Posted by: shelliejelly | September 19, 2009

Outside ourselves

Tears filled his eyes as he sat across from me, picking at his french fries and cheeseburger. In what seemed a millisecond, a happy reunion, a visit, was turning downward, the evidence of a funnel cloud taking shape in the distance, threatening to spiral us all out of this safe, neutral space we’d created.

The conversation started at “Oh, I forgot to ask you about” and ended miles away at “Can we please not talk about this, I already feel like enough of a failure.” At the first sign of resistance, I quickly dive in for one more jab (though that’s not how I intend the action to be interpreted in the moment), only clapping my mouth shut to emphasize my disbelief in his story—not to give him the relief he is seeking. At the car, I finally lose sight of anything resembling goodwill, shouting across the rooftop, more to myself than O., “I’m just so tired of this all.”

What this all entails is anyone’s guess. The word is loaded, like a kitchen sink that everyone ignores because they don’t want to be the one responsible for scrubbing the glued-on food from the plates and bowls. I am aware enough to know that there are feelings in this sense of all that have been locked in for years, shuffling their way here and there, whispering some days, screaming bloody murder the next. The one constant is the subject: Why? Why is this life happening to me? Why can’t I get a break? Why is everything so hard? Exclamation points at the end of a self-indulgence I don’t often allow, can’t often allow if I’m to wake up with any sense of purpose at all.

I have a meeting to go to, but now I’m worried that O. won’t be able to care for Sabine, his mood creeping toward despondent, his eyes half-mooned while she tries to engage him in a game she’s invented. I sigh my suspicions into the room, “How are you feeling?” and “Do you feel well enough for me to go?” Strangely, it’s after I’ve helped bring him so low that I begin to care for his feelings. I don’t want to say directly what is in the back of my mind, Are you going to do something to yourself or Sabine while I’m gone, for fear that I’ll compound the feeling of failure I helped unleash.

He calls my bluff. “What do you want me to say?” he begins. “At the restaurant, I felt like killing myself, honestly.” He moves to the window to look out at the street he used to live on: “I don’t know what you want me to tell you. I don’t care anymore. I don’t care about anything.” And I know that his anything is my all. Years of pain encompassed in one word, crushing his will completely. I imagine the bi-polar only confuses the journey by creating road signs that indicate promise but lead to dead end after dead end.

You don’t trust me with my own daughter is his own unspoken accusation, and he’s right, on some level. Every time I see him adjust his grip on the world, I re-evaluate my understanding of both his potential for wellness and his potential for illness. I input all the information I have and come to a decision that has very little to do with O.’s feelings: I judge based on my own definitions of these words, and, by my own admission, they are limited in scope. Being well is acting normal; being ill is acting sick.

The problem, though, is one of perspective. I’m not far enough away from myself, from O., from the situation, to make any judgments that aren’t necessarily influenced by this past year, and, more likely, this past decade. Death changed my vision while love brought some things back into focus while leaving others incurably blurry. Now, while losing again, blind spots seem to be distorting the picture—I can’t see outside my own experience.

The phenomenon is normal, this not being able to see outside ourselves. I don’t worry that I’m mistaken in my natural inclination toward drawing from my own experiences to make sense of what is happening around me. Walking a mile in another’s shoes is brilliant in theory, but not at all workable, or even possible, in practice. What I can do that I don’t do nearly enough is push my own boundaries, challenge myself to turn my head half an inch farther to the left or right so I might take in more of my surroundings. My vantage point might be forced to rise above ground level.

“I know my actions are sometimes out of the ordinary,” O. says quietly. “I understand what I’m doing, but it’s like I’m standing outside of myself and I can’t stop.” Again the assumption that being outside of ourselves sharpens our awareness in ways that allow for us to see clearly. We are, he and I, united in our need to take action, to expand or contract our understanding so that we might, finally, pitch a tent in the middle ground.

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