“Here’s to those who wish us well…”

IMAG0286 “And those who don’t can go to hell!”

That’s our family toast. I don’t know if it originated from my grandfather or if it predates him, but we never miss saying it at Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner in his honor, although he’s been gone for over fifteen years now.

There are only five of us — mom, dad, two brothers, and me — but we’re an interesting mix.

Among the lot of us, we’ve got nine cats and one dog. We’ve got an extended family of high school friends, unknown birth parents, estranged parents, adoptive parents, partners, exes. Together, we’re Catholic, Lutheran, nondenominational, atheist, uncertain. We’re second-generation Italian, Czech, Floridian, New Jerseyan, one thirty-second Spanish, rural Tennesseean mutt. We’re de-facto music lovers, video game players, and Miami Dolphins fans. My parents are short, my brothers are enormous, and I’m the petite one at 5’1″. Except for my blonde mom, we’ve got curly dark hair. We tan easily, and we prefer dark clothes. In group photos, we tend to resemble a Mafia family, and I’m pretty sure none of us are especially ashamed.

We don’t drink underage, but except for my straight-edge kid brother, we are drinkers. My parents are beer drinkers, I’m a gin drinker, and we all go for the occasional glass of red wine, as per Italian heritage law. We don’t shy away from strong words, hence the toast above.

We have weird holiday celebrations that are holdovers from customs and religions no one really remembers or understands: honey crosses on the forehead, strong sauerkraut soup, chickpeas tossed on the floor for the angels to pick up. (Or for the dog to eat. He’s basically a little angel, isn’t he?)

I don’t always understand my family, and they don’t always understand me. But at the end of the day, you can’t strip me of my family identity any more than I can manage to escape it.

(And, don’t tell them I said this, but I’m the only one who’s a half-decent cook.)

 And, okay, I’ll say it: I love them.

They can be hard to talk to, and hard to handle, but when I head over for a visit, it still feels like going home. It’s a place where I know the rules. I know where to find the snacks and drinks. I know when to sit down and shut up. I know I’m likely to hear a man’s voice burst into song, and I know it’ll sound damn good, because apparently in our family, the carry-a-tune gene is sexist.

So please, remind me of all this the next time I have to go see them. I’ll need all the help I can get.

Little Blue Pills

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If you went back in time fifteen years and told me I’d end up swallowing pills daily as an adult, I might have just offed myself on the spot, no kidding.

At age nine I was diagnosed with a chronic autoimmune condition. My mom was terrified for her baby (understandably, considering the mortality rate), but as far as I knew, the bad part was taking the medicine.

I never could take pills as a kid. They’d get stuck going down, or I’d throw them back up. So I ended up spending a few years swallowing liquid steroids, mixed in with chocolate syrup. And while I didn’t mention this in my post on hoarding, I eventually got fed up with the taste enough to start peeling back a corner of my bedroom carpet and dumping my daily dose there.

After that, I called it quits on medication. I wouldn’t even take an Advil unless I was in too much pain to function. And I stayed that way, until early this year, when I managed to render myself regularly nonfunctional.

I thought I was taking a positive step when I started therapy, and I guess I was, but it also kicked off a serious months-long drinking habit. Despite all those stirred-up memories, alcohol kept me calm and focused, as long as I started drinking early. It also gave me miserable headaches every single afternoon. Between learning to swallow pills and cutting back on drinking, I chose the pills.

Long story short, a few months later I found myself sitting in a doctor’s office with this weird, throbbing pain in my side, half-convinced that I’ve given myself pancreatitis. He told me I didn’t, but he did say I should quit it with the daily alcohol just in case. (He never did figure out what was up with me, but it went away.)

I happened to mention to him that I felt like I had to drink in order to stay focused and accomplish anything, and he said, “Oh. You have ADD.”

It was as simple as that. I left his office with a prescription for my little blue pills. I’ve taken them for not quite thirty days now, and I can’t imagine how I got through life before this.

Reading through a list of symptoms is like going down a checklist of my flaws: forgetfulness, trouble meeting deadlines, excessive dreaming, inability to honor commitments, chronic lateness, procrastination, anger. That’s all gone from my life now. I keep looking over my past in total awe that I’ve spent my whole life beating myself up over a chemical imbalance that isn’t my fault.

It’s not all sunshine and roses. If I overestimate what I can do in a day, I get anxious and irritable, because in the past I’ve faced such harsh consequences for failing to follow through. I spent much of my first medicated week glued to the computer, in shock that I was finally able to set and achieve goals in my favorite video games, the way other players always did. I’m starting from scratch when it comes to organizational skills, and it shows.

Still. I’ve cleaned my house and kept it that way. I’ve written thousands of words of fiction and made important progress on the work I hope to publish. I’ve begun to learn how to network with authors online, and I’ve made a few friends in the process. I no longer shy away from phone calls or family events. I was accepted into a volunteer program and have poured hours of work into it already. This is my ninth blog post in twenty days, and on top of it all, I’ve made more progress in my video games than I would have during any other month.

I never fully realized how much my prescription does for me until I skipped a few days. I started off feeling confident, but I found that I could barely drag myself out of bed, even with an alarm. Nothing motivated me but food, and I wanted to binge eat so badly that there was no way for me to feel satisfied with healthy choices. The simplest tasks, like brushing my teeth or scooping the cat litter, seemed insurmountable.

That’s what every day looked like for me, for about twenty-six and a half years. Once, before I knew there was a name for the problems with my brain, I tried to explain them to my partner by saying I could not choose to get things done. I could do something because I’d been drinking, or I’d rewarded myself with food, or I was afraid of the consequences. I was not able to just decide to do something — even something fun, like going shopping or playing a game — and then do it. Instead, I’d go on desperate get-your-shit-together kicks once or twice a year, fueled mostly by shame, and I’d burn out.

I’m afraid of becoming dependent on these pills. What if one day I can’t access them? What if I adjust to the dose?

But I read somewhere not long ago that what ADD medication does for you is fix the broken pathway between making an accomplishment and feeling proud. I can’t cite a source here, but I know that for the first time in my life, I can value myself for the hard work I’ve done, even though I know lots of others out there do more and better than me. I feel happy when I reach a goal, instead of just feeling deprived of all the time I spent working.

Pills are still tough to swallow in more ways than one, but for a shot at an actual fulfilling life, I’ll take my risks.

Boxes

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(Content warning: this post contains descriptions of hoarding, anxiety, self-harm, and abuse.) 

My earliest memory is from when we were rich. I’m a toddler looking up in wonder at sky-high shelves piled with plush animals, pink Barbie furniture, Disney princess faces.

I think: if all that fell down on me, I’d drown.

I remember tiptoeing barefooted through the corridor in my grandparents’ house, shoulders narrowed, shying away from spiders suspended over the unpacked boxes that line the hall. At the end, I find my grandma using her kitchen shears to clip a red cardboard heart from an empty spaghetti box. She extends the heart to me; a gift. “It made me think of you.”

One night, after I’ve learned at school about stop drop and roll, I decide that I should keep my favorite things in one basket, so I can find them all fast in case of fire. As I hold up each toy and try to judge who makes the cut, it occurs to me that I can’t sleep in bed with any of them this way. I give up and lie in bed awake, trying not to think of flames.

Before we move, my mom asks me to sort through my toys and choose some to give away. This won’t be hard, I decide. I’m growing up, and I don’t play with lots anymore. Other, littler kids can love my old friends better. I toss aside a big bristly teddy I’ve never looked at twice. My mom picks him up and tells me about the distant aunt who gave him to me, about how excited and bursting with love she was when she heard I’d soon be born. When my mom walks away, I sheepishly move the teddy into the pile of toys to keep.


In the new house, I can’t explain why I now find myself tucking trash behind my mattress, in my nightstand. At school, after lunch, I throw scraps out in pairs so they won’t get lonely. My mom packs me juice in a flavor I don’t like, and though I try to push it on my friends, no one wants it. I cry when I throw it away, because the words little hug are written on the bottle. I just don’t want to hurt anyone.

My new dad comes out of my bedroom and looks at me. He says to my mom, “There’s something disgusting in the drawer. Tell her to clean it up.” I think about how he used to bring me gifts, and how maybe now he doesn’t because he knows I don’t take care of my things. I go in, heart pounding, and look in the drawer. He’s right. Why had I left it there?


I get older. I tie a too-small belt around my waist and tighten it. I tell myself I can only take it off when I’ve cleaned up my room. I buy a pack of razor blades and cut myself once for every thirty minutes I put off cleaning or homework. Carelessly, I drop a blade in my blanket and put my knee down on it. In the middle of the night, I wake my parents to tell them I think I need stitches. The next day, all the blades and scissors and safety razors are gone from my room, and mostly, I’m mad that someone went through my stuff without permission.


I am in my college apartment, where I live with my boyfriend. The sink overflows with dishes, the stove is coated in baked-on slime, and the fridge festers with mold. The carpet is gritty, and the bathroom has never been scrubbed. The closet is stacked waist-high with junk, his and mine, intertwined. He slams me against the wall in time with his words. I can hear the punctuation. “You. Lazy. Filthy. Whore.”

Outwardly, I cry and apologize. Inwardly, I agree.

After I leave him, my next partner has a calm talk with me in the car, about whether I can keep up with cleaning the cat box. I punch my thighs and slam myself into the door. I had one shot at starting over, and I fucked it up again.


I see a therapist. I tell her, “I think I’m a hoarder.”

“Hoarder?” She makes a face like she doesn’t believe me.

I recount to her the story of my grandma and the heart on the spaghetti box. I think how I might still have it somewhere. I tell her I’m not that bad anymore, but it’s still a struggle. I’ve never neglected my own pets, but before I throw out boxes from cat litter, food, flea meds, I kiss the cats printed on them goodbye.

She says my grandma may have taught me some bad habits, but she also taught me about love. I can’t bring myself to disagree.


I have my first panic attack, then my second, then third. The smoke detector goes off when the oven gets too hot, and I tremble for the rest of the day. The smoke detector runs out of batteries, and I keep snapping awake during the night, heart racing, sure I’ve heard the hiss of something, somewhere, going up in flames. I begin to wonder if it wouldn’t be easier to get the fire over with. I could start over one last time, in a new place. I know I’m just lazy. I could pull through; I could keep it clean.

I begin to drink every morning. It keeps me calm, and it helps me focus. After a few shots, I can clean a room without stopping. I don’t get distracted and end up across the house, in front of the computer, with a dirty dish still in my hand.

I see a doctor and I tell him this. I leave with a prescription, and I take my dose the next morning. I scoop the litter, do the dishes, scrub the kitchen counter. I mop the floors. I pull everything out of each closet and cabinet and rearrange it in ways that make sense. I put out the decorative baskets and pictures I bought after moving in, back when I was sure I’d finally buckle down and keep a place clean. I still have too many stuffed animals, but I put them neatly away. For the first time since childhood, I hang up my clothes.


Days later, it still works. Once I decide to get something done, I’m suddenly capable of doing it. I think, “I’m going to hang up my dress”, and I do. I see crumbs on the floor and it’s no big deal to wipe them up. I stroll through my clean house, fantasizing about telling my parents. I won’t, though. I don’t trust these pills long-term.

After a while, an uncomfortable feeling settles into my bones. I can’t find anything to put off, or to beat myself up about.

I open the linen closet. Here, I keep boxes of memories, holdovers from the early days that haven’t been lost or thrown out in fits of self-hatred or rage. There are more of these at my parents’ house. I know I have to deal with them eventually.

I choose a box and I rifle through it. I try to muster up the urge to handle it like I’ve handled every other cluttered corner of this house, and I’m surprised by how easy it’d be to sever my attachment to some of the stuff. There are little kids’ building blocks and decks of cards and sheets of yellowed stickers that I don’t even remember owning. This is how I’ve handled my hoard over the years: I get angry enough to discard it, or I put it away until I can pretend not to care.

At the bottom, I find something. It’s a yellow plush star with a smile face and ragged blue fabric stuck to the back. I remember clipping it off a pair of slippers I’d gotten for my birthday when I was nine, the same year I got caught with something disgusting in my drawer. I remember how I had begged not to be given toys anymore, so I wouldn’t feel obligated to hold onto them for my whole life. I remember trudging around in the slippers, loving them, fearing the day I’d wear them to tatters and have to throw them away.

I remember how a smiling moon once shone up from the toe of the other foot, opposite the star. I look through the box, and I can’t find it. I picture it buried in the dump, with insects nesting on its happy cloth face. I picture it falling into an incinerator.

I put the box away, but I keep the star out. I hold the stupid dirty thing to my chest, and I cry.


Hoarding disorder is a serious condition marked by excessive attachment to objects and/or animals. In my experience, it can be exacerbated by additional illnesses such as depression or ADHD. If you or someone you love may have a hoarding problem but can’t access medical or mental health services, you can start where I did and find support at Squalor Survivors and Stepping Out of Squalor.

As Many Olives As Possible, Please

UntitledWhen I was very young, I was lucky enough to have a pair of grandparents who wanted to show me the finer things in life (and who, for a while longer at least, could afford it).

I remember getting new flowery dresses and wearing them to church on Easter Sunday. I remember attending the local ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker every winter. We’d pile into their Cadillac, they’d play 1940s hits on cassette, and my grandpa would sing along as he drove, while my grandma let me sneak sprays of her Norell perfume and swipes of pale pink Estée Lauder lipstick from her purse. I loved all this, loved everything my mom had hated growing up. The whole family used to take one look at me and say, “I guess it skipped a generation.”

I’m no longer so keen on church or “proper” ladylike behavior. I tend to avoid makeup that comes in subtle shades, or that can’t be picked up at the drugstore. I do wish we still had that old black 1986 Cadillac in the family, but there’s one legacy from my grandparents that I’ve been able to hold onto with no trouble: my absolute adoration for dirty martinis.

My grandma rarely drank outside of fine restaurants, hotel bars, and functions that I probably shouldn’t have accompanied her to, given my age. But one way or another, I always ended up sitting beside her, swinging my short legs, while she ordered a martini. Dry, extra olives, always made with gin. When the drink arrived, she’d discreetly pluck out the plastic sword (why it was always a plastic sword, I don’t know) and hand me the olives, one by one.

So, that’s how I developed a taste for gin around age four. Later on, my first real experience with alcohol was a bottle of gin I “borrowed” from my grandma’s pantry. I mixed a little into a glass of cranberry juice and was so underwhelmed by the experience that I didn’t drink again for years, until I started dating an occasional drinker.

I began ordering martinis in restaurants for the nostalgia factor. I started with sweet, fruity ones, thinking they’d be better for a new drinker, but I couldn’t see the appeal. I tried saying “just a plain martini, please” and kept ending up with vodka and lemon. At last, I literally had to Google “martini with olives and gin” to figure out how to phrase my request, and even then, I ran into stumbling blocks.

Waiter: Would you like that on the rocks, or up?

Me: Up? What is up? *looks at the ceiling*

After drinking so many martinis that weren’t quite what I’d wanted, I was afraid that the real thing would be underwhelming, or even worse, undrinkable. As it turns out, while I may no longer agree with my grandparents’ standards of quality in other areas, I believe wholeheartedly that very good liquor makes for a very good drink.

I may not have grown up to be what my grandparents desired or expected, but I still toast them when I have my favorite drink. There’s nothing wrong with sometimes just being what I imagine my grandma envisioned: someone who dances slow, lets her partner lead, allows her long, painted nails tap out the beat of the music against the curve of her martini glass.

(I doubt my grandma quite pictured the rainbow glitter on my nails, or the transmasculine partner in whose arms my nonbinary self rests, but I’ll be a proper lady in my own way, thank you much.)