My mind is a record player.
I'm stuck in a continual loop of old disasters and tragedies. I can’t get past them: their scars are so thick that my mind scrapes over them like a needle dragged across a record, and these scenarios spin and spin, the same old record that's been playing for the past six years, and these scars catch and bump and jiggle the needle, interrupting the flow of my thoughts with their noise and skitter and pop.
I'm so used to the jarring noise of it that it has just become part of the song.
And when the turntable of my brain finally manages to skip past those scars, in the precious few moments I have before they spin back around to scrape beneath the needle once more, I teeter on the edge of the rabbit hole of potential disasters that might await me. No catastrophe would surprise me anymore.
These are dangerous thoughts, I know, but they are strangely enticing.
They are sirens, luring me to crash into their cliffs, and I heedlessly steer towards them, though I know certain tragedy awaits. They are the singers of the song that plays in my head, that loop-track of tragedy and heartache, sung in fluid harmonies so it sounds strangely beautiful, in spite of the scars that skip.
My brain has become so full of their music that it is hard to think, even though their song has changed somewhat.
A new scar has been lashed across the record, adding its own discordant descant: I just found out that I have fibromyalgia.
I didn’t know much about it until my diagnosis in early October. I only knew that it was a widespread pain disorder. And yeah, it is. But the pain doesn’t bother me nearly as much as this: fibromyalgia is the result of an overstimulated, hypersensitive nervous system. It’s a neurological problem. I’ve already been on some of the drugs they use to treat it because those drugs also control some types of seizures, but they failed as anticonvulsants for me.
I’m not new to neurological problems: I’m already epileptic.
The news of this comorbidity of epilepsy and fibromyalgia might explain why I have not had luck with epilepsy medications, why five drugs over three years have not worked: if my nervous system is overloaded and hypersensitive, it is certainly more prone to seizures, in spite of any medication.
This news offers both comfort and terror, which make for strange and confusing bedfellows.
Fibromyalgia flares can be triggered by trauma, and it most likely started in 2009 when we found out we could not have children.
It was easier to carry this pain physically than to admit it or express it, so I packed it into my back muscles, hid it in my neck, stuffed it between my shoulder blades, forced into my hip joints, my arms, my feet. I was so hurt, so frustrated, so angry, but I had no outlet for it: Who could I blame? Whose fault was this? I had no answers; I could not let it out, so I carried it with me.
I wore it like a sixty-pound skin of poison.
Outside, I looked just fine.
Inside, I was not.
My nerves leeched that poison from my skin of hurt and anger; they drank it, and they suffered.
And now, I am so hypersensitive that I get white bumps all over my face merely from stepping outside during peak weed pollen season. I sometimes get hives from freshly mown grass. I touched a weed in September that gave me a rash and then a seizure, and when I regained consciousness I developed a migraine, and then I slept for two days because I was so exhausted from it all.
I can’t help but feel that I have poisoned my own well.
It does offer some comfort to know that there might be a cause for my seizure sensitivity, an explanation for my constant drug failures. It is good to have the start of an answer. I felt like I had finally unearthed something.
Yet this “something” was soon eclipsed and rendered anticlimactic, like finding a fossil only to learn it was actually the mere toe of a much larger beast: in the testing for fibromyalgia, it was discovered that I may have yet another condition, this one rheumatological in nature.
As I count down the days to my appointment to learn my fate, it is very hard to resist the lure of those sirens, calling me to their cliff, to the edge of the rabbit hole in my mind. It is tempting to peek over, to gaze into the darkness, to guess at what the doctors might find, to imagine myself in various stages of neurological decay, to curse my body, to clench my fists in anger, to don another heavy layer of poisonous skin, all while justifying these mad, unhealthy thoughts as a defense: I’m just preparing myself for the worst.
(My imagination has yet to correctly fathom any of the things that have befallen me. I have been wrong every single time. I make myself sick with worry over as many imagined scenarios as I do over actual events.)
I know I must back away from that rabbit hole and steer clear of the sirens. I must fill my ears with wax and tie myself to the mast and ignore their songs as I sail on.
And yet, those sirens make that tragic song of scars sound so, so lovely...
One of the mantras that kept me sane while I was teaching was this:
When people know better, they do better.
It was a hard nugget of wisdom to swallow, because it often meant small failures on my part: usually that my instructions were not clear enough. This was humbling, but it made me more compassionate. It made me more aware of my students, and it made me pay closer attention to their work, to examine it for feedback. When they weren’t doing better, I knew something was off, and, as humbling as it is to admit, things were usually off on my end.
When people know better, they do better.
I have often found our foster child with her toes in her mouth, biting off her toenails. Or ripping them off with her tiny fingers and leaving their jagged husks sprinkled all over the cushions.
This made me want to simultaneously barf and scream.
Telling her to stop didn’t work. Asking nicely didn’t work. Pointing out how disgusting and unhygienic it was didn’t work. Scolding didn’t work. Rewards didn’t work; neither did punishments.
And then my mantra returned to me: When people know better, they do better. So I tried a different approach, and I asked her why she was tearing them off. I was expecting a typical non-answer response: Because. I don’t know. I just want to. I feel like it.
But her honesty surprised me: “They are too long and crooked and they get stuck on things,” she said. Which made perfect sense.
So I got out a clipper and offered to cut them for her.
She looked at the clipper in horror, like she'd never seen one before, and I realized there was a possibility she never had seen one before. There was a chance she had been doing her own personal care her entire life, because she had probably never been shown a better way to trim her toenails.
So I showed her a better way.
When people know better, they do better.
I’ve gone from teaching a hundred kids how to properly research and document papers in MLA format to teaching one little girl how to clip her toenails. And both tasks feel equally important.
This is the true essence of teaching.
It has gotten so, so, so complicated in recent years: it has turned into standardized tests and No Child Left Behind and Common Core and New Math and highly qualified bullshit. We are drowning kids with more information than they need to know, information they will never again need in their lives but that teachers are required by law to shovel into their overstuffed minds: Herman Melville and quadratic equations and iambic pentameter and Joseph Stalin’s Five Year Plan and the color of George Washington’s white horse. And every year, that list grows longer.
(I guarantee you that unless you study a language or play a lot of MadLibs, you’ll get by in life just fine without knowing the textbook definition of an adjective.)
This obsession with the “overpreparation” of students is one of the reasons I’m not sure I’ll ever go back to teaching English, even if my brain does calm down. It’s ridiculous. What the hell are we “overpreparing” these kids for?
Teaching shouldn’t be this complicated. It’s pretty simple, really: it’s just showing people how to do something they didn’t know how to do before, and repeating and modifying that process until it works. It’s ensuring that they understand and master the concept, whether that concept be clipping toenails or defining and properly identifying adjectives.
And honestly, isn’t clipping toenails a more useful life skill than defining and identifying adjectives?