Last week I went out for lunch at the Tea House in Boulder with a good friend and fellow writer, Mike Barber, and somehow we got onto the subject of happiness and celebration (likely this had something to do with the quickly approaching Colorado Book Awards ceremony). Over a pot of Pu'er tea and dessert, Mike introduced me to a phobia I'd never heard of before (FYI: I'm kind of obsessed with phobias). He told me about a student he had that once openly admitted to having cherophobia. Cherophobia is defined as being the fear of gaiety, happiness, joyfulness, or rejoicing. Because I think I have this phobia, and because I love etymology, I looked the word up. The origin of the word chero is Greek (meaning to rejoice; gaiety, or happiness) and phobia, of course, is Greek for fear.
While I do enjoy joy, I am terrified of it too.
Apparently those of us who struggle with the varying degrees of cherophobia typically do so because we are also struggling with some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. For me, I've long struggled to overcome the anxiety and fear associated with a string of misfortunes, abuse, attacks, losses, and accidents that have also happened to coincide with certain dates that should have been entirely associated with happiness, but weren't.
For example, I was raped on my birthday at a young age (wow, that was scary to say even if I'm generally pretty open about it).
For example, I was in a car accident (an off duty cop driving a Dodge Durango RT plowed into my station wagon) and accordioned both my car and my spine. The accident literally occurred at the very moment I was proudly thinking about (aka celebrating) how much I'd just accomplished (I had almost completed 60 credits of community college with a 4.0 as a low-income mama/non-traditional student who didn't have a high school diploma or GED, and despite these setbacks, and because of how hard I'd worked, had been offered a full-ride to CU); I was unable to take the scholarship because of my injuries and the court case itself; returning to school to get my first degree was put on hiatus for two years, but I did do it nonetheless, and to this day, I still deal with chronic pain and spinal degeneration (a recent MRI revealed even more bulging discs along my spine, more bone spurs, muscle atrophy, and the start of some severe curvature). I am currently seeing a pain doctor, as well as a physical therapist, a Jungian-based psychologist, and an occupational therapist (but only because I have insurance finally, and because I took the summer off from teaching to not only work on my second book, but to make a sincere effort to begin strengthening my core to counteract, or rather, delay the inevitable degeneration).
For example, I'd just completed a BFA in Writing & Poetics (again with a 4.0), had literary agents interested in a book I was currently writing (Fig), from which many excerpts were routinely winning literary awards, and had recently been accepted into grad school when my beloved mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer (she died before she could see me get my MFA, finish my first novel, or see it sold; in other words, she died six months from diagnosis; in other words, she was here one moment and gone the next). I am always afraid that if the universe gives me something good, it will then take something away.
Obviously any birthday is incredibly hard to celebrate--sometimes I manage, other times not so much (the psyche is a hard shadow self to figure out or to work with--sometimes she comes along with a gut punch I truly didn't see coming, and sometimes she leaves a bouquet of flowers on my doorstep; sometimes we talk, make compromises, and sometimes we betray each other).
March is one of the hardest months for me because of the car accident, but also because it marks the month I first fell for a former boyfriend, and a long relationship that proved to be abusive in so many ways. March is also when my mother's cancer diagnosis started to get very real; while everyone else is prancing about rejoicing in the return of life that spring tends to bring with all its cheerful daffodils and shit, I'm slugging through a gray daze.
August, when my mother died, can be almost unbearable, a month further ruined last year when the reality of the floods effecting my dad's business became all too real, and a "friend" broke up with me for reasons I can only assume have to do with my struggle to celebrate or embrace the positive (although I don't really know because she never bothered to say as much, just noted I was "bad for her mental health" as if her allegedly unintentional aloofness never hurt me). I'm working really hard as of now not to let this rejection also ruin full moons for me as full moons were a big part of our friendship. However, the night of May 21st when the Colordo Book Awards were announced was a pretty damn spectacular full moon if I must say so myself. That said, on May 21st of this year, my dearest aunt and three cousins were at the memorial service for my dear uncle Vic, but because I knew my literature-loving family (who have all been astonishingly supportive of my writing carreer), would have been upset had I driven out to Iowa instead of staying in Colorado to attend the awards ceremony, I missed being there to say my goodbyes, and perhaps more importantly to support them as they supported me when I was losing/lost my mother (their sister and aunt).
And then there's all the unexpected blows from the calendar called life--dates like Christmas without my mother, or Thanksgiving because I know it knocks my father over every single year as it marks his first date with my mom back in Iowa when they met as grad students at the esteemed Writer's Workshop. Then there's the day my daughter became a woman in Turkey at the Temple of Artemis of all amazing places to come of age, and my mother wasn't there to see it (although I was able to present Story with a letter and gift her maternal grandmother had prepared for the occasion from her deathbed). Of course, there's the fact she didn't get to come to Turkey at all and see the country where my father was stationed for the Peace Corp, a place that defined him as a person.
And I don't have the time or the space to address the way-too-long list of dates when good friends died (just know, that considering I'm only almost forty, I've lost more people than most people in their seventies have). Along with the birthdays of friends and family, I also ritualistically copy into every new calendar I get at the start of every new year the dates I've lost someone so I can remember and honor them, not because I want to dwell, but that's the problem, right? The line between remembering and dwelling is sometimes hard to find or identify. That is why the etymology for the word nostalgia involves the word/concept: pain.
The thing is I do try. I try so hard.
I try to avoid looking for the bad that follows the good. I try to let friends take me out on my birthday, or spoil me silly. I try to balance the pain of nostalgia on Christmas with the joy of the memories I have of my mother watching my daughter open her presents from Santa. And I did agree, and even ask for a celebratory dinner and drinks with family and friends after my book launch at the Boulder Bookstore (and dammit I had a fucking blast too even if there was a moment where the planning unexpectedly fell through and I had to scramble to find other friends to help me out). Furthermore, I know I held the space for my mother while she was practicing her right to die at home; I know I eased her pain and fear in dying (I only wish I could have found a way to help my dad, but I know I tried, and I know I continue to try). And I know I held the space for both my family and myself as I tended to and cared for my mother's body after she passed.
I am always ecstatic on November 30th because that was the day I birthed my daughter into this world, on both my terms and her terms, at home with a midwife on top of a mountain in Tennessee in a shotgun shack with no running water in the middle of winter (talk about bad-assery!), but yes, there's always a twinge of wishing my mom was here to see her grow older. And then there's November 3rd, the day I married my husband and father of my child and bonus child too. And to further prove my efforts to make happy, my husband and I specifically chose an ancient marriage rite where we not only jumped over a broom back in 2005, but do so every year and a day to renew our vows and celebrate our togetherness. Furthermore, we arranged the original marriage as a means to counteract the impact of the car accident which had happened only eight months before; we purposely decided to add a dose of joy to an already difficult year (of course one of my best friends had to go and die a week before the wedding, but to balance that out, I had the honor of serving another friend as her doula as she delivered inot this world one of the sweetest souls I know).
So I not only try, I do sometimes succeed. So to get back to the Colorado Book Awards:
Fig had been short-listed. The day of the official ceremony, I woke up excited, blogged about it (something I haven't done since right before the book debuted), had fun getting dressed up with my daughter and letting her do my make-up, to then hop into the car to go pick up my best friend only to get to her house and realize our car was smoking. It wasn't the oil, but maybe some transmission fluid burning on the outside of a pipe? Since we have zero money (as usual), it will likely be a while before we do find out what keeps making my car chain-smoke like Joey's agent in the TV show, Friends. At any rate, we stopped at a gas station where I anxiously watched my husband not roll up the sleeves of the new shirt I'd gotten him for the event as he reached under the hood of Charlotte, my 1998 black Forrester, to feed her some more fluid as an offering, as some ridiculous Wiccan version of a Hail Mary. In all of that minor chaos, Cherophobia started knocking on my heart, so I answered by spraying some Rescue Remedy into my mouth and onto my chest plate where it might seep toward my tender blood-pumping organ, and thus ease my sometimes fragile soul. While performing this anti-anxiety ritual, I completely forgot to check to see if we needed gas before we all climbed back into the car and followed Siri's directions to Parker, Colorado (had I been driving, I probably would have, but as you will soon see, there is a reason I wasn't).
But to get back to the mantra--I was trying to celebrate the fact I'd been short-listed. For example, even though I was absolutely convinced I wasn't going to win the Colorado Book Award, I decided it was still important to go to the ceremony to not only celebrate the authors who would win, but all the finalists (who are also winners), and the fact Fig, a book about mental illness and outcasts was even being recognized at all.
With Map-quest further rattling my nerves with its constantly changing proposed time of arrival (we were going to be late for the finalists' photograph it seemed), we got onto the toll road that would take us there, poor Charlotte still smoking as we attempted to fully commit to the journey (other than the smoke and the terrible smell, she seemed to be running fine--the check engine light never came on, but then again the gas light has never worked since I bought her used five years ago). My husband was driving as both driving and cars, especially on freeways, have long been a serious source of anxiety for me (even before the accident), when sure enough, the tell-tale signs of panic joined Cherophobia on the doorstep to my heart. This is partly because it's hot and there's five of us crammed into a small vehicle so the windows are rolled down because the AC is too weak to reach those of us in the backseat, but as an air sign (Gemini if you must know), the blasting wind blows away whatever calm I still had, and the open window makes it seem like I will fall out of the car at any moment, vertigo increasing, and further dramatized by the claustrophobia I'm simultaneously experiencing.
So we're racing along like this, and I'm trying to decide whether or not it's time to switch from Bach flower remedy to Western medicine Xanax when my husband realizes we are running on empty, or more realistically, gas fumes. Of course, because it's a toll, there are no gas stations for forever, and I'm not only sad I'm going to miss the finalists' picture (I figured because I wasn't going to win, that was the "token" I could have), I'm beginning to doubt my decision to go in the first place. I'm thinking: Fate is laughing at me again. I'm thinking: This is a sign we should all be in Iowa instead for my uncle's memorial. I'm thinking: I've been selfish and now I'm being punished.
But we do manage to get gas in time (the car still smoking badly), and despite Siri's insistence I will be missing the finalists' photo session (and even though I did technically arrive 10 minutes too late for it), I do get to pose for the picture, which I do, and I'm feeling a little bit better. I sit down inside with my family and start practicing a PTSD strategy called tracking. Tracking involves looking around, taking note that you are not in a dangerous place--you are not at the site of your car accident, or your rape, or your whatever, and while this technique does help, of course my racing mind always starts to wonder if this new place is going to become a site of new trauma. Obviously, there is a reason I wrote a novel about mental illness. The more I detail in this blog, the crazier I feel and look, right?
Without going into too much detail, my cherophobia-infused mind zeros in on the "proof" that Fig won't win. While I won't go into the "clue" I discover (partly because in retrospect I see how absurdly irrational I was being), I will explain my reasoning, which I already addressed (to some extent at least) in my last blog post. I know I wrote a difficult book about a difficult subject that is still very much taboo, and so I remain convinced it can't possibly win. I remind myself that I'm still championing for anyone and everyone who has ever suffered from mental illness just by bravely being here. Somehow my daughter has lost her free drink ticket but is being weird about letting us buy her a ginger ale (probably because I'm constantly ranting and raving about being poor and living in Boulder County), and then I'm drinking my water and starting to worry about the fact I'll have to pee at the wrong time (and what happens if I pee my pants at the age of almost forty in front of everyone?), and everyone seems to be getting settled in for the ceremony.
Sure enough, they start the countdown of slowly, and also way-too-quickly, announcing the winners of each category (my category, of course, is the very last one--in fact, my name, because of the alphabet, is the very last in the entire program), and for anyone who has ever dealt with anxiety, you should know how incredibly nerve-wracking a countdown like this can be.
And this is where I must take pause to address another countdown.
Fig is a countdown book. Originally, it was titledThe Calendar of Ordeals, and as you can see, I also live/survive my own calendar of ordeals. My anxiety levels (believe it or not) and OCD tendencies have gotten better. I'm serious. I am managing them well. I practice Ikebana to slow time down, to be mindful. To be here, right now. I use an hour glass to remind myself to fill time rather than to ever kill it. Steadily, I am driving into Denver more often on my own. I'm working on my injuries even though the muscle memories are a beast to face. My husband says I have a special issue with time. And I do. My special issue of time comes out in my book. Fig, the protagonist, also has a special issue with time. She's terrified of turning nineteen because that was the age her mother was when she first exhibited symptoms of the schizophrenia she too may or may not someday develop. When I was 22, I was diagnosed with hyper-vigilance, which essentially means you have a valid reason to be paranoid, a definition that isn't very helpful when you stop to think about it, which I do, of course, stop to ponder all the time.
The announcers continue to announce the finalists and the winners.
Remember bombs are often ignited by the end of a timer.
And really, I'm okay with not winning. I'm sitting at a table surrounded by my loved ones. My daughter is stunningly beautiful. My dad isn't holed away at home mourning my mother, but at my side. My husband looks outrageously handsome, someone I barely get to see anymore because he works night shifts to help supplement the measly amount of money I make from writing and teaching, and there's my gorgeous best friend I've somehow been blessed to have in my life for 26 years. And I not only wrote a book, but got it published, and despite the fact it deals with schizophrenia and skin-picking, it's getting good reviews, mostly positive attention. Oh, and the cover is so pretty and hauntingly interesting too. The officials continue to announce the winners and I'm happy to see two writer friends (Lisa Birman and Laura Resau) win in their categories. I have settled into being here. Right now.
And then they're naming everyone in my category. We've reached the end of the brochure, and the end of the alphabetical order, and I have no idea how tight I'm wound until they say Fig wins and I literally jump up with joy. That's right. JOY.
So see, I do try. And sometimes, sometimes, I do succeed.
Thank you so much to everyone involved in the Colorado Humanities Project and the Colorado Book Award. Thank you to all the judges for acknowledging my incredibly difficult book, and by doing so, also acknowledging everyone who has ever been affected by mental illness, and for giving me a rare opportunity to rejoice. May, just to keep to the theme of time and calendars, is Mental Health Awareness Month, so the timing of this award is so very, very fitting.