Beyond Blue

Now that the Santas and stockings have disappeared to the North Pole along with the holly-jolly tunes and the Salvation Army bells, commercial-savvy marketers reach out in desperation for some holiday or other excuse to make us buy, buy, buy. And so out come the hearts heralding Cupid’s arrival on an arrow next month.

A heart is a good symbol to have hanging around the drug store (that I visit every other day for refills and vitamins and candy to bribe the kids with) and the mall (which I have avoided since before Thanksgiving) because, according to Mother Teresa, holiness starts with a pure heart.

In her book of reflections with Brother Roger of Taize, “Seeking the Heart of God,” Mother Teresa writes this about the heart:

“To be able to pray we need a pure heart. With a pure heart we can see God.

Prayer gives us a clean heart and that’s the beginning of holiness. Holiness is not a luxury of the few; it is a simple duty for you and for me.

Where does holiness begin? In our own hearts. That’s why we need that continual prayer–to keep our hearts clean, for the clean heart becomes the tabernacle of the living God.”

One of my all time favorite quotes is from Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s “The Little Prince“: “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”

I’m always telling David and Katherine to use their words (instead of whining and screaming), but I’m often afraid to use them myself. Unlike Eric, who vocalizes a resentment before it’s had time to fester and start a family, I hate confrontation so much that I’ll befriend the resentment–dress it up, take it out on the town, hang out with it for years–anything to avoid conflict.

On some level, I fear that any conversation of substance will end the same way as the one I had with my dad almost two decades ago–when I conjured up the courage to tell him how hurt I was that he missed my high school graduation. (He was golfing.)

He responded defensively. “Of all the things I’ve done for you,” he said, “you have to concentrate on that?”

I tried one more time, a year later, to tell him I wanted a better relationship with him. Newly sober, I was struggling with all the drinking in our family.

“Dad,” I asked, “would it be possible for you not to drink around me?”

He followed through–by excluding me from family trips, where my sisters and he bar-hopped all night.

If I were an emotionally healthy, chemically-balanced woman, I might have let go of my hurt long ago. I certainly should have cremated it with my father’s body when he died. But I’m an extraordinarily sensitive manic depressive with an excellent memory and a hearty menu of issues.

Part of my recovery has been to not look back so often, and to become more assertive in communicating my feelings because depression is anger turned inward (at least at some level).

It’s not easy. Because when you use your words, you learn a lot about a person and his priorities–you invite responses that are downright ugly and difficult to hear.

But silence isn’t the solution–not if you want to keep your cortisol (the stress hormone) levels low. The trick is using your words with absolutely no expectation of what kind of response you’ll get (yeah right). You say them for the sake of expressing them, not for anything you hope to hear. If that’s at all possible.

Speaking of using my words, I remember the first time after my big breakdown that I made a conscious effort to voice my frustration.

I had just graduated from the hospital outpatient program with the lessons on effective communication fresh on my mind. The psychiatric counselors taught us that stress and anger stoke each other, and that left alone for too long, these guys would host a keg party inside your brain, triggering excess adrenaline and cortisol that do bad things to every organ in your body.

Cross-eyed Katherine was sitting on my lap inside an ophthalmologist’s office. We had already seen a doctor who told me that my two-year-old would absolutely need surgery. But I wanted a second opinion

“When did you first notice her crossing her eyes?” asked Dr. A.

“This summer,” I said.

“Is it snowing outside?” he asked

I looked out the window. “Yeah, it is.”

“What have you been doing for the last six months?” he asked.

I wanted to tell him that I had been in the psyche ward a big chunk of that time eating rubber turkey with some folks in hospital robes, that I had trouble dealing with mean people like him.

Instead I told him that he was a second opinion–that I had already been to see an ophthalmologist–and that he obviously sees a lot of patients because it took three months to get an appointment with him.

He continued Katherine’s evaluation, but I couldn’t let it go. I was getting angrier by the minute.

“You know, your comment about the snow,” I said. “I don’t appreciate your suggesting that I am a slacker mom. Because I’m not.”

“I’m sorry if I offended you,” he said. “I was just getting you back for your joke about the diaper.” (Katherine had pooped as soon as he walked in and I asked him if he changed diapers.)

“There are some things I’m sensitive about,” I explained, “and being a good mom is one of them.”

The hospital counselors would have been proud. I think I decreased my adrenaline and cortisol by a few levels. And at the next appointment, I found out that Dr. A is not only an excellent ophthalmologist but also a kind person (as long as you don’t bring up diapers).