching jaw that’s still aching.

What also aches is the existential question as to what do I DO with myself when I’m not smoking? Right around now, I’d be lighting up, legs crossed, sipping coffee and finding some mundane TV show far more interesting than it would be ordinarily without the caffeine/nicotine enhancement.

Oddly enough, I’m not a heavy smoker by most heavy-smoker standards. I like one, or two, occasionally three in the morning, then that same amount again in the afternoon when I pour my 4 p.m. glass of wine, which must also become history if I care anything about the outcome of this operation next week.

It seems that engorged veins have been forming in my stomach again, which means I could pop a whirly at any moment, and as I learned six years ago, this is NOT something I ever want to happen again. I lost seven pints of blood from my 10-pint system, so if quitting smoking and drinking is what I have to do to ensure a positive outcome, I’ll do it. Believe me, there are things far worse than death in this life, and I’ve just about had it with life-threatening complications.

I suppose that’s the good thing about quitting today...not just the obvious stuff, like it’s the healthy thing to do, but also the relief I feel in not playing another round of Russian Roulette with my health, which is what smoking feels like. When you’ve got a chronic blood clotting disorder and you light up a cigarette, that single little tobacco stick could easily be the last one of your life, instantly, if another deep vein thrombosis were to occur.

I’ve been aware that, even though I’m on Coumadin, every cigarette I smoke is a flirtation with death, or worse, a stroke. Or even worse than that, another clot that would cause even more pain than I’m already in. I’ve been in that vicious circle of feeling intense stress from chronic pain, then relieving that stress with painkiller abuse, smoking and now wine, which, in turn, only makes the pain worse, I suspect. Ah yes, I live the very definition of insanity...doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.

I’ve known for awhile that these habits have had to stop, particularly the last two (at least in the immediate sense), but just couldn’t find the motivation, which I’ve been praying for. Are these newly engorged veins God’s answer? The fact that I could seriously clot or bleed out during next week’s operation if I don’t stop has indeed provided me with motivation, along with a sense of relief that I don’t have to worry that today is the day that the bullet is in the chamber. I suppose there’s a certain satisfaction that this feeling of relief will become more prominent once the nicotine cravings pass.

Of course, I suspect I’ll be hit with another craving whammy around 4 p.m., which is when I usually pour my glass of cheap Carlo Rossi chablis, over ice, a tradition I picked up from my mom during my visits to her at the Jersey shore. Oprah comes on at 4, and that's when we kick back to sip on the cheapest wine on the market.

Carlo Rossi’s wine is great, because it’s only 9 percent alcohol, and you can buy an entire jug (gallon?) for about $12 dollars.

Even though I’ve just moved into an affordable housing apartment building, I’m actually in a swankier part of town now, and when I’ve gone into local liquor stores to inquire about my “jug” of Carlo Rossi, I’ve been met with horrified stares, to which I reply, “It’s for my mother. She also likes wine in a box. Hee hee.” Kathy Griffin and I have a lot in common.

Oh brother. Today’s just gonna be a tough day, no two ways about it. Or rather, EXACTLY two ways about it...no nicotine, no alcohol. If someone told me, “You could die from doing this,” I might actually go ahead and continue. But it’s the stroke/clot/hemorrhage possibility during the operation that seriously has me spooked this time.

As anyone in chronic pain will tell you, the thought of dropping dead isn’t nearly as scary as some of life’s other little dramas. There are far, far crueler fates, and as I’ve had my share, I’ll do everything I can to prevent any more catastrophes.

Hopefully, it’s thoughts like these that will get me over the hurdles in the coming days and weeks. I will continue to keep a log of the ups and downs of my journey to quit tobacco and say goodbye to Carlo once and for all.


Saturday, March 13, 2010

X Marks the Spot

I haven’t written since mid-December, which means a whole winter has passed yet again. I haven’t been lazy, though, even though I can so often define myself that way.

My cat became deathly ill in late December to the tune of $3,000, and then a sudden twist of fate (the good kind) came my way when I got an affordable housing unit here in Hoboken on January 1st, which I found out about four days before I was to move in. (I was lucky enough to get a place right in the same city.) That meant I had to carry two rents for January, plus pack up 18 years of my life in four weeks to be ready to move by Jan. 27th.

But alas, at 2 a.m. on that date, I found myself in the emergency room with food poisoning, just five hours before the movers were to show up. Between the puking and the pooping and the moaning, I had to make emergency phone calls to cancel the move, and attempt to cancel the heat/electricity cancellation for that date. After three days in the hospital, I rescheduled the move for Feb. 2nd, which meant I had to sleep on a leaky air mattress in a freezing cold apartment for an additional five days.

Even though my cat and I pulled through our respective health catastrophes, by the time I found myself here in my new place, I was in complete meltdown mode, crying hysterically at the most gentle of prodding.

Moving in and of itself is an emotionally wrenching experience, even without additional drama. After the movers dropped me off here, I went back to my old place to tidy up loose ends (i.e., pick up scattered garbage), and in looking around remembered the exact day the realtor had showed me the apartment 18 years earlier. It looked precisely as it did then, and I literally began sobbing, remembering who I was as an early 30-something, and all that had transpired in that time.

It was all so poignant as I recalled the ambitious musician I was, out to make her mark in the world, moving to this quaint bustling city just across the river from Gotham, yet who carried such buried and awful sorrow. I could kid myself that I was happy and carefree then, but I was anything but, and given the choice, I certainly prefer being who I am now, even with the chronic pain (...I think).

But what I had then—that I don’t have now—was a sense of purpose...a propelling ambition to move forward at all costs, blindly, ably, with a fierce stick-to-it-tiveness that I marvel at in hindsight. I was aware at the time that my ambition was a crazed one...something that drove me and defined me in ways that weren’t particularly healthy, but I pushed ever forward.

I knew then that I so completely defined myself as a musician that if I never made it in the biz, I wondered what I would do with myself in my, say, 50s, which is where I am now.

With all the illness I encountered in my 30s and 40s, I suppose it’s somewhat odd to say that I’m grateful that my troubles completely redefined my values as the years passed, but as I sit here now at age 51, in chronic pain and dealing with continuing health problems (my endoscopy results today were not good, as trouble is brewing for another hemorrhage), I’m somewhat baffled as to who I am or what I should do...issues that I most certainly did NOT deal with when I moved to Hoboken 18 years ago.

To some degree, I’m aware that I still haven’t dealt emotionally with the devastation that occurred in 2004, when catastrophic complications of my blood clotting disorder left me in chronic pain, probably because I’ve been on painkillers for most of that time, abusing them frequently in order to deal not just with the pain, but with my ample confusion about life in general.

One can’t really be on painkillers AND deal with emotions in a psychotherapeutic way. But it’s all been a double-edged sword, of course...trying to keep the pain at bay with painkillers in order to have a life, yet not having a life because I’m on painkillers. Talk about a conundrum.

So after this long, hard winter, filled with trials, tribulations and triumphs of all kinds, my cat and I often lie on my bed amidst the boxes and move-in clutter and wonder what’s next for us.

Of course, I should just speak for myself. She’s perfectly happy just being herself, and is obviously thrilled to have had so many benign tumors removed, as despite being seven years old, she’s acting like a kitten again (which has its good and bad points). I even had to go out this week and buy her some new toys so that she can occupy herself instead of mauling my hand, still her favorite toy, unfortunately.

But we humans don’t have it so easy. How I wish I could just chase a treat, lie in the sun, eat, and look at the birds in order to be happy. Instead, I ponder my existence, yet at the same time am thrilled that I now have so much more storage space. The practical joys of life can indeed have a way of easing existential quandaries.

On Monday, I went to a preliminary session in New York for biofeedback training in order to help me deal with my pain. My brain was hooked up to electrodes for a stress test, and naturally, I failed. Or rather, my nervous system did. Apparently, chronic pain has tapped me out completely, to the extent that I have no reaction to stimulus that would make a healthy person freak. I would think that a good thing, except the doctor told me that there are certain things a healthy nervous system SHOULD respond to, like danger.

Perhaps I should have been hooked up when I got my nose pierced yesterday. It was so freakin’ painful that I’m sure my stress level would have gone through the roof and exploded the computer. But that’s what it takes to get me to focus these days...a big, painful needle through the nose.

I may not have any goals or ambition at the moment, but I do have this shiny little piece of jewelry on my face now, right next to where the worst pain of my life is. I just realized that in this moment. A pretty, little decoration is almost an “x” marking the spot of the bane of my existence.