[These excerpts are from Book 1, Burnout to Bliss series.]
From Part 1, Chapter 2:
Fortunately for me, I wasn’t the only one experiencing drama. I didn’t stand out in a crowd with “She’s a mess” on my back. Drama was everywhere in the news. The ‘80s were a troubled time for any place with trees, and Purgatory, home to Mount Purgatory College, where I taught, was surrounded by trees. Wildfires devastated forests and wildlife and destroyed homes throughout the Rocky Mountain West. A girlfriend who was a fire-fighter, the kind who flew planes over them, told me that when a pine tree burns, the sap explodes, spreading the fire quickly from tree to tree, partly because the branches were so close in a forest. Millions of acres burned, and some speculated it was only the beginning. Despite all that sad news, it seemed like Bobby McFerrin’s “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” played almost hourly on my local radio station.
I started thinking about my life as a tinder box, how it wasn’t just one thing but a slow accumulation of dry combustible material, like on the forest floor, in the shadows, waiting for the right spark to explode into flames.
I typically cope by writing. But because my first novel-writing effort produced enough rejection slips to paper my bathroom, I shifted my focus to relationships. I imagined the emptiness I felt, the hole in my heart, was about people. I honestly believed that if only I could find the right relationship, someone who could see me, I would feel supported, loved, and at peace and therefore be able, at last, to be truly creative. I was guided in this direction by something I heard in church on Sunday about the power of love: “Because I am loved, I can do anything.”
The cynic in me said, “We always find evidence to support our belief when we seek it.” The optimist fought back with, “But the truth is, I suffer from ‘the loneliness that can’t be fixed.’ ”
I coined that phrase, “the loneliness that can’t be fixed,” in 1987, when almost every entry in my journal described my futile attempts to fill that void, what I came to interpret as a desire to “be seen.” Whether at work, in the community, or in my home life, I felt invisible, as if no one could see me, as if no one could possibly understand me. Everyone I knew, including some of my department colleagues, shoved their awful personal stuff in my face, knowing I would respond with compassion, would make some effort to console them. But no one ever saw my stuff. No one ever tried to comfort me – not even my mother.
In the midst of wallowing about relationship issues at work, I activated my primal fear of survival by stretching myself financially to the point that I had to weigh and measure every nickel I had before I let it go. I didn’t even have the satisfaction of having blown the wad on fun stuff, like consciousness-raising weekends or conspicuous consumption.
I lived in a small attic apartment in the triplex that I’d bought for myself and two friends, after their rented trailer was sold, after my divorce in 1981, when we all needed a place to be. It had a giant mortgage. I was paying half my monthly salary, at least three times what the attic apartment would rent for, to complete the mortgage payments – after collecting rents from the other two apartments! I bought my clothes at thrift stores. I seldom ate out – not even a sandwich. So my situation was not the result of heavy spending. In fact, friends remarked about my skill for living on air, my ability to stretch a dollar – a skill I’d acquired working my way through college as a waitress.
This financially induced stress was new for me, and it was due to an agreement I’d made with my sibs about Mom.
My siblings and I had agreed with our stepfather on our last “altogether now” visit to Florida that if he should go first, each of us would take Mom into our homes for four months out of the year. I tried to imagine Mom sharing my small attic apartment. Considering her age, her challenge with Parkinson’s disease, and that she would be coming from sea level to the more than mile-high elevation of Purgatory, I didn’t see it working.
Naturally, having assured himself that we’d take care of Mom, my stepfather passed not long after that conference. My sister and her husband moved Mom to their house in Texas, but the four-month rotations could start soon. To keep my agreement, I would have to buy a house for her.
I refinanced the triplex to get the money for a down payment and bought a house the realtor, the mortgage company and the bank said I could afford – an older two-story brick home in a tree-filled neighborhood within easy walking distance of the senior center, two parks, a library and a quick-stop grocery. It had a washer and dryer, things I hadn’t had since I left home when I was 18. It had either two large bedrooms or four smaller ones, a living room, a big kitchen/dining area, off-street parking for several cars, and a cedar-fenced back yard with a patio for sitting in the sun or shade. There was even a peach tree in the front, on the east side of the house. I just knew Mom would love it!
Using my credit cards, I quickly furnished it as best I could with gently used stuff, paying special attention to things she’d expect – couch, chairs and coffee table in the living room; table and chairs in the dining area; stools for the island that separated the dining area from the kitchen; and a bed, dresser, night stand and lamp for her room.
No sooner had I bought and furnished the place than Mom called to say she was coming for a visit!
She flew into Denver, some four and a half hours drive away. I picked her up, and on the drive back to Purgatory I asked her if she wanted to listen to some music, because it would be a long drive. She said yes, so I put in a cassette I’d been listening to on the drive up, the latest by Anne Murray. I was about to sing along, as I had done on the drive up, when Mom spoke.
“I don’t like her voice,” she said. “It’s too low. A woman shouldn’t sound like that.”
“Of course not,” I thought to myself. “Of course she doesn’t like that low voice… it’s like mine.”
In my mom’s defense, she had never really heard my singing voice, even though I sang in the church choir and was in a trio in high school that actually got invited to sing in a college pub. We had a soprano who sang like Judy Collins, a contralto with a range like I’d never heard before and was so jealous of, and me, the alto-tenor foghorn that provided the platform for their voices. I never sang solos.
We wore different outfits depending on the venue and type of music. We sang mostly folk music like “Lemon Tree,” Mom’s favorite, and easy listening tunes like “Laura.” The gals told me to listen to Peter, Paul and Mary to learn how to blend in with harmony. We practiced a lot – at the soprano’s house about 20 miles away, because two-thirds of our group lived in that area. I got to where I could instantly harmonize no matter what the song was. It’s a hard-earned skill from lots of practice singing in the car.
So Mom could be forgiven for not knowing I had a low singing voice. At least that’s what I told myself.
We drove the rest of the way without music, because there was no radio reception. So we had a touch of small-talk, interspersed with long periods of quiet contemplation and occasional comments on the scenery.
During the quiet moments, my mind scrolled through memories of our previous interactions – like the comment she made when I was finally released from the student health center after my knee surgery in 1974. Someone had called her to come get me, because I was hooked on the morphine they administered around the clock. She took me to my aunt’s apartment, bought some clothes for me, and then returned to wherever she was living then, without a note that she’d even been there.
My friend from the coop took the back seat out of his car to make room for me with my huge cast and picked me up when I could no longer stay with my aunt – not because she wanted me to leave, but because I believed she’d done enough. She checked in on me throughout the day, sat with me, worked with me to try to move my leg by myself, to wiggle my toes and ultimately to even lift a foot off the bed. But I needed to give her living room back to her; I was taking up her couch and her time, and I wasn’t her responsibility.
Mom phoned me at the coop when she learned I’d moved out of my aunt’s house. I was still in a cast from my crotch to my toes. I was weak from being in bed so long at the clinic, at my aunt’s, and then at the coop. Even with crutches I could hardly get to the wall-mounted phone in the narrow hallway by the living room to take her call. The first thing I heard was, “You wouldn’t have gotten addicted to the morphine if you’d never smoked that marijuana.”
Wow! I wanted to scream back at her, “And you wouldn’t have Parkinson’s disease if you hadn’t taken so many feel-good pills for so many years!” Instead, I just let the phone dangle on its cord and made my way back to bed. That was the first time I’d moved by myself since the knee surgery, and I just didn’t have the energy to play the mom game.
We finally pulled into the city limits of Purgatory, in the valley surrounded by mountains.
“I still don’t understand why you live here or what you see in this place,” she said.
Huh? I thought. We’d had this chat before.
She had come with me from Austin when I got the job in Purgatory in 1976. She knew it was one of only three jobs available in higher education that matched my qualifications: a generalist in curriculum and instruction with master’s degrees in both special education and administration. She knew how exhausted I was after finishing my doctorate in two years while working. She knew I wanted to find a job at a small college instead of going into one of those universities where I would be expected to continue my graduate school performance in research and consulting. She knew I needed to recover.
But before I could say anything, I caught a glimpse of Mom holding her shaking hand, holding back the tremor from her Parkinson’s disease. So I just smiled and said, “Yeah, it’s different, kind of grows on you.”
Even so, my mind replayed another one of our past conversations during the rest of our drive.
When I was still in Austin, after successfully completing the doctorate program, all the teaching assistants gathered in the bullpen of our office suite to celebrate my accomplishment. The friend, the guy who had helped me write my dissertation by mapping the process with chalk on my sidewalk, suddenly jumped up, placed the office phone with speaker ability in front of me and said, “Call your mom.”
“Oh, no, not now…” I said.
“Do it!” he insisted.
I glanced at the faces around the room, all expecting me to comply. I was the first one of us to complete the program and be in that position, so they were all sharing my experience vicariously. I dialed my mom’s number, and she answered.
“Hi Mom, it’s me, Pam,” I said. “I just passed the last step. I’m Dr. Young now.” Because my friends were clapping and smacking high-fives, they didn’t hear her response, even though she was on speaker phone.
“Well, don’t let it go to your head,” she said. “That and fifty cents will get you a cup of coffee just about anywhere.”
I hung up as quickly as I could, and when the cheering stopped, everyone wanted to know what she had said.
“Just that she’s real proud of me,” I lied.
When we arrived at what I considered to be my mom’s new house, I collected her luggage and opened the front door. She walked into the living room, gazed around, and released an audible sigh.
“Honey, why do you always settle for less than you deserve?”
I dropped her luggage.
“Is this how it’s going to be?” I said. “Because if it is, I have no problem putting your luggage back in the car and driving you back to Denver right now!”
We faced off for a moment in silence. It was the first time in our relationship that I had been so forthright with her. Shame washed over me like a bath of warm soured milk. I felt so much remorse that I would ever stoop to that kind of behavior, all the more so because she was my mom. I quickly broke the silence.
“Why don’t you have a look around, get to know the place a little, while I put your luggage in your room?”
When I thought about it, Mom’s comment about the house was most likely due to her never having visited me since I first moved to Purgatory, and even though she had worked in real estate in Michigan and Indiana, she didn’t have a clue about the market here. Houses in Purgatory were probably three to four times as expensive as any place where she had ever lived, except maybe Switzerland, but she had lived there with my stepdad when he was a hotshot consultant, and Dow Chemical paid their rent as a perk of his job. Even so, as she continued to explore the house that was “less than I deserved,” I found myself mentally planning a driving tour to show her the different houses available in Purgatory – and their prices. That would be easy to do, because I’d just done that myself searching for this house.
When she found me in the kitchen she was smiling.
“Well… it’s actually a cute little place,” she said. “I’m hungry and I’ll bet you are, too.”
“I sure am. Let’s go out, my treat. I know a good place near here.”
Over dinner we chatted like the friends we’d learned to be for each other when her being my mother and my being her daughter were no longer possible. We talked about the innocuous things two women talk about when they’re just getting to know one another, tip-toeing quietly around the landmines we both knew were there – her husband (my step-father) and my lack of one since my divorce in 1981.
The next day, Mom remarked on the drive how beautiful Purgatory was, from the tree-lined streets of the different neighborhoods in town to the tall pine forests above town to the north. She also spoke out on the topic she knew so well: real estate. But her exclamations about outrageous home prices grew less frequent as the day wore on.
On Sunday we attended the Presbyterian Church, which has gorgeous stained-glass windows. After church we had brunch at a local hang-out, where I introduced her to my chairman and his wife. She thought whatever I said in greeting was inappropriate, and she scolded me in front of them. Even so, because my chairman said, “See you at the meeting” as we parted, Mom insisted on going with me to the faculty meeting the next morning. I didn’t know if she knew I would be leading that meeting.
It was Labor Day, the first day back to school for faculty and support staff. I let her come along because my dean was in my corner, and I was hoping he’d have something nice to say about me, perhaps about the half-million-dollar grant I had recently won for the college.
All faculty and most of the administrators were in the packed auditorium, which had more than 200 seats. Because we now used Roberts Rules of Order, the meeting moved along quickly, and we had time left over at the end, and I asked the faculty what they wanted their Executive Council to tackle in our first year of business.
Suddenly a colleague in the very back of the room, a friend who was sitting with some pals from his department, blurted out, “I don’t like the way meetings are run!” I knew he was teasing me, but no one else did.
My mother, I should point out, was a leader in the community when I was living at home. She was on the school board. She was a member of the chamber of commerce. She had a photo of herself with Ronald Reagan. Now she was sitting up front and to the side with her head held high and her legs crossed at the ankles, a posture befitting a queen. She responded to his outburst with an elegant smile.
“Doggone it, we’re out of time, Frank,” I said. “But I want to hear your thoughts on that. Let’s talk about that over coffee, shall we?” And I dismissed the meeting.
As we walked back to my office, my mom managed to say something positive about the meeting. Then my dean came up behind me, put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You did great. And about that guy – just remember: consider the source. Now take your guest to lunch.” And he winked at Mom. She beamed!
I felt so grateful! That simple act elevated her, and it elevated me in her perspective.
That night, a guy I’d only recently met dropped by with his guitar and sang loudly for several hours. When he left, Mom came out of hiding and said, “I don’t like him.” I laughed out loud and she joined in. Finally, we agreed on something!
The next morning I drove my mom back to Denver. We chatted casually, like two best friends, and she made it clear that she didn’t want to live in Purgatory. And like the proper Southern woman she was, she didn’t specify whether it was because she didn’t like the house I had bought for her, the town, my job, my hair, my make-up, my lack of make-up… And, like the great mind-reader I’d become in a family that never talks about anything personal, anything real, I understood completely where she was coming from.
It’s only natural for a woman her age, in her situation, alone and plagued by Parkinson’s disease, to feel threatened by change. I know she’s comfortable at my sister’s house, with my sister’s second husband and their daughter and his extended family. My loner workaholic life is no match for that.
So I easily dismissed all the sniping. I chose to hear Mom’s judgmental comments in the same way she used to spin my ugly experiences in high school. “They’re just jealous!” she would say to me when I came home bummed out about some mistreatment by the popular girls.
Of course, I wouldn’t be using that same mantra, “she’s just jealous”, to ease the bite of her cutting comments to me. But I could similarly spin the truth for myself the way she did for me then. In this instance, I said to my little girl self, “Your mom wants only the best for you, and in her mind that means loving you so much that she’d do anything to help you get matched up again and have a family like a normal person. And she believes that won’t happen for you with her here.”
We are so good.
And I love my mom, even though I’m pretty sure we have a different relationship than she does with either my brother or my sister. With me, because we enjoy a strange version of friendship, she’s funny and laughs out loud – like that time my senior year in high school when boys wrapped the trees in our front yard with toilet paper. When I came outside the next morning to see what happened, she was standing there with one hand on her hip and the other saluting me with her cup of coffee while she laughed about their handiwork. Then she said “Let’s go drive by their house!” And we did.
And I was the one she called when she needed a friend. I was the one who dropped my life and flew out ASAP to find out what was going on not so long ago when she said she only wanted to see how I was doing, to touch base.
During the twenty years since she’d married my stepfather, we’d hardly talked at all on the phone because he wouldn’t let me talk with her when I phoned her, and her calls to me had grown fewer and fewer until they just stopped altogether. Until that day just before he died, when I knew instantly that she was in trouble, even though she just chit-chatted, because something about her voice gave her away.
On my drive back from Denver, I stopped singing, “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” and realized again how grateful I was to have that woman in my life. She gave me the mantra, “They’re just jealous,” which continues to get me through tough times. Not only that, but because of her, I’m probably more confident than most women, because I had to develop that confidence by myself. Because of her, I say what I mean; I do not play games. Because of her, I am a survivor – the kind of person you’d probably choose to be with in an emergency, rather than the most popular girl in town or the guy with the most money. Because of her I am able to go long periods without hearing or seeing another person.
The chat I had with myself on the drive back to Purgatory moved me out of self-pity into feeling somewhat elevated by understanding and appreciating my special, albeit weird, relationship with my mother. But in no way did it relieve the incredible pressure-cooker of stress I had created for myself back in Purgatory through my futile attempts to please her. Nor did it diminish the pile of tinder that had by now accumulated on the floor of my forest, waiting patiently for a spark to come along and ignite it into a flaming, destructive breakdown.
Not long after Mom left, I got a phone call at work from the city.
Somehow that salutation grated, because I was on campus, and here at least, I was “Dr. Young.” Having a “Dr.” before your name provides a sense of insulation, because it forces you to be more circumspect and not say, “What the fuck!” when startled.
“Yes?” I answered.
“Are you sitting down?”
“I am. What’s this about, please?’
“Well, ma’am, I’m calling from the city to tell you your water line broke, and it’s your responsibility to get it fixed. We turned off the water but you need to get here ASAP so we can show you . . .”
I needed to throw up. My chest felt like I was wearing that costume I wore once when I played a male character; I couldn’t breathe. But I could smoke, and I did – half a pack on my 20-minute drive home to see what the problem was.
Long and the short of it: in Purgatory, when the water line running from the street to your house breaks, you get to pay to replace it. I paid $10,000 to replace mine and repave the street – with yet another drain from the old, somewhat secure, certainly affordable triplex I’d refinanced to buy that money pit of a house for my mother.
Money worries and a feeling of being trapped overtook me. I could hardly breathe. My chest hurt most of the time. I felt like dying, and I spent all my at-home time alone, upstairs, doing my best to make that happen. Until I saw the way out!
__________(end of excerpt 3)____________
About the Burnout to Bliss Series
With Book 1, BURNOUT — How a Desert Lizard Restored My Faith, was written to help educate others about extreme burnout. I wanted the reader to feel what I had felt in that time — a kind of madness that included psychotic visions which might occur even while I was teaching — and the chaos of doing my job while trying to understand what was happening through the lens of a spiritual seeker. I tried to achieve that by grouping events by topic rather than writing the entire book as a timeline story of this happened, then this, and then this.
In Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY, I wanted to share the experience of “loss of self” — like not being able to do even familiar things like riding a bicycle after extreme burnout — and how I fought back, how I got my self confidence and self esteem back. That led to wanting to show others how they could make whatever change they wanted to make, so it ended up being written in two parts.
Book 3 is a full-length book, currently sitting at 70,500 words. It’s a tale of trusting God (or the Universe if you prefer), of letting go and trusting that life is good and safe and that all my needs will be met even before I realize I have them. It is the final story of an awakening experience, my two-year journey with one modest paycheck and no plans that was launched with BURNOUT. (Working title is “Practicing SURRENDER.)
The first getaway from that extreme situation was to a “sanctuary” in California as related in Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY. That getaway apparently was presented simply to heal myself enough to take the next step.
The real story of the ego surrendering control began when that sanctuary was no longer available and I became like The Fool (Tarot card, pictured here), jumping off a cliff with a tiny knapsack and a little dog for company…
Want to be with the first to know when Book 3 is available?
Click the BURNOUT TO BLISS tab on the far right at the top of the page and scroll down, and then follow the directions OR simply click the link below:
BURNOUT — How a Desert Lizard Restored My Faith, Book 1 in the Burnout to Bliss Series is available in both print and eBook formats. The digital is currently listed for $4.99.
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Coming up next:
Part 1, “Chapter 3: Searching for Love in All Those Wrong Places”
Till next time, please be kind to everyone you meet, for we all have our hidden sorrows. ~Tzaddi