My flight home from Houston on Friday was atypical. Instead of a massive, hairy guy spread between his seat and mine, providing me with the occasional sleepy head nod / snore / apnea snorts, a woman sat in the middle seat and we talked almost all the way home.
A reporter, she has amassed quite a body of work. She was on her way to start an MFA at a university in New Jersey. A distance program. She said maybe if I started it, too, I could join the group during their upcoming 10-day stint in the UK. It is tempting. Being surrounded by a group of female writers would be a first. It is the kind of shaken-awakening I needed to realize the size of the world outside of the one in which I am living. England is quite beautiful. A fine use of vacation time.
She most definitely made me realize the value of enlisting help to get down the road a bit further. And she encouraged me to check out the National Archives, which is just north of downtown. It requires a government ID and an appointment. Like a platinum library card. Take my fingerprints! I’m ready for a research field trip.
I’ve been watching Grey’s Anatomy lately. Meredith is in love with McDreamy, but his wife cheated on him, and he’s been trying to patch it up with the added complication of having diverged into Meredith; they are both in love with each other, which is to say they are struggling to focus on anything else. They have recently realized their spark moment, that moment when it is clear something very wonderful exists whether it will be discussed or not. It has more twists and turns than a Victorian romance novel (to paraphrase my uncle).
Browsing the 1917-1932 City Workhouse Annual Reports today, I found a letter, an excerpt of which is enclosed, which begins:
I hand you herewith Annual Report for the Fiscal Year ending April 1st, 1919.
The passage describes the need to no longer utilize the City Workhouse as a prison for prisoners who deserved much harsher punishment. My favorite part was the hand underlining. The author used a very sharp pencil, and the line is not exactly straight. It was a quick, whipping of a stripe, as though to say, I am pointing out the obvious to you! The tone of the letter could have it filed under Imbeciles, handling thereof.
I am fascinated by the change of language over time. Little things like using the ‘e’ on the end of a word + ‘ing’ – quite common in the early 1900’s.
The daily average cost to house, clothe and feed a prisoner was $1.0665 per day; that’s about $14 adjusted for inflation ($5110 per year, per prisoner). These days the annual cost is around $32,000, or $90 per day.
They did a brisk business in delivering rocks and coal. Enough to earn them $127k, a tidy profit of $19k after expenses. I’d say life in the workhouse in the 1900’s was a rough existence.
I’ve finally finished all of Ear Hustle.
I’ve been forced to recognize something about inmates that was off my radar before this year. Many people who commit a murder in their teens often spend their entire lives in prison for it. I have heard a lot of rhetoric about 3 hots and a cot, tax payers funding their easy lives behind bars. It is not an easy life. It is a total adjustment from the former life to the new life, the loss of every freedom, most privacy, the ownership of rights, and most remarkably, it becomes a time to mature into an adult, or to stay in an adolescent state. So many murders were committed under the influence of youthful stupidity. Very little has changed from 1919 until now. The world was in tumult. Wars were being fought, all number of crimes committed, the same impoverished peoples were attempting to survive against the odds. People were bustling around as they do today, raising families, laboring to support them, beginning and ending. Some of them were doing it all in the workhouse, and not thriving. These days, with programs, prisoners become different people, and isn't that the point? Different, better, not even worse?
When I had my son, I was very afraid for him. This world seemed so threatening. 14 years later, there are no fewer concerns. My friend is rounding up on the fifth anniversary of her daughter’s passing. She has had to reconstruct a new life. There is no way the old life would work anymore. We ran around the park the other day; she runs like a gazelle with 4 water bottles strapped to her hips, whereas I run as though I have 1 lung. She was reminding me that it was on the day of the funeral that we both agreed to go running, to be in touch more. She told me that EMDR saved her life, took away the trauma of the accident.
EMDR is pretty kickass.
I am enclosing a story below about my experience with it.
The Tale of the Auto-Flush Toilet
The first time I walked into a public bathroom stall to discover the flushing mechanism had been replaced with a little LED red light able to take care of the business of flushing by itself, I thought, “Just when you think it could not get worse…”
Let’s consider what those little self-diagnostic checklists mean when they say: PTSD is a problem interfering with your daily life. The manual flush-it-yourself toilet threw me into a panic on the best of days, nothing short of flipping out completely while forcing myself to perform the very basic of biological refuse deposits.
At some point, perhaps around age 11, I dropped a locket in the toilet. It slipped down my back as I was fastening it closed. Who puts a locket on while sitting on the toilet? This girl.
My grandmother sent it for my birthday from America all the way to Manchester, England. I was so happy in the moment I opened my birthday card and saw the gift, and in a state of terror an instant later.
I looked down at it in the water for a very long time, wondering what to do. There it sat.
My parents were in bed. In fact, the entire household was in bed. Even the cat. The morning light was pouring into the bathroom through the beveled glass windows. It was the best time of the day, no one was ever up as early as me, and I had the silence of the house along with uninterrupted time in the bathroom.
I sat on the edge of the tub looking over the rim of the throne. I made myself get near, but I could not go in. It was magnets repelling every time I was within a few feet of the bowl.
The hours passed. The house began to stir. I was frantic, completely void of ideas. Waiting for it.
My mother pounded on the door eventually.
The house had one bathroom. “Let me in,” she said.
I opened the door. She was bedraggled in her sheer silky nightgown. She was a very big-bosomed lady. I could not understand why she wouldn’t breast feed me given the ample nature of those massive warheads. They proceeded her into the bathroom.
I pointed. She said, “How’d you do that?”
Eventually, she said I would have to get it out if I wanted it, otherwise, flush and get out so she could go. I said I couldn’t. I didn’t know why, but I couldn’t.
She waited about an hour before she lost her mind, which is pretty long given she had to pee, and I knew it, I knew I was skating on thin ice. I flushed the toilet eventually, knowing it would mean the locket with the picture of my grandparents would go with it, but better that than leaning into whatever death ray that toilet represented to me.
I flushed. She flew at me in a rage. “I’m going to tell your grandparents you threw away their gift!” she screamed.
It made me cry. Everything was pretty scary. Way over the top. She was hitting me. I was still sitting on the edge of the tub, the heat of the sun on my feet and legs like a little piece of dough.
The locket was there after the toilet flushed. A miracle! I kept that to myself because I could tell my mother did not feel the same way. She fished it out eventually after screaming at me for another hour, finally relenting when I would not budge. Not being hit. Not being called names. Not being humiliated in front of my brother. Not when she held the mirror up to my snotty and teary face yelling, “Look at how ugly you are, you rebellious, horrible girl!”
Nothing would make me move from that place, or reach my hand in.
She threw the wet locket at my face. It bounced off my nose onto the floor. I fell onto it and ran from the room.
I washed it about ten times and it still smelled really bad, but I kept it a very long time until I lost it during a house move in my twenties.
In my forties, more than thirty years after I first felt terrified of the toilet, I took part in a new kind of therapy called EMDR. It was 2016, and my therapist was a very patient person, because I had tried to face the issue the prior year and could not. I didn’t come back for so long I thought she would have forgotten me entirely but she didn’t and we started up where we left off.
Where we left off was the terror of the toilet.
It sounds like such a silly little thing. Who is afraid of a toilet, I could hear myself scoff, but it was a fact, all scoffing aside.
EMDR seems like a simple thing. It’s not hypnosis, but it requires focus. There are no suggestions from the therapist, no leading. It’s a concentration while the eyes follow a light back and forth.
I did not want to imagine why I felt as I did. On the other hand, I was completely over letting something I needed throw me into a state of utter terror. Being over forty gives a person such a sense of relief from caring about the many toilsome concerns of former ages.
It’s worth note that I was diagnosed with Crohn’s Disease in 2000, the ultimate crapping disease. When things were at their worst, which they were, for the entire year of 2000, a time when I was unsure if I would see 2001, I was gripped by a terrible vice in my gut and a panic in my chest during every one of the three dozen trips to the bathroom each day to poop out my entire digestive tract, an angry, burning monster living inside of my skin.
From February to November of that year I spent many vacation days in the hospital, and every other day scraping together as much strength as I could to step over the threshold of my job every night.
Everything was taking a toll on my mental health. The horrible apartment had an equally horrible toilet which was capable of overflowing at the mere suggestion of anything bigger than two sheets of toilet paper. I tried not lifting the lid when I knew it was happening, but one cannot run from water. Whomever made the decision to put carpet in the bathroom was almost as big of an idiot as I was for putting up with that kind of mental anguish for so long.
But I did. A person will go through a great deal to put up with something they’re too ashamed to admit.
Fast-forward to a two-year trudge uphill back to good health, and my first two years of remission, which were coupled with the birth of my son, and all that goes with becoming someone’s lifelong parent. And grad school. Then a divorce. All things considered, a not-great combination almost-decade of events.
I waded through a lot of therapists to find my EMDR person.
A friend of mine had a child die in an accident. She went to have EMDR and she told me about it one day when we were out jogging, when I told her the thoughts of my childhood with my parents were causing me PTSD. Interruptions out of the blue, when I was trying to work, or hang out with friends, or go to sleep at night, have sex, ride my bike, do the grocery shopping; pretty much all the time. It would accost me suddenly, real as though I was a child again.
We huffed and puffed our way through a brisk jog on a 30 degree November morning while she told me maybe I should see her therapist, to try out a new way of processing all of those thoughts. EMDR carved new pathways for the information to travel through versus rethinking in the same circular fashion. It’s like unsticking your brain and giving it the chance to stretch to its maximum ability to solve problems.
“What in the world are you talking about?” I asked her.
“I went after my daughter died, because it was so traumatic to me I couldn’t function,” she said.
And, possibly because this was irrefutable, I didn’t challenge her, instead, I made an appointment the following Monday to see this person and to talk about EMDR.
It took a long time before I would even consider trying it out. We talked mostly. I was hedging. The fear of taking charge of fear is pretty intense. I left before I tried to tackle the problems fully. The therapist tried to suggest EMDR many times, but I would only let her start the process twice, and both times, I was sealed shut, like a clam.
I went back when the PTSD got even worse. The auto-toilets had been flushing a long time by now, but that could not rival the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts.
In 2016, I took the step to try again. I summoned up enough courage to get through the front door of the therapist’s office and pushed myself to try EMDR immediately.
It did not take long for it to open my brain up.
As I think of it now, my mother must have felt pretty bad at some point in her life about having pushed my head into the toilet for blocking it when I was a small child. I remembered it and all of its violence in a wave crashing around me, but not drowning me.
I felt so bad for that little girl and her long hair wet and in front of her eyes, face-first into that big white overflowing bowl with my mother’s hand on the back of my neck. Yes, it was appropriate to feel terror on that basis.
I have a teenager now, and I’m glad I had a chance to see him at all of those ages, because it was clearer to me how parents have to protect children from the time they are born to help them thrive. It was the clearest comparison of right and wrong, of what constituted a total violation of my trust, and of the parent-child relationship to have lived with my own parents.
My brain got a few weeks to think it all over after that session. Nothing dramatic changed that first night, except a little pressure let off upstairs in my grey matter. The next day and the day after, something began to happen. I thought about everything as though the picture was now wide-screen. More details, more ideas, more reflections on what happened, on my life now, on my child, on my parents. The week after that, the width of that screen became even wider. I could not imagine it, but suddenly the toilet meant nothing to me.
It's presence, it’s flushing nature meant nothing. I had the auto-flush go off on me twice that same month, to no effect. The switch had flipped, it was a detail, like the color of my socks; all of the drama was gone.
My son is the size of a man, taller than me before he was 13, and he blocked the toilet frequently. I got plenty of practice trying out my new fearlessness with the plunger.
Every now and again, the old feeling returns and I remind myself that time is over now, and back to business I go.