To Our Readers: The Mirror is a new literary arts magazine centered on mental health. The idea originated two years ago, stemming from Emily’s personal experience with overcoming mental illness. Although it was slow to get off the ground, The Mirror has finally been realized through the support of Ithaca College’s chapter of Active Minds. We want to reach people who are suffering silently and allow them to feel unified instead of isolated by their struggles and successes. That being said, we by know means want to marginalize anyone’s experience. Rather we hope to highlight the uniqueness of each person’s relationship to mental health, while simultaneously showing that mental health overall is a collective experience. After all, while not everyone has mental illness, everyone has mental health. In order to highlight how maintaining good mental health is a lifelong ambition, we decided to include pieces written by Ithaca College professors and alum as well as a poem by a current high school student at New Roots Charter School. By recognizing mental health to be as universal and important as physical health, we are taking the first steps to combating the stigma that prevents many from seeking help. We encourage anyone who needs support to look at our Campus and Community Resources page to find available resources throughout Ithaca. Finally, we would like to thank our financial sponsors and everyone else who supported us in founding The Mirror. Thank you LeBron Rankins and Linda Godfrey, our advisors, for taking this project on. Also to Mike Nowels and Mike Getz, it was wonderful to have you on call to answer printing questions, even on the weekends. Thank you Blake Horn for lending us your stunning cinematography skills. And finally thank you to all of our family and friends. You have all been so beautiful and supportive. Photo by Emily Nowels
With all our love,
Cover photo by Anika Steppe Table of contents photos by Erin Irby and David Lurvey
Emily Nowels. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Editor-in-Chief Anika Steppe. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Editor-in-Chief Eva Ward . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . Marketing Editor Readers and editors Bronwyn Bishop Greg Burns Andrea Champlin Leroy Farrell Erin Irby Lauren Mateer
Emily Miles Sarah Parker Josh Parad Kaitlyn Tynczuk Alex Violo
Maya Cueva Heather Karschner Lauren A. Kastner Sue King Lori Kooiman David Lurvey Moe’s Dixie Nowels Gail & Mike Nowels Gabriel Whiteman
Gary & Debbie Parker Sarah Parker Adam Polaski Matthew Prokosch Pooja Shah Jane Lutz & Terri Steppe Lara Thomas & Jean Steppe Cassie Mann & Tom Steppe Kelly Wiener
contents contents fiction 4 7 8 10 32
non-fiction susan and the feeling cookies
Zachary Krowiak inheritance Cory Healy
a worm’s life
Emily Nowels campus and community
resources 71, 81 Alex Violo and Kaitlyn Tynczuk
13 19 22
dumTEK an honest cover letter Dina Ljekperic Carrie-Lynne Davis
a meditation on the learning to love pieces of a home Emily Nowels Anonymous
poetry 6 11
at the veteran’s hospital
Dan Tappan BPM Greg Burns Pat Stevens fox, sometimes is unhappy Katharyn Howd Machan
Katharyn Howd Machan
6 12 17
Jillian Kaplan a valediction for my father
on the occasion of his dementia untitled David Flanagan
pink walls shattered glass Liz Levine
Jacob’s Ladder by Zachary Krowiak
Of all things, what Tom hated most about the day his son died was that he had felt justified. Of course, on that day with the sun gently beating down on him, and the heat blurring the horizon as he stood on his own roof fixing the shingles, it had been hard to feel any other way. The feeling had snuck up on him not without welcome, but certainly without expectation. He was unaccustomed to such states. He was a hard man of few words but many thoughts, and he rarely felt in the way his wife used to describe it before she left him. I do not mean to say that he was unfeeling, for even now as he stood full of regret, looking at the drizzling rain, he was aware of his own misery. No, Tom just did not acknowledge those childish things others called emotions. He was a thinking man, a doing man, and he held a deep contempt—his only contempt– for those who saw things otherwise. On this day though, for the first time ever he had felt justified in stopping. Even as he had frowned at his neighbors reclining behind their picket fence by their pool, he had felt it. Because in this
moment, he could forget the burden of responsibilities that he had always held to like the floating pieces of a shipwreck. He felt justified in forgetting, for just an instant, the bills that lay unopened on his kitchen table, eager and silent. He had felt justified, and he had let go. Squatting there, hammer hanging loosely in his workingman’s jeans, he paused. He scratched his head, uncomfortable with the sensation of not working, hearing something in the distance. In retrospect, he would have said that he was hearing the ladder shaking and shuddering as his son curiously climbed it to see what godly work his father did atop their house. But there had been no such sound. He had been sure to secure the ladder, for it was his nature to be thorough. So he could not blame what had happened on sloppiness. Nor could he claim that, somehow, his own fleeting sense of happiness had provoked the accident. It was easier to think that, in letting his guard down, he had let misfortune gallop through his defenses and lay
siege on all he held dear. That, at least, would explain it all. But that was not why his son had decided to climb the ladder, and Tom knew that. It had not been his fault that the endless stream of television his son absorbed had ceased to entertain him; that the young Jacob had secretly learned the art of working doors, but not the wisdom to know that some doors, once opened, could not be closed. And so he had been unaware and happy as his son had stood beneath him, hand above his head to block the sunlight as he stared up at the dark shadow of his house and thought for the first time of climbing, of climbing houses and reaching their peaks. The ladder was enormous to him, wider than he was, with each rung thicker than what his hands could grasp. And all the while, Tom had felt justified, for once, in his stillness on the rooftop. How could
such a man know that he was feeling the sated calm of a conqueror? He was not metaphorical enough to think of his hammer as a sheathed sword, and he did not know that as he gazed at the world below him, it was not contentment he had felt but ownership. It is no surprise then that he missed the wisdom of knowing that victory for one is defeat for another, and that his triumph, like a porch light on a muggy evening, only attracted followers to him like moths. He had set the path and marked its summit, and now he could not
help but be followed. The ladder had been stable, although Tom would remember it differently in order to strengthen his guilt. It had been the roof that Jacob could not conquer. The young climber had slipped clumsily on the shingled slope and slid, not quickly, until he fell. And Tom, who had felt justified, had missed the fall in his revelry. Some called it neglect, others misfortune, but Tom never sought to name it. The knowing and naming thing inside of him had broken by then, and Tom had given up on thinking as well. He had climbed down from his perch, caught in a vortex that spun him ceaselessly towards its core. No longer a god, he stared endlessly into nothing and saw everything.
And in the eerie trickle of his brain, he found solace in justifying his guilt. The story changed, and Tom changed, and Jacob changed, but no one cared. Only his guilt matteredâ€“a guilt he could own and let conquer him. And a small part of him knew he was secretly clinging to a triumph; for once a victor, one cannot relinquish the thrill of possession. So, with the bricks he flung at himself, he built a castle of grief, of agony, and of self-loathing. This final ingredient, like mortar, unified his unease into a kind of certainty. The walls went up, the towers were sealed, until Tom was alone. When he was finished, he stood atop the castle of his own grief and felt justified in his own shame.
Photo by Michele BoulĂŠ
by Dan Tappan
Found your bobby pin Between the sheets This afternoon and I’m worried: When the black suture fell Did your thoughts bleed out From your unpinned head? Are you anguished? Hurt? Is your hair unkempt? Turn your wound to me Air it out, let it breathe Look at me Look at me Let your hair tumble down in disarray Keep it untamed, unstitched, Your seams unsewn. I’ll listen to your wounds fill with scar tissue Look at me—My aim is true
Image by Dina Ljekperic
by Greg Burns
my heart beats have made a war on the mind it’s tiring to check my pulse and convince and breathe, three seconds in, seven out the dizziness and the fish-eye muddled eye rims unable to finish my omelet all of a sudden, the lightning flash in the skull telling me all is not well, was it the second cup of coffee? the cannabis? feeling the mortal terror all at once at the drive in, back seat, unable to stop the shake staring too long at the ceiling fan at work will do it suddenly the blades wobble the mind revolts, sandbags pile up around the frontal lobe, protect me from this unidentified flying fuckery Image by Giovanna Marcantonio
my pulse is lying the body is convinced.
A Worm’s Life
by Emily Nowels
All the time is a fight to move. I dig. Force my face in the dirt and feel the earth shift. I thrash from side to side while my nose works to turn out the dirt. I throw my mouth wide and let the earth in–let it ride through my trunk and fill my guts. All the time is a fight to move, yet I must keep all the time on. On and on. Twist. Twitch. Turn through the soil. It is my sole aim in life to turn the earth. I flip the whole thing on end. I snake through roots, and the air grows to fill the space on all sides of me, as I vie to move on. I feel it gulp down air, fill its lungs, and then sigh as I kiss my way by the plants and seeds. I make the earth breath. And then the rain comes. It storms down the shafts I have shaped, and wrecks the walls in on top of me. The roots twitch with joy as I take one last gasp of air and press on and up. The dirt grows thick as the rain steeps down deep through the earth, but I fight on. Up and up and up. And then the earth grows less fixed. And while I can’t see the change, I feel the shift in worlds as I break through the last of the dirt. And I flail in the thrill of it -- the thrill of space and air and scope. Free from the wet sod, I can slide with ease over the moist earth. The rain lets my frame skate on top of the ground, through the blades of grass. I fill with joy as I brush past the plants I helped make. This is my world. With a break in the grass, I feel the earth change from smooth wet soil to cold rock. I push on. At first, the change is a rush. But as the rain stops, I try to find my way back into the blades of grass. All I can find is more cold rock. I search for a break in the ground, but this land has no cracks. It is one hard, long sheath that blocks me from home. I try to move, but it grows hard as the ground dries on all sides of me. All the time is a fight to move. I thrash from side to side. I twist, twitch and turn, but not a thing moves as the sun climbs in the sky. I am left beached on the walk. The sun scalds my skin. I feel the wet leave my pours, as it melts to air. My form. My mass. My core. My self - wilts in the sun. And then they come. Feet. They fill the space on all the sides of me, and I writhe in the heat, laid bare to the world. But it is no use. I throw my mouth wide, but there is not a thing to fill me. I feel the shade of the foot as is comes down on me. The weight fills my guts and the stress makes me burst. Now I am but a mark, a smear left on the walk. Stepped on and spread through the world on the tips and soles of shoes. But I make the earth breathe. I flip the whole thing on end.
Photo by Anika Steppe
by Nova Hubbard
I remember from the bathroom I couldn’t tell whether the rumbling was the thunder outside or the coffee pot brewing in the kitchen. I hoped it was the coffee pot because I didn’t want to wait in the rain for my mom to pick me up, and I didn’t want Daniel to know that I didn’t actually have a car parked down the block. In the living room, I found Daniel passed out on the couch. He always did this. After we’d make love and I had fallen asleep, he would get up and sneak to the living room to sleep without me. I never understood how he showed love. I grabbed my backpack and snuck out the front door. “How was the sleepover?” my mom asked after I got into the car, “Jane’s dad really does have quite the bachelor pad now doesn’t he?” “I guess.” “Well did you girls finish your project?” “We weren’t working on a project. Jane’s good at algebra so she helped me with my homework,” I remembered as soon as I finished the sentence. I’d made a mistake. My mom was right. Algebra was my lie from last week; this week it was the world history project. “I mean in addition to the project. Not that we weren’t working on one at all.” “What, honey?” “Nothing.” She rarely paid any attention to more then 10 percent of the words I said. Not to say she’s a bad mother; she loves me. She’s just too busy to bother listening. That’s how I got away with Daniel for so long. It really wasn’t as bad as everyone thought. He was 26, which seemed like a major difference at my age, but I told myself that when I was 70 he’d only be 81 and then people would hardly mention a difference. We’d still depend on the same social security. We’d suffer from the same arthritis together. I would have Alzheimer’s just like my grandmother, Ruth. He would have diabetes like his grandfather, Harold, and chronic lung issues from all the cigarettes. At the time I didn’t think about the fact that when I was 70 and he was 81, he’d think I was 76, so I’d have to act that way. I’d have to pretend my mind had gone a little more. I’d have to take a few more seconds walking up stairs. I’d have to spoil our grandchildren more. I’d have to pretend that life was that much more precious. Now at 73, I laugh at how drastically different my life is. Daniel and I never married. The only thing that turned out exactly how I expected is my mind; it slips a little more every day. A few days ago, I couldn’t remember the recipe for blueberry scones. Yesterday I smelled Daniel; stale cigarettes and I don’t smoke. Today I am lost, but tomorrow I’ll find a piece of my mind I thought I’d lost years ago, and the day after I’ll lose some more.
Image by Genevieve Klick
110 S. Quarry St. Ithaca, NY 14850 March 31st, 2011
Pete N. Schullem-Ployer Office Job Co. Ithaca College 953 Danby Rd. Ithaca, NY 14850
Dear Mr. Schullem-Ployer, I am writing to express my interest in the posted position of Working Stiff that I found through the Human Resources Job Shop website. Come this May I will graduate Ithaca College with two Bachelor of Arts degrees in Writing and Culture & Communication, with a concentration in media studies. In addition, I will by then have accumulated over four years of experience in passive obedience and workaholism at Ithaca College. Cumulatively, my impractical degrees, number of survived anxiety attacks, and steadfast dedication to thriving economically in an oppressive capitalist society while suicidally depressed make me an exceptional candidate for this position. As you may gather from my resume, I have consistently maintained multiple positions of exaggerated leadership. Additionally, many of my responsibilities as the president of a new student organization on campus are predictably similar to those of this position. For example, I now excel in facilitating communication between indifferent academic departments, the enthusiastic recruitment of peer writers interested in pursuing a career in failure, and holding back tears when offered criticism. Perhaps the most valuable vocational asset Iâ€™ve acquired through previous employment in similar positions is the ability to stay alive despite the uninhibited emotional chaos raging within the limbic system of my brain and a consistently bleak vision of the future. My professional strengths are subject to seasonal changes, encompassing the workplace with an excited air of unpredictability, which may provide co-workers with an entertaining distraction from the monotony of their own occupations. I would greatly appreciate the opportunity to have an awkwardly formal conversation with you in regards to the Desk Jockey position. I can be reached at any time via my voicemail, (607) 220-8523, or my Spam box, firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you very much for your time and consideration.
Desperately, Carrie-Lynne Davis hastily
Sky High Eden
by Pat Stevens
New Roots Charter School submission winner The sound of the trickling water The peaceful scene When the entire world passes by Everyone in a rush Everyone in a hurry No one stops to notice The arrangement of the motherâ€™s bones So carefully placed Very delicately lain No one stops to notice The sound of the wind The crunch of leaves under foot Here in this place So far from civilization No one stops to notice undisturbed by the noises around An Eden within an urban jungle With all the noise outside of this sanctuary No one stops to notice The wee slither awaking from his slumber snaking off to find his next meal No one stops to notice The strings, which hold down the bonsai Keeping it from growing But still it persists No one stops to notice The blossom sprouting From deep within a crevice of the earth A paradox of its own A perfect equilibrium Starting with a single drop of water This little Eden Here is serenity Photos by Erin Irby
Fox, Sometimes, is Unhappy by Katharyn Howd Machan
Photo by Mathea Millman
Who isn’t? Loved ones die and loved ones leave you: ashes, hearts, all shreds. Families grab and bosses crunch and rivals rip your pants apart to laugh about the seams. Need rain? Sun shines. Crave light? Dark falls. A pin drops and smashes the angel dancing alone on its tiny head. Philosophy, theology, spirit’s full quest: find a lotus in your center and a little worm appears. This woman wants another child. That man longs to cut and run. Boys and girls stare at each other swearing We will never get old. Fox? She hopes for mornings’ fire. Funerals leave her cold.
At the Veterans Hospital by Katharyn Howd Machan In Aphrodite’s deep and fullest hue I dance again the halls of Ares’ breath and touch the shadows, celebrating who instead of what within these walls of death. My ankles offer golden bells that sing of light and wonder, as my hands reach out rich rhythm-echo of bright zills that ring the names of Love, close whisper to far shout. How is it War can use a man like stone to crush another, smiling proud and bold, then drop him cracked and breaking, left alone to crumble into dust as he grows old? Again I whirl, my hot pink veil held high to every trembling smile, each waking eye. Image by Teresa Clark
Susan and the Feeling Cookies by Carrie-Lynne Davis I stood, six years tall, on the outside basement steps of Dr. Susan Deschaine’s home practice. A therapist. For families. A knitted sign on the entrance door said, in red stitching: A smile a day keeps the doctor away! I frowned and held my sister’s hand as we pushed through the door. “I want us to try a fun, little exercise!” said Susan, all sing-song like, with wide, gaping eyes. Those eyes were so large and menacing, like two black holes, abysses, the gateway to Hell, or perhaps even circular, bulbous manifestations of Satan himself. I nodded suspiciously. My little sister, Tonya, sat next to me on a tacky, floral couch. She bounced up and down all jolly, her shoelaces untied and askew. Clearly, she didn’t get it. We had to be here. If I wanted to suddenly throw Tonya off her seat, set the tacky, floral couch on fire, spit a poisonous dart into Susan Deschaine’s giraffe neck while walking away from her devil eyes, never to return, I couldn’t. We were court-ordered to be here. I was tied to that God-awful couch by the invisible twine of the law. “For custody issues,” I had heard the adults whisper. “Don’t worry, we’ll find someone who accepts Medicare, you won’t have to pay,” the tight-lipped lady in the turtleneck had said to my mother behind a glass window. And there we were with the seedy underbelly of the therapy community: a frizzy-haired quack that rich people wouldn’t pay to see. We watched her kneel on the carpet in her floor-length hippie skirt with puppets on her hands, demonstrating how to approach divorce in a healthy, positive, and normal way. Puppet-Daddy turned his back on Puppet-Mommy, and Puppet-Mommy would retaliate by telling Puppet-Babies that Puppet-Daddy was a lousy, cheating, sleazy, conniving, good-for-nothing Puppet-Scumbag. Most six year-olds would cry and maybe pee themselves a little at the idea of their nuclear family splitting up, never to be together again. I was not. In fact, when my mother pressed PLAY on the answering machine to my father’s roaring voice, declaring, “I’d like a divorce!” I felt a rush of relief. Most men wouldn’t divorce someone through an answering machine, but my father was overseas, and it would be a shame to pay over six hundred dollars for a plane ticket to divorce a woman he didn’t really like anymore. He had moved to the Dominican Republic years before because the pay was better, the living was cheaper, and the women were prettier. To save their marriage, we tried living there for a while. The whole “fam-damily!” my mother smiled to us. I was four then and my sister was two. My mother would spend all
day sitting idly at the window, sucking the red out of wine glasses until her eyes got all glossy, when she would then play dolls with us and crack jokes with the hassled maid, Evelyn, in her poor, poor Spanish. “¿Por que el pollo croozar la cayay? Huh?” she poked Evelyn, “Huh?!” We moved back to Maine faster than my mother could say, “Adios!” and soon after, my father fell in deep Dominican lust with his secretary, Katia Rios. I wasn’t angry or upset, I wasn’t even fazed. Thank God, I thought, no more bizarre punishments, like having to hold a dictionary in the corner of my bedroom for hours. No more hiding my dolls. No more slapfights. No more rushed cleaning nights on the eve of my father’s arrival for a few days each month. The only divorce I felt any sort of passion about was the fantasized one between Susan Deschaine and me. I could just imagine! I would wear a smashing tuxedo and I would sit Susan on her tacky, floral couch, look into her saucer eyes and say, “It’s over,” ever so gently. If she asked why, I would put a finger to her lips: “Shh, Susan, goodbye,” and I would leave her basement office, holding Tonya’s hand, skip away into a field of daisies, and never look back. It was a daydream that satisfied me during many of our sessions. Sometimes I imagined Susan would take off her tent-skirt, earthy clogs, and hideous, wool sweater to reveal the body of a scaly dragon, and she would emerge into her true form—a terrifying, reptilian, monstrous, rather untherapeutic beast. And I would slice her head off and carry it to town in my teeth. “We’re going to make feeling cookies”, she said with a crazed grin. “What does that mean?” I asked. “Well, we are going to decorate these cookies I baked. We are going to decorate them based on how we feel!” “Can we eat ‘em?” my sister asked, kicking her feet together. “If we have time! Absolutely!” exclaimed Susan. And at the “family table”, she organized little tubes of icing and sugar and M&M’s. I looked at the clock. 4:15. I clenched my fists. “Let us talk about our feelings for this week,” Susan said calmly, while turning on her radio. A strange music seeped out of the speakers; I imagined miniature Buddhist monks held captive inside, being tortured to a bloody, painful death. Tonya and I were silent, looking at the plate of cookies on the table. “Carrie-Lynne, how was your week?” “Fine.” She gave me one of those half-smiles, pausing for a while, and then giving up. She turned to Tonya. “How about you? How was your week?”
“Well, Carrie-Lynne hid my blanket yesterday and then poured water on it. And Dad called and was mean,” Tonya said, always reporting for duty. “How does that make you feel,” she paused, looking at me, “when Carrie-Lynne does things like that?” “Bad.” She looked at me and frowned. “She hit me,” I shrugged. “Mmm, and how does that make you feel when Tonya hits you?” I looked at Tonya. I looked at Susan. I looked at the cookies. “Bad.” Susan looked at me. Tonya looked at Susan. I looked at the cookies. The cookies didn’t look back. “Well, it looks like we’ve experienced some bad feelings this week, and now I think it would be a good idea for us to express ourselves through these cookies,” she said, while nodding enthusiastically. And so we did. Tonya finger-painted sad faces in icing over the chocolate chips. I frosted the cookies—finger-to-surface. One single layer over the top. No design. I didn’t care. I just wanted to eat the cookies. I glanced up at Susan, sitting with us at the table. She was making her own feeling cookies, of blue, frosted curving lines and happy, yellow dots. I began mimicking her, painting the same designs in frosting but with different colors. Tonya and I sat with our heads down for ages, it seemed, while Susan hummed along with the dreadful monks, and I became increasingly impatient. I was finished. Our session was almost over. I wanted a glass of milk with three ice cubes, I wanted a napkin, I wanted a paper plate, and I wanted to eat my cookies immediately. We watched as Susan was the last one to finish her cookies, and when she did, she casually looked up at the clock and said, “Well, it looks like our time is done for the week!” And she rose, wiped off her skirt, and smiled at both of us. “I hope that you girls learned something today and that you have a good week. I’ll see you next session,” she said, as she helped us out of our chairs and gently pushed us toward the door. As she said goodbye, I watched my “feeling cookies” lay barren on the table, frowning their little frosted frowns as I walked away, becoming smaller and smaller until she closed the door and I could no longer see them. I never returned to the basement office of Susan Deschaine. Now, over ten years later, though I haven’t seen her since that session, I expect one day to walk to my mail room, open my mail box to an envelop of my long-awaited feeling cookies. If that were to happen, Susan Deschaine would, for perhaps the first time in her career, make a client feel very, very happy. I would even smile.
Images by Gabriel Whiteman
Photo by Mathea Millman
by Lauren Mateer
Your nerves, Threads of fire Stretched taut as the Strings on a guitar When you twist the peg too tight Until the wire thrums and Threatens to snap. You pluck a High, cold sound, A too tight sound, You untwist the peg but The string does not fall slack. You unclench your fist, Watch your vein sink But you do not fall slack
by Jillian Kaplan
What if I could run until my bones turned to amethyst, until my sweat turned to sea water–wait, but it’s already sea-water, isn’t it true we came from the sea? Evolution isn’t betterment, only change. When I do laps I get tired. When I write my lungs relearn how to cycle air and my calves can kick weeds to the moon. I’m running tonight in the rain. My shoe deepens into earth’s skin. Mud’s an invitation to invade, or perhaps join, but I’m not a mud-thing yet. My body still reddens under the weight of artificial time structures, crushed soda cans, cell phone vibrations, alarm rings, expectations to work for unclear means, food cravings I know will kill me someday. I wish I were water. I wish I could sink into dirt, meld into the pores of something else, strengthen it, cleanse it, shape-shift into the core of its thirst, and know I’ll come out again the color of my own reflection.
Image by Teresa Clark
A Valediction for My Father on the Occasion of His Dementia by David Flanagan
When you lose your mind who will you be? Since I come so much from you what will that make me?
legal rights, the power to decide, lovers, loved ones, body, life.
I sometimes think we cannot lose our minds because we cannot lose ourselves (here we are) but then recall so many who lose their way so far they seem to lose their very selves.
But when they all are goneâ€” choices, memories, sensations, tokens dropping from our hands, hands that then go limp, decay, our names and faces faded from minds of those who loved us bestâ€” what remains? Maybe nothing much, for which we should give thanks.
Other times I think that we must lose our minds because we lose everything we think belongs to us: possessions, treasured and otherwise,
Best to let mental residue settle to the depths, or drift into another stream, fresh feelings, clearer thoughts, perhaps a different life.
Inheritance by Cory Healy Until I was a junior in high school, my mother hid her bipolar disorder, insomnia and mild schizophrenia from me. Perhaps it was a defense mechanism or too touchy of a subject to discuss with a young boy. As far as she was concerned, it wasn’t my business. Growing up, I could tell she was different from the other parents, even a little crazy. The signs were there: taking numerous prescriptions, leaving for a week at a time for blood work, complaining she couldn’t sleep for days on end. I was “told but not told” by these observations. It was just the way things were. Regardless, she raised me as a single mother, working office jobs until her medications made her unable to drive. Afterwards, she became a stay-at-home mother on disability who paid rent and kept us fed, all while downplaying her mental illnesses and the side effects her medication had on her. It took me a long time to get over my own stigmas of mental illnesses and realize they weren’t something to be ashamed of. I assumed having a mental illness meant someone was crazy–that it was a negative attribute. However, it’s also said that mental illness produces high creativity in artistic types. Louis Wan’s cat paintings include increasingly fractal and abstract backgrounds, which psychologists say corresponds with a gradual onset of schizophrenia. Mother kept herself busy by taking night classes at St. Edward’s to pursue her dream of getting an art degree she previously had to shelve for work. Over time, our apartment was decorated with her many vases, sculptures, and paintings. Her rendition of National Geographic’s Afghan woman became the apartment centerpiece, drawing awe from all who came over. Much like how she had labored for us at her previous jobs, my mother dedicated herself to her art, and it showed in our beautiful apartment. In third grade, I remember a parent-teacher conference I sat in on. Ms. Lay, growing tired of my wily antics in class, asked my mother “Have you considered Ritalin?” Right then and there, Mom lost her temper. I don’t remember what was said, but I remember the current of air in that room changed drastically, and the subject was immediately dropped. All that sudden, unbridled fury she released in that conference still gives me goosebumps to this day. I was 11 when I first visited her at the Seton medical clinic, where she’d go for a week to have blood tests conducted. My stepfather and I left our things in a locker and walked through a metal detector. “Its for their own safety,” said the officer behind the desk. Reaching the fourth floor, we came to a woman behind a screen door who asked for a patient number. She came out in a flowing smock happy to see me, assuring me she wouldn’t be here too much longer, and that the doctors just needed her for a few more days. She was there to determine the latest cocktail of medication that would keep her stable. As I got older, I began to see how she was constantly being yanked around through a revolving door of
medical professionals, who all seemed to say “the last guy must be a quack to have put you on those. Here, try these.” When I got my license at seventeen, it became my job to get her meds from Walgreens, which was a subtle confession that my mom didn’t need to hide her conditions anymore. At the pick-up window, the pharmacist would hand me a fluctuating number of pill bottles in a bag and ring up the price after using the insurance card. Sometimes a prescription wasn’t covered by the insurance, which my mother relied heavily on. “Looks like it doesn’t cover this one.” Often I became the middleman for mom’s frustration whenever her insurance coverage was disputed, even after doctors had assured her it’d be covered. This back-and-forth produced two results: either the frustrated pharmacist would find out it was covered after all, or we’d have to leave it behind. If the latter happened, Mom would pick up the phone and lash out at the “fucking quack” who put her on those new, damned expensive prescriptions that, now, she couldn’t even afford to get, that were supposed to replace another prescription about to run out. Because my parents were divorced, I didn’t know much about my father’s mental history. The same year I learned about my mom’s conditions, I got incredibly wasted at a New Years Eve birthday party. She eventually found out, and when I got home from work, I found her crying on the floor. She threw a remote control at the wall nearest me. “Linda told me everything,” she yelled, “all about you partying and everyone getting shitfaced! Every man on that goddamn Healy side is an alcoholic, Cory. The entire time I was in labor, I prayed to God you wouldn’t turn out like them. I prayed to God you wouldn’t turn out like your father...” like a record needle stuck on the same groove between heaving her heaving sobs. This confrontation made me question if there was anything I had inherited from either my mother or father. To this day, I’m unsure how exactly my parents’ genetics affected me, if at all. The thought is always there. The summer after sophomore year at college, I visited my mother in Seton’s mental ward again. The latest combination of medications had caused her to gain seventy pounds. Seeing her for the first time in a semester, I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t help but think, “this can’t be my mother.” This was the most radical change I had seen brought on by her meds. She knew it too, and hated its effect on both of us. She tried to hide it, but I could see the sadness in her eyes–this was her condition, here again in this clinic, at the mercy of pills. Later, the doctors discovered that the medications that had blown my mother’s weight up were proven to be an ineffective treatment. It was how the system worked. Through her, I realized that having a mental illness doesn’t necessarily handicap you or mean that you are a psycho. It’s just another thing that you conquer in life. In this way, I’ve learned to let go of the stigmas I’ve been fed by the media, and not let genetics determine how I see her or anyone who’s been diagnosed with a condition. I continue to be thankful for how I was raised and admire my mother’s incredible strength and parenting. Though it can be incredibly frustrating at times, the current medical system has been incredibly helpful for my mother. Despite having to live off disability, she raised me as best she could and didn’t let anything interfere with her not only maintaining the household, but also pursuing her happiness. I realize that she downplays her medical conditions to stop me from worrying about her, because she knows there isn’t anything I can do by being concerned. Admittedly, I worry from time to time about my own little inheritances from my family. However, I’ve come to learn that mental illnesses are more common than I once thought and that you don’t have to live your life defined by an ailment.
by Josh Parad
I wish I were an angry man. Born out of fire shaped by greed suspended in my own body. I wish my mouth was a peashooter. I wish my heart would beat more quietly. I wish I were an angry man. But I just canâ€™t seem to care enough. Images by Erin Irby
Campus and Community Resources compiled by Alex Violo and Kaitlyn Tynczuk
Below is an overview of organizations within the community and on Ithaca College’s campus that are dedicated to providing mental health programming that ranges from preventative services to various support and rehabilitative systems. This page is meant to be used as a resource to anyone interested in seeking professional assistance.
Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca is dedicated to providing affordable, professional services that support children, families, and organizations in finding solutions to today’s challenges. With over forty licensed social workers, psychologists, mental health counselors and psychiatrists, they have a diverse collection of clinical staff trained to meet the unique needs of the people coming to us and seeking mental health services. As Ithaca’s leader in providing community mental health services, their goal is to be a support to you, whoever you are. F&CS is the only agency that provides services to children under the age of 5. It is also the largest provider of child and adolescent services, and a place that many of our local college and graduate students, families, professionals, care givers and older adults visit. F&CS has been providing services to this community for over 127 years, and it’s been able to remain in existence for so long because the services it provides are of the highest quality and are provided to you barrier free. This means that regardless of your insurance coverage, irrespective of our income, and notwithstanding your mental health challenges, when you call F&CS and ask for help, they’re there to make sure you receive it.
Ithaca College CAPS The Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) provides short-term counseling to students who may benefit from intermittent and or brief psychotherapy. Enrolled students at Ithaca College are eligible to receive an initial assessment with a college mental health professional and that assessment will lead to recommendations for appropriate resources and services. Students may be eligible for group counseling or brief, individual psychotherapy at CAPS, depending on the nature of the problem. Students may be referred to other on-campus offices or to community resources that may be more appropriate for their needs. All services at CAPS are by appointment only. However, CAPS staff are aware that emergencies requiring immediate attention may arise for students seeking our services. Same Day Crisis Services are available during business hours for students who require more immediate attention. Please call CAPS, 2743136, to see if these services are appropriate for your circumstances.
Photo by Emily Miles
Cayuga Medical Center In Behavioral Services, they help people with identifiable, diagnosable, and treatable psychiatric illnesses who are at imminent risk. They treat a wide variety of psychiatric illnesses, among them overwhelming anxiety, behavioral and adjustment disorders, depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and psychosis. Based on the results of your evaluation, they develop a comprehensive treatment plan for you. Treatment focuses on your specific behavioral health needs. You will learn new ways to cope with your illness and the stress of being ill. They will also determine an appropriate level of medication and teach you how to use it to its greatest effectiveness. All of these therapies are designed to help you return home and resume your life as quickly as possible.
The Mental Health Association of Tompkins County The Mental Health Association of Tompkins County offers a wide range of services to assist persons and/or families affected by mental illness. Adult Services provides advocacy and assistance to mentally ill adults (homeless and otherwise) in accessing services such as medical, housing, employment, school and benefits. Community Education maintains current information on mental health services available in Tompkins County; and provides information and referral services through telephone contacts, office visits, and group meetings. Parent Advocacy/Family Support Services provides assistance to the parents/guardians in matters regarding legal services, assistance with treatment resources, and to coordinate services with other agencies. KIDS FIRST provides a summer recreation program for families with children who have a mental health diagnosis or serious emotional disability. It also offers services to parents with a psychiatric diagnosis, and children with a development delay. Starlight Peer Advocacy Program and Drop in and recovery Center for Empowerment (SPACE) offers a social outlet as well as information, self-help workshops and peer support and advocacy. Respite Services provides trained adults to serve as role models for youths with developmental, emotional, social or behavioral issues. Wellness and Recovery Services provides information and facilitates groups designed to promote improved physical and/or mental health.
Lakeview Lakeview Mental Health Services provides safe, affordable housing, support, and rehabilitative services to individuals recovering from mental illness. We are dedicated to helping individuals identify and achieve personally meaningful and measurable life goals, while simultaneously realizing their full potential. They provide the following programs: Residential, Case Management, Supported Housing, the Mentally Ill Chemical Abusing Outreach/Homeless (MICA/ Homeless), Forensic Case Management. They also over a Clubs and Drop-in program that features services, such as spiritual healing through meditation, enriching the soul through art therapy, and skill building through education and employment encouragement.
Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service If you are finding it difficult to get through the day, to focus on your school work, or to enjoy activities that you normally love, it is likely that you are dealing with a personal and emotional crisis or with a mental health issue, such as a depression or anxiety. When that happens, you can always talk to someone at the Crisisline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Just talking about whatâ€™s on your mind can really help, but you need a good listener who wonâ€™t judge you, diminish your problem, talk about his or her own problems, or try to fix things. On the Crisisline, 24-hours a day, crisis counselors are ready to listen to you and help you figure out what to do for your most immediate concerns. The call is FREE and confidential. If you are having thoughts of suicide or are worried about a friend, no matter how vague, we urge you to call the Crisisline. On Thursday, Friday, and Saturday evenings from 6 to 9 pm, crisis counselors are also available through a secure and private online chat at www.IthacaCrisis.org. If you have lost a loved one to suicide, you are invited to our Survivors of Suicide Loss support group, which meets on the first and third Monday of each month from 5:30 until 7 pm, at 124 E. Court Street in downtown Ithaca. Call Sheila McCue at 607-272-1505 x17 to check-in before attending the group.
by Liz Levine
Images by Meira Claudia When I think of emptiness I think of Pink bedrooms reflecting against pink skin Cheeks flushed, and eyes brushing away the kind of tears that are supposed to be kept hidden Pink walls reminiscent Of a childhood long since given away to an adolescent Who goes through lies like library books Borrowing lives of others because she likes how they taste on her tongue How easily they can be swallowed And even more easily forgotten Forgotten nursery rhymes and sappy love poems Swapped aimlessly during recess In the recesses of my mind I think of graduation parties Bagels growing stale on countertops Sitting on stoops and distracting herself people watching Because for her, people watching is a lifestyle Sheâ€™s been doing it since she was a child Breathing in strangers soaking in their somethingness until she almost believes itâ€™s her own body filled with their air All the while, Hoping just hoping for someone, anyone, to tell her that they care Enough To share her tomorrow To beg her not to go I think of intercontinental plane rides That magnet that appears after sheâ€™s crossed the divide When halfway around the world strips her of all pride And personhood, and leaves her with no place to hide Speeding through space thousands of miles away from the place She swore on her own grave she would never return to Never again victim to the toxicity of simplicity of that Static electricity emanating from those pink walls And yet, she feels its pull Pulling her back into an emptiness so persistent it could be a car dealer a mother I think of bullet wounds
The kind that carve out her insides Craters in her pink bedroomed door Pummeled in from rage and depression and a fifty year old nomadic heart The moment she realizes that repetition of history is an art And that all of her failures were predetermined from the start So why the fuck does she even bother Trying to cover up the scars anymore From the stitches sewed tightly along her veins Trying in vain to keep the emptiness in At least until she makes it to the bathroom I think of the first boy ever seduced by time Who loved the moments she occupied but failed at stitching them together Who severed his hand from hers and jumped before she had a chance to keep the I love yous to herself and walk away clean See, now she walks with one foot dragging behind her like itâ€™s in love with another time zone and canâ€™t seem to get its clocks right I think of starvation Not just from food, but of elation Burrowing into hibernation and sleeping until people stop looking for her At least then, she can blame it on time I think of mountains that gather dust in picture frames Of facebook friends and playing guessing games When the answer is always no When I think of emptiness I think of all of the girls in all of the pink bedrooms Who carry with them a somber submission to solitude Who believe that emptiness should be hidden like baby teeth under pillows Waiting for someone to steal it away during the night Who watch the world with wonder, wondering when itâ€™ll be their turn to Step into themselves and breathe their own air This is for you: Hold my hand. I know the pains pulsing from your palms Hollowed out from absent handholding in hallways The aches that etch themselves like stone carvings Across your eyelids Day by day Until you awake to heartbreak instead of sun The silences that echo through your eardrums I know that darkness follows you around every corner Across every continent That no passport stamp, no plane ticket can outrun So take my hand, close your eyes and breathe with me We may be empty, But we are not empty alone.
Photos by Emily Miles
dumTEK by Dina Ljekperic A woman walks through the town on a crisp day right on the precipice of autumn—just as the first few leaves have changed and the first cool breeze sends a small shiver down her unsuspecting spine. A loose-knit, orange sweater drapes heavily over her small frame. A lace shawl with long fringe hangs all the more heavy on her shoulders, awaiting its true purpose. She enters a bland brick building and maneuvers through the maze of workout machines until she reaches a door and opens it into the haven she’s waited for. Warm. Bright. Infinite. Mirrors surround two sides completely, and ceiling lights fill every inch of the room. She takes off her shoes and feels the clean, smooth hardwood beneath her toes. She lets her heels sink into it. Her sweater falls to the ground, and her shawl swerves down her, like a snake on a branch, until it reaches it’s resting place on her waist. She’s ready to join her sisters. They all line up, women of different ages, shapes and sizes. The seven of them share knowing smiles. Each walks to their spot, focusing on their reflection, aligning and realigning posture. This is the place of total comfort. The dancers are all equals, partners in movement, in energy. Any inhibitions, doubts, and insecurities are left behind, caught up in the walk here, as if the maze catches them all and holds them back. Other then their bodies the room is bare, save for a radio in the corner that becomes a part of them as much as the floor beneath their feet, the air they work their arms through, the wraps planted around their waists, and the unity between them in the room. With a light hand over the radio, the instructor charges the room with sound and energy. The minister has begun the ritual and the prayer absorbs the congregation and they respond accordingly. With a bend in their knees, a shift in their hips, and a lift in their arms, the ceremony begins. dumTEK - TEKdum - TEK This is called Tribal Fusion Belly Dance, but the same classic drumbeats drive it. This is the most common rhythm, the Maqsum. The right hand hits the drum—dum. Then, the back of the left hand follows—TEK. dumTEK - TEKdum - TEK The room is no longer a shell. It’s full, dense with the beat. The instructor can’t go on without it. It is both her partner and her teacher. It drives her lesson more than anything she comes up with. The music leads the room. The music is the room. It reverberates off every corner, off every wall and bounces into their bodies. They shift, swirl, and shake and then toss the beats right back. She tells them they mustn’t be afraid to be sexy, but, of course, ladylike. Body movements take new definition. Hips don’t just shake. They pop up, out, down, and in. Switch sides. Up, out, down, and in. Arm’s don’t hang or extend. They lay out leisurely on air. It is not the butt that shimmies; it is the rapid back and forth knee movements that ignite it. The chest goes out, around, and in. And every body responds differently. Some flow like a stream, others cut sharp and solid like a rock. Neither is wrong. The rhythms welcome both. You do not train your body for belly dance, your body interprets belly dance. Can we try and do this all at once? Feet movements, knee bends, chest isolations, arm and shoulder form. It’s like trying to play six instruments at once. A mishap, a misstep, something feels wrong. The first-timers pause before reacting, but the veterans all laugh almost on cue, and the music, as if listening, slows down into a slow Middle Eastern string solo. In this room, there are no expectations, only applause and progress. All interpret the dance differently, but all are sexy, confident women. All equal. A class of their own, brought together by the spirit of dance, the muse in front of the room, and the music that weaves between them–connecting it all. The shawl climbs back over her shoulders. The fringe sways in the breeze, but not nearly as beautifully as it did on her hips.
A Meditation on the Pieces of Home by Anonymous
Photo by Leroy Farrell
Amidst the suffocating warmth of stale air that churned just below the surface of an off-white stucco ceiling, a cool blue pillar of refreshment stood its ground. Quietly, the structure accepted its abuse, and remained intact, dismissing the idea of old age in order to fulfill its duty. Skin chipped and peeling, its dark steely innards pocked its complexion and cooled its surface. Despite the injuries it had sustained it remained smooth and pleasant to the touch. In the silence of hot air, each night my restricted body would search within the catacombs of my covers for this steely skeleton. With drowsy determination my salty cheek would eventually meet and slide on the navy blue enamel guard rail of my bunk bed. Escaping from the hell gurgling behind the plaster wall, I would discharge the heat into the reservoirs of the hollow bars. Cooled enough, my mind would shed the heavy overcoat of sleep, eyelids lifting as sleeves slipped. Gazing through the blue protective shield, I would make my peace with the shadows below, allowing them to entertain my pupils. With swollen fingers each enamel crack felt like the basin of a river, and pushing them forward like little boats they would follow the rivulets, searching for the dam. Sure of the strength of the grain and the forged metal, I would lower myself, breath sucked and head turned to the side, between the window and bed. Crouching, I would assess my options. The bottom bunk was like the extended bed of a Ford pickup truck compared to my window box. There was ample room for many to curl up comfortably, but here my brother slept, belly down, curled up in the top right hand corner. His mouth always gaping, I was sure this was how he caught his dreams. If only I slept with my mouth open, I could do the same. I liked it better at the foot of his bed. The space around me felt more like a buffer from the heat, the light, and the noises. I kept near my brother though, never touching him for fear of waking him, but close enough to hear the heavy rise and fall of his breath. This rhythmic white noise would mask all the unwanted sounds. Matching his breath, we became equal, both insignificant compared to the shadows at play in the room. So with hearing fixed and one hand on the dark, chipping pillar, I would fall asleep.
WINDOW I pressed my forehead up to the cool pane of glass. It was an old window, warped from years of weathering the elements. It slid in its frame, double-paned and dirty. As my fingers grasped the trim of the window, long tendrils of paint flaked from the wood, wrapping around my hands like fly paper. I was struggling to see through the scum on the pane; I was struggling to see the figure, bunched up in the back seat of an old Chevy Suburban. I knew the figure, but I wasn’t sure I knew the man–at least not anymore. My father left us when I was in elementary school. I still do not know for sure how long my father was gone, but it was long– around seven months. Whenever I asked my mother where Dad had gone, she avoided my questions or brushed them off with one word answers, like “business.” But I knew she was holding out; something was out of balance. My mother was hurting, but my question was: should I be hurting too? At that age, I had only seen her hurt when my brother or I were hurting. I didn’t know she had pain that was all her own. But she did. I could see it running through her from her limp hair and blank stare, to her feet, moving almost apart from her, moving without purpose, random and slow. Why had my mother changed into this, or rather, who had made her this way? Things always had to be someone’s fault; I had learned that. This was my father’s fault. Much later he told me that he had left for a fling with a college girl. In an attempt to steal her family’s money, he had shmoozed her up while they got drunk and blasted coke the whole way to her house in Texas. But he’d failed. And his failure left him living in the back of his Chevy in our driveway. That was the figure I looked down upon. As a child, he had been my favorite and constant playmate. I went to college with him, spending most of my earliest years learning and creating with him in the art department instead of going to pre-school. But my father was not the same man then as he was down there in the driveway. The man I knew before had only brought me smiles. So why was he down there, no longer bringing me smiles, but instead sending me...dead insects in the mail? It wasn’t long before he left again, but this time two things changed. I learned the word divorce, and almost weekly I would get to speak to him with my brother via video chat on our computer. He wasn’t the same “father” I had known before, this was Dad #2, as I called him then. I couldn’t touch him, or play tag, or anything. Dad #2 was just a face on a screen–pale, hard and tattooed–who’s voice never matched his lips or the voice I remembered from before. I never wanted our online sessions to end. I had wanted to understand him so I could get the answers to why things had changed; why he was gone, and why my mother was so vacant. Years went by and he moved from place to place. Sometimes I would get to see him in person, but more often than not he was just a shadowy figure– just a man living in the old Chevy in the driveway. Then there were the few times I would actually live with him. We lived in New York City for a bit–Queens and Manhattan–and also in Ithaca, Syracuse, and Cortland. Yet even though we were living together again, our relationship never went back to the way it was. In fact as we grew older and closer, the less we got along. I learned of his lies, and although he was no longer a drinking alcoholic, he became more and more violent. I tried my hardest to shield my brother from it all, and I succeeded for a time. But I couldn’t stop my brother from growing up, nor could I keep him from his own father. If anything, I hoped over time my brother would come to see our father for what he really was and is. In most dictionaries “father” is defined as a male who is naturally related through his biology to a younger person, his offspring. Further in the listings, however, “father” is defined as a man who gives care and protection to someone or something. Here, he mostly fails.
He fails because he gave up custody of my brother and me without hesitation. He fails because he made no attempt to care or offer protection when he left, refusing to get a job so he didn’t have to pay child-support. He fails because of the abuse I endured by his hand and mouth. He fails because I lost my childhood. But he only mostly fails; there are things that I believe are part of ourselves which we cannot change, these are things which our conscience doesn’t recognize as problems. These are things so deeply rooted in our natural characters that for us to remove them would crumple the already fragile structure of the human psyche. For him to try and understand the building blocks that make him, and to then try and reorder them would be impossible for a man in his mental state. He is not strong enough. And that is why he only mostly fails. He is not secure enough to help himself to try to be anything more than a friend to his children, or to take on any real responsibility in life. This is my biological father. This is the way he is. I have accepted it. He has cared in one way though. It is bizarre, but he has cared enough to teach me what not to be. I can respect him only in this manner. By his example, I know what not to become, what not to do. It may not seem like much, but it is at the core of me and my values. He has protected me from becoming him. My father and I are much like that old window, each a pane, distressed and impure. We are never touching, opposites, facing two different sides of the world. But we are still together, somehow made stronger from what the other provides.
Storming by Nadine Cohen
I painted on the days when I felt words–spoken or written–couldn’t do my feelings justice. The painting is deep and rich–full of tumultuous emotions. Once it was done, and I stepped back from it, I saw the stormy clouds of blue and the tornado rushing down to the bottom–a complete accident on my part, but a perfect one.
As the glass passes Try to look faster than the fastest Cuz the eyes are staring at you Glaring at you Knowing that you know what they know Staring, glaring, suffocating Gamma rays penetrating your very soul Nowhere to hide, nowhere to go Trapped, trapped like a rat Rat running a race Round and round you go Until something smacks you in the face Face to face with the demon stealing your fate One utterance of the secret to life is your biggest mistake Taking time to shut out the voices bouncing from membrane to membrane Bleeding on your bathroom floor just to know you’re not insane Peeling back the skin on your wrists Just to see the blood streaming through interconnected veins Validating that you exist Locked in the confines of biogenetic tissue Twitching and flinching, hoping cryptic messages miss you But the alarm goes off and you’re caught by the eye And now you realize
TRIGGER WARNING: “Self- harm”
by Simone Davis
Time creeps by And reality eludes it Proving that our world is nothing but an illusion Saline rivers shower unstained faces Eating away at the glue Between the puzzle piece spaces Leaving a mangled corpse crumpled on the floor You look up to see the eyes staring back, biting All the while you kneel, hunched over, fighting Bleeding, broken, and defeated Digging your nails in your back Until they’re deeply seeded Before ripping and slashing away this cover Tossing corpse’s coins into the druthers Revealing the bare naked truth Blood pools and organ heaps lining your bathroom floor As you rise up, unshackled, unashamed, face to face with the eyes that bore Through your plasmatic form. Forming the bond needed to comprehend the meaning of life to those lucky enough to receive it We live in a dead man’s world Plagued by self-piteous delusions and strife Expecting divine intervention to save us from hellfire’s Minions, depicted in the book of Life. Millions of testimony, all in vain friction Because the true answer is: The world we see is mental fiction.
Image by Gabriel Whiteman
TRIGGER WARNING: “Self- harm”
Learning to Love by Emily Nowels In the corners of my dream, I become faintly aware of someone kissing my forehead and cheeks. As I blink away sleep, Mother’s soft giggle greets me, her wild curls dancing in the reflected light of her face. Grabbing my hand under the comforter, she coaxes me gently from bed. “It’s time to wake up,” she says. As I follow her out the door, my hand joins hers under the kimono sleeves of her night gown. Outside, the hallway is foreign, the floors and walls warped and bruised. My bare feet spread across an unnaturally warm cement floor, lined along the walls with bits of trash. Mother’s hand is my sole comfort, as we move towards and finally through an unrecognizable door. As it opens, warm sunlight spirals out as my feet sink into deep, green shag carpet. I quickly recognize the surroundings as my childhood living room. The air tastes stale, and the room seems oddly contrived. Everything is precisely as I remember it: No stray books or childhood toys fill in the blanks, until I notice their absence, at which point they suddenly begin to appear in the space between my blinks. In front of me, a young version of my mom sits weeping with her back to the television. My Aunt Claire is there too, comforting her. Behind them Big Bird dances perversely on the screen, bobbing about, flapping his arms menacingly and tripping over his feet like a drunken idiot stumbling home from the bars. My mom buries her head in her sister’s stomach, and I watch in horror as she falls to pieces in front of me. “Shhh, baby, next time will work. Next time he’ll be stronger, and you’ll be stronger. Next time will be okay,” my aunt coos. And suddenly I am three again, standing in front of them holding a wadded length of toilet paper, and asking, “What’s wrong, Mommy?” “Nothing baby.” “I brought you a tissue. Are you mad at me?” I ask. But my mom just cries harder. Aunt Claire takes the toilet paper and tries to explain to me that my new baby brother got lost on the way. She tries to explain to me that I’ll just have to wait a little longer for him to arrive. And I’m still crying, when Mother, in her night gown, picks me up and cradles me in her arms. Still crying, I nestle into the silky fabric of her robe and let her carry me out the door and back into the hallway. From the shelter of her arms, I notice the trash littering the hall materialize into more wads of toilet paper and then teddy bears and Barbies that all lead down the hall, through another door and up to a piano. Mother places me on the bench and takes a seat next to me. Delicately, she lifts my hands and rests them on the keys. I’m shocked to see that my hands are small and childlike again - maybe that of 12 or 13 year old. Raising my gaze to the music balancing on the stand in front of me, I allow my fingers to slide over the keys. My brain aches as I attempt to split it right down the middle. Left side with the left hand. Right side with the right hand. For a minute everything flows together smoothly, and I am able to keep my eyes focused always a few notes ahead,
Image by Michele BoulĂŠ
so that my fingers never fall behind. But then something goes wrong. My left forefinger trips over the middle finger, and I squeeze my eyes closed to try to block out the repulsive vibrations emanating from below my hands. But that one dissonant slip seems so much more powerful than the rest of the peaceful melody I had just been constructing. Breathing through the blunder, I attempt to start again but find myself missing the same note again and again. Idiot. I slap the top of my left hand as hard as I can. Once. Twice. Three times. And with both hands still stinging, I start again, and slip again, and slap again. And start and slip and slap. Idiot. I rip my hands from the keys and shove my thumb in my mouth, burying my teeth into the delicate skin just below my fingernail. Tears stream and brilliant white pain shoots through my body as the soft nail underneath bends. It will take months for that injury to grow out. I open my eyes to Mother kissing my finger softly, and leading my back into the hallway. Now textbooks, newspapers, and college applications bury the childhood toys I had noticed before. I stop to stare. Beneath the thin layers of skin near my wrists and neck, I can feel blood beating faster and faster against the tunnels of my veins. I need just a moment to breath. But Mother just pushes me forward through yet another door. I’m back in my room again, but this time the ceiling and every other wall are John Deer green or yellow. They had been my favorite colors as a teenager, but now the room looks like a bizarre fun house for psychiatric patients. Standing in the doorway, the walls begin to spin, and I grab onto the door frame for support. But Mother still holds my other hand. No. No. She pulls hard, and I stumble and land in my bed. I try to get up, but the blankets wrap around my ankles, tying me to my mattress. At first, I kick and tug at the blankets, but it isn’t long before I simply lie back into the pillows and let the depression catch me. There is a certain familiar beauty in this solitude. A bizarre comfort in sadness. The gentle waves of melancholy cascading through my veins and replacing my blood, are routine. These waters massage the tired muscles in my legs as they race up my body, through the intricate network of my nervous system, trailing fingers over my stomach, kissing the hollow of my neck, whispering sweet, tender words of tranquility in my ears, before enveloping even the darkest corners of my mind in its gentle limbs. But these waters aren’t as consistent as I like to pretend–the ebbs and flows are only predictable close to shore. Farther out in what looks to be a placid sea of emotion things change quickly and without warning. Below the surface are dangerous wild animals waiting not to swallow me whole, but rip me apart limb by limb. Until I’m not a visitor, not a tourist on vacation to the sea, but the sea itself. A red, bloody sea. My body hums. I try to shake it off by standing up, but I can’t escape it. Vibrations unfold through my mind, and my vision blurs. I race out the door, but the floor is moving under my feet, shifting and slanting. Where is my mom? I want to go. I reach for the walls to steady myself, but they pull away at the last minute. I trip and crash into them, push off and trip again. I notice that I’m further under water now than I’ve ever been before. There is no light to tell me which way is up. Nestled in my gut something grows angry and frustrated, desperately trying to find it’s way out. To gush out my ears and nose. Seep out my pours or grow out with my hair. But there isn’t the time. I want to help it. I want to start at the top, make a tiny pinprick in the center of my scull and then peel away all my skin, layer by layer. Let my organs and muscles spill into a heap on the floor and melt away into a soup of mutilated flesh. All so that this it can float away. It is the only way.
Standing over the sink–how did I get here–something cold slides across my skin. And pain, as the serrated knife I had picked up off the counter rips clumsily through my finger. Gasping, blood mixes with the water from the dripping facet and disappears down the drain. Then Mother is there again grasping my bloody hand and dragging me back down the hallway that is now so full we can’t walk side by side. Alcohol bottles and packs of cigarettes have been added to the mountains of clutter. Digging her way through the rubble, she opens a door and shoves me inside. It’s my college apartment, but this room is too hard to be a part of. I try to stay back and watch from the outside. But Mother won’t allow it. The room grows smaller and smaller, and a younger image of myself sitting on the bed gets inevitably closer to me growing larger and larger, her mouth hanging open. I close my eyes as she swallows me whole. My body curls into a ball. My breathing turns to panting. When I open my eyes, I can see myself reflected in my boyfriend’s eyes. The image hardly resembles a human, but rather some rabid animal, terrified and lost in her own otherwise invisible reality. My hands shake, skittishly traveling over my body, occasionally digging my nails deep into hunks of flesh on my stomach or leg. My lover urgently grabs to stop my hands, attempting to calm me. The feel of his skin on mine burns. His touch scorches my body and melts through layers of skin in a desperate attempt to burn love into me. I moan and cry and shake. I hate myself for tricking him into loving me. Tears flow down my own face as I sob helplessly and flinch away -- a mongrel snapping at his tender hands. And he drops his hands to the bed, defeated and hurt. Then I am back in that wretched hallway, climbing over loose limbs and broken glass, my mother shouting at me from behind forcing me forward. When I break through, I fall clumsily into the back seat of a speeding car. In the front seat, another piece of me is driving with both eyes closed. We hurtle forward, as she pushes down on the gas peddle. Faster and faster. “Stop!” I scrunch my eyes closed. But suddenly through the blackness, I feel the leather of the steering wheel under my own hands. The weight of the pedal pushes back against my foot. My foot that is planted to the floorboard. Shocked, I try to open my eyes, but I can’t. I don’t want to. How long can I go without opening them? Maybe I won’t have to decide when to open them. Maybe the road will turn sharper than I think it does, and I’ll hurdle into a tree and never have to open my eyes again. Never have to make that decision. Gripping the wheel tighter, I begin to scream, a tortured scream, that rips violently through my vocal cords and shatters the silence. Ripping my eyes open, still screaming, I stand in a final room. Mother no longer holds my hand, as I watch violence unfold around me. Each scene molding into the next like a flip book. Standing at recess, my friend unveils her shaved head to me. “My daddy did it,” she says. Mom drops a casserole dish, and beets explode across the floor. I fall off my bike and watch as skin shreds off my knee. I slap at my mom’s hand. A dead robin lies on the side of the road. Bicycle pompoms wave in the breeze. My father slams a door. I slam one harder. My brother trips, and I giggle. My parents and I begin to fight. And everything moves faster until suddenly every person in my life is standing in one room screaming. But then it’s not them or me. But her. Mother. But I can no longer recognize her. With impenetrable ice blue skin, she rises above me, horridly stunning. Empty stone eyes bore into me as she screams. Spewing abhorrent black. She is beautiful.
I envy her power. Fear her lure. Long for her approval. And then as a familiar panic begins to wrap itself around my limbs, I breath. I breath deep. And keep breathing, and slowly the hands that had been climbing up my spine begin to release their suffocating hold. I keep breathing, and slowly the muscles all throughout my body twisted into tight knots of apprehension begin to loosen. I breath, and I want to breath more. I breath and reach up and grasp onto the hem of my mother’s dress. And pull. She spins and spins as yards of cream silk come cascading off her body. I race my hands up the fabric pulling harder and harder as if stripping a mummy. And she twirls gracefully, faster and faster and lower and lower until her body spills onto the floor. Her soft naked form lies peacefully on the cold hard floor, relaxing into the tiles as if sinking into a down mattress. Her hair spills out around her creating a golden crown. Her legs curled up near her chest. Her left hand just ever so slightly grazing her cheek, while her right hand rests gracefully on the crest of her hip. Her breathing turns slow and even. Pure. Pristine. Peaceful. Vulnerable. I begin to cry as I watch her sleep. Real tears–the kind that appear without any work. My facial muscles never strain. But the tears come anyway, gliding down my cheeks. And then I realize. I love this woman. With no pretense or convoluted proclamations of emotion. I love her purely and easily. I walk to her and kneel down, kissing her softly. The corner of her thick mouth and curve of her velvet cheek, fold around my lips. As I pull back, a tear slips from my cheek, following a crevasse in my lower lip to fall onto my lover’s nose. Pulling back a little more, I am shocked to discover that the woman lying on the floor is no longer my mother. It is me.
Photo by Emily Miles
Photo by David Lurvey
Photo by Anika Steppe