Blue Dog Gone

I’m not sure that I ever explained where the Blue Dog comes from.
I’m not certain I know precisely myself.

It has something to do with this very black dog.


© Ze Bernardinello

Who, over time, became this quite old black dog, with beautiful white and silver streaks.


It has something to with the blue carpet in the picture, at the bookstore where I worked for ten years.
Something to do with the light and the shadow in the photograph’s composition, which is a reflection of how I have come to see myself.

I started this blog shortly after we moved to Ohio. It was a hell of a move. Jonah had just had heart surgery. John had a new job. Gabriel was five months old. A month before the move I slipped and dislocated and broke my long finger toe (if you have seen my feet, that description makes perfect sense), next to my big toe. We moved into a house that was and is so beautiful and full of promise and character, a house that needed a great deal of work. We poured ourselves into all of it, with all of ourselves.

And then Jonah was diagnosed with autism.
And then I was diagnosed with PMDD.
And then I very nearly had a nervous breakdown.

So I wrote (and I started taking Prozac, and then something else, and then Zoloft), because I was losing it and because I have proven to be nearly incapable of making sense of my life if I don’t write it down. But it wasn’t enough to write it in a journal because I needed someone to read it. I needed someone to see my life, see me in whatever way they were able, through the light and the shadows I cast. Call it a testimony to my introversion.

And over time, the need to write remained, but I allowed the circumstances of my life to convince me that I didn’t have time to right (interesting mistake there; I think I’ll let it stand). And sometimes I didn’t have time, because I started edited books and I also needed sleep. But here I am again—with my need, knee-deep in loss, another big move ahead.

Sophie died a week ago.
We are moving to Alabama.

It’s good to be back.




Zoloft and gin

Note to self: Zoloft and gin cocktail, bad mix. Looking back over a course of weeks, I have distinguished a pattern. The days following my consumption of more than one glass of wine (etc.) it is as though I hadn’t taken the medication at all. A sort of cancellation comes into play, and I have deduced (just now) that the pleasure of that extra drink (or two) is nullified by my inability to be a loving human being the next day. As if being a loving human being isn’t hard enough.

I’ve written before about why I’m on medication for PMDD. I become deeply melancholic. Then I become reactive and mean. I isolate myself; I push people away with my words. Subsequently, I am filled with regret for what I’ve done, and I cry myself out. Not a regenerative experience.

Yesterday being Christmas, I imbibed freely, prompting my most recent episode and the subsequent revelation that my meds don’t work when I do. As I entered into the stomping off/slamming doors/isolating myself phase of things, Jonah came into my twisted, dark world.

“Mom, can I help you?”

No response.

“Mom, I love you.”

I walked into the bathroom and slammed the door. (It pains me to say I really did that.) When I emerged, Jonah—who had been waiting in his room—came right back, being the persistent kind of miracle that he is. He stood in the doorway and watched me cry.

“Why are you sad?”

“Because I was mean,” I half whispered, half squeaked.

“Yes. You were.”

That’s all he said; then he very intently rolled off a square of toilet paper.

“One of your tears fell on the floor. I am wiping it up.”

He watched me cry awhile longer.

“Can I help you?” he asked again.

I took him by the shoulder and walked to my room. I curled up on the bed. He lay down next to me, took one of my arms and  wrapped it around himself. From time to time he would ask,

“Can I wipe that spot off your face?”

Gabriel eventually wandered in playing his favorite Snail Bob game on the iPad and situated himself on the bed too. We three lay there for at least ten minutes. I still felt sad, but also blessed and cared for.

I told Jonah he would make a good boyfriend when he grew up.

“Yes. I will do that,” he returned.

When I recounted these events to John, he answered, “It is impossible to be mad at Jonah. He is good.” Which is true. There is a goodness in him that approaches transcendence. An earnest love, free of guile.

Which is why I take the medication, so I don’t screw him up with my neurosis. Which is why I’m back to a small glass of a little something instead of my fill—which, in my very particular chemical equation, surpasses excess.

By the way, “my Jonah” (as G would say) is autistic. And ain’t nobody gonna tell me he is lacking in the least. Empathetically or otherwise.

goofy car grin



An experiment means to be creative

O Glorious Sun!

J and I marveled as we walked to school yesterday morning. The sun was shining—I mean really lighting it up. Not the shadow of the sun cast from beyond or above. Not a far away dim light through grey haze. Just sun. Jonah held my hand and closed his eyes as we walked east, wanting the warmth but not quite ready for the glare.

After another weekend of boy illness (Hot dog vomit at 2 a.m., Mmmmm!), this morning’s sun is a welcome turn. In the midst of adjusting the meds I’m currently taking, and adjusting the supplements I’m taking for the side effects of those meds, my mood has tended toward the blue. Steel blue—more precisely—which I learn gets its name from the process of bluing, whereby it is protected from rust. If that’s something of what I’m undergoing, I’d be grateful because I’m doing my best to wait and hope and trust the diagnosis and prescriptions handed out by my doctor. I’m not very good at that last bit, because I don’t like feeling like a science experiment.

Jonah, on the other hand, is all about it. Science, experiments, the works. When I innocently asked on a walk home from school last week, “So what’s an experiment?” (one of those stupid questions adults ask that insult a child’s intelligence in order to get him talking), I got an earful and a revelation.

After enduring J’s irritation—“Mom! You know what an experiment is!”—he said, “An experiment means to be creative,” and launched into a vague description of something he’d done with water and dirt.

I haven’t quite grasped what that means for my current state. Chemicals are touchy. After weaning myself off the Prozac (my headaches were getting increasingly worse and more frequent, sleep patterns were terribly askew), I knew almost immediately that the middle of winter was not the best time for me to be chemically/hormonally unaided. I switched doctors (having come to the end of what my sympathetic nurse practitioner was capable of doing in this realm) but didn’t steel myself for the process I would undergo to find the best fitting chemical replacement at the best dose taken at the best time of day—best in this case meaning “most advantageous” rather than “perfect.” To be honest, I was expecting perfect. How could it be otherwise? No amount of list making—Prozac in one column, Celexa in another—can sort out the right answer. Believe me, I’ve tried.

All that to say, I’m blue. And I don’t know if it’s the winter grey or the chemical experiment my brain is undergoing or my very own conversion coating to protect whatever a soul needs protecting from when it’s in the midst of a transformation. Let’s say it’s a cocktail of all three, shaken, with a shot of the hard-to-make-out. It’s that shot that gives me hope.

I see Jonah with a jar of water. I watch him pour in a paper cup full of dirt. It takes a couple of tries to get the tracks on the jar to line up with tracks on the inside of the lid. He doesn’t get it sealed the first time. When he starts shaking, muddy waters run down the side of the jar. “O Sorry!” he exclaims. Someone helps him screw it down straighter and tighter. He starts to shake again, happy with the mud he’s making. He finally sets down the jar. Waiting is hard. He jigs around, unable to be still. I am waiting with him.

[The picture below has nothing to do with anything, except joy. Which is reason enough.]

flying leap


Last summer, a new friend and I started walking the hills of my neighborhood. She’d load up her little squirt, I’d load up mine and off we’d go. She’s a perceptive sort, this friend. The kind you sense an immediate kinship with, though you’re not entirely certain just why. Not surprisingly, I feel most myself with persons of similar intensity. I tend to lay it all out there, which I have discovered makes some people just uncomfortable. So be it.

So this friend of mine, very early on in our walking endeavor, asked me: “Jennifer, are you an anxious person?” This came out of nowhere, or so I thought. Initially, I assured her that no, I’m not, not essentially. But then I added a few qualifications. I told her about my stint with anxiety when I was ten, as if it was a one time event I outgrew. I said I still wake up in the middle of the night and start thinking (BAD time to think) about Jonah or John or Gabriel or the lot of us and can’t go back to sleep. But no, I’m not an anxious person. Right.

A few months into our walking routine I started taking a low dose of Prozac (you can read about that decision HERE), and I must say, it worked like a dream. Not only did it assuage my PMDD symptoms (bi-monthly episodes of uncontrollable crying, raging, and despair, which took a good week to recover from both mentally and physically), but those anxieties that surfaced in the middle of the night diminished significantly. No more panic attacks at 3 a.m. No more feeling as though I would crawl out of my skin if I could. I simply rolled over and went back to sleep.

Then came the inevitable speed bump. As my insurance company kept switching up my meds because of cost or availability (shifting from generic to name brand to tablets to capsules, changing manufacturers), I had cause to reconsider taking the pills at all. One tablet worked great, the next not-so-well, but good enough. The next (those terrible blue capsules) gave me recurrent headaches that made me give up the endeavor entirely for about a week (and let me just say, taking a pill every day is an endeavor—nevermind those naysayers who call it a crutch or the easy way out).

During that pill-free week, the tears started to flow, the headaches still lingered in the back of my brain, and the world took on a potency and a depth that, frankly, I hadn’t realized I was missing. I yelled more. There were strange, disturbing dreams. I woke for hours in the night. I’d gone on the medication because my behavior was hurting my family, and I was losing the ability to care for them and myself. After extensive, and possibly excessive, soul-searching, I’ve come to the conclusion that I still need the pills (but only if they’re the little blue tablet sort), as much as I sometimes miss the intense way I see the world when my brain chemistry isn’t being altered.

The pills are my critical mass. They’re what’s required (for me, at this point in time) “for a specific result or new action to occur”—that action being life, which is all about carrying on. And I don’t mean that in a trudging uphill both ways sense. I mean getting up again, and again, especially when hope gets desperately thin. Some part of me—however small, however remote or half-hearted—believes people can change. The way we choose to follow or pass over certain thoughts and the behaviors that result from them is our critical work of attention (or inattention, as the case may be). And it’s not so much about getting it right every time as it is dusting off our sorry selves and giving it another go. As an oft-quoted saying from the Desert Fathers goes:

“What am I to do since I have fallen?” The Abba replied “Get up.”
“I did get up but I fell again.” “Get up again.”
“I did, but I must admit that I fell once again. What should I do?”
“Do not fall down without getting back up.”

And of course it’s about love. The author Paul Coelho writes that love entails “a constant state of anxiety, a battlefield; it’s sleepless nights, asking ourselves all the time if we’re doing the right thing. Real love is composed of ecstasy and agony.” Soren Kierkegaard said, “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” That makes a lot of sense to me. Anxiety’s the crack in my shield. It’s my vulnerability—what takes me over and reminds me that I’m not nearly so strong as I thought I was, and that no, I cannot not do life alone. How preposterous to think I ever could. I need other people. I need help. Who knew?

Leonard Cohen, apparently.

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.  —from “Anthem


A few months back.

A few months back I was in an intense place, and I was very intensely inhabiting that place. Trying to keep myself from “falling to pieces,” as Jonah and I like to say. And let’s be clear: this had very little to do with Jonah or autism or the escape artist Gabriel Keats. But let me be clear: this had everything to do with Jonah and autism and Gabriel Keats. Not to mention our two dogs, my loving and stretched-too-thin husband, and a work-from-home job that consistently gets put off until tomorrow in the ruckus that is the family and home and life I’ve been given.

I’ve never been a fan of drugs or the industry that manufactures them. There’s a certain prejudice on my part, no doubt. The way I tend to see it (which is to say, the way I tend to see myself), if I’ve come to a place where drugs are necessary—be they antivirals or antibiotics or sleeping pills or SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors)—I had a hand in getting myself there. I have a habit of pushing past my own limitations. It’s a stubbornness. It’s pride. But.

We’re all dealt a particular hand, and there are chemicals involved. Mine have a tendency to be whacked out. My particular mix of hormones and sleep chemicals swing me to an emotional extreme—we’ll call it the dark side—a couple of times a month. [I’ll include a tangential Jonah quote here: “Where’s the dark side? It’s dark and you can’t see and you want to go home? When you walk, far away from your house, and the dark side gets in your head?”] My dark side means a tendency toward rage. An intense, deep and sloggy sadness that I feel may never end (though it seldom lasts more than a day or two). I cry easily anyway, but during these times the crying won’t stop. To put it in the simplest of terms: I feel mentally ill. No, I am mentally ill.

It’s a paradox I can’t quite get my mind wrapped around, though I’ve inhabited (there’s that word again) it for more than a decade. The fact that I slip in and out of this state, the fact that for most of the month I’m moderately well-adjusted and healthy and happy clouds my thinking on the matter. But I must concede that the word habitation has at its root habit, and this way of being definitely falls into a pattern. If I were able to bear it without habitually hurting the ones I love, that would be one thing. When I am not pressed by the needs of others, I can (usually) weather these storms. But not always. Just after John and I were married, he described these storms as “episodes” to a friend of ours, which is accurate. For me, the word episode brings to mind Sylvia Plath: “I simply cannot see where there is to get to” [from “The Moon and the Yew Tree”].

Some habits are for making, more for breaking. Once I realized, quite acutely, the pain I was inflicting upon others as a result of my infirmity, once I saw how the pattern of my behavior was extending beyond just those few days and becoming a habit of being, I finally said okay, I’ll try the drug. Fluoxetine, specifically (which the drug industry, amusingly, markets as Serafem to PMDD sufferers—my very own druggie angel). The brand name is Prozac, which is the word I got hung up on. There are a host of drugs out there to treat depression and all manner of mental illness, but Prozac was one of the first and may be the most well known. Honestly, I just didn’t want to be one of those people. Which is to say, one of the weak ones. Remember me mentioning prejudice? Yeah.

I’m not looking for a pill to fix me, because I don’t believe it can. But I am looking for some help to live in this world. Something that helps me get to a place where I can honestly, steadfastly, do the hard work I need to do in myself. I was expending so much energy trying to maintain a measure of emotional equilibrium that I had little energy or focus left for my work or my marriage. G and J weren’t so much of an issue because they demand my attention. They got pretty much all I had left to give. They also received a good portion of my frustration and rage.

There have been some minimal side effects, but on the whole, my little angel has provided an astonishing degree of relief. The rage is all but gone. I haven’t wept uncontrollably for several months, though I do still cry. The hole I periodically felt myself trapped inside of is more of a stumbling block, less of a bottomless pit.

I was most afraid that the drug would blank me out, would soften too many edges. I like my edges. I like my emotions. I have grown accustomed to their intensity, to my intensity. That great deep sadness I contain within me has not disappeared. Though I don’t feel it as acutely or consciously, it surfaces in my dreams. A few nights ago I underwent (not sure how else to put it) the sadness as I slept.

Some might say the sadness is something to be eradicated. I think it’s something I need to bear. For the time being, a little blue pill is helping me do that. It (meaning the sadness and the little blue pill) teaches me things…like compassion. In some instances it’s restrained me from judging others (though I’ve a ways to go in that arena) so that I can continue to love my family the best I can and do the work I feel I’m called to do with as much attention as I’m able. Which is a decent definition for habitation: dwelling as I’m able with what I’m given.


© Christopher Walton