Refocus on Mental Illness

I have played with a memoir on and off for five to six years.

So much to write: being a parent of a child with autism, family rejection, the non-cliche 32 year age difference between my husband and me, social rejection, being pregnant while working two jobs during graduate school, my career, and postpartum depression.  I tried to write it as a piece of fiction. I couldn’t get all it out.  I have mentioned a poetic memoir, but I realize how abstract that is.

My unnamed memoir lacked center. Is it about my son and his autism? Is it about battling postpartum depression while trying to finish graduate school?

It’s about those events, and then again it’s not. None of them are the center.  My previous novel had a center: a story inspired by my grandfather’s youth. I needed something that united all of my experiences.

It wasn’t until my husband and I were verbally attacked by his oldest daughter outside of a family reunion that inspiration struck.

How do you respond to anger? With anger?

Nah, doesn’t work.

My husband started writing. Then I started writing again. I scribbled through pages, and I could not stop writing about my Mimi. It was at the end of a rough draft passage that I found my center:

I spent a lot of my childhood with Mimi. She became a second mom, influence, and example of a complex woman. I think I loved her more than anyone because she let me by myself even when she gave me a mini-lecture about what I’d done wrong.  She never diagnosed me–as I would be later–with all my oddities, but saw my passion; my writing.

Before and after my first diagnosis in the second grade, all I wanted to do was to get lost in stories whether I read or wrote them. They could turn and twist down different paths. People weren’t so easy to understand. I was supposed to fit into a box that fit the social order.

 

When I reached the end, I realized the story’s center was my journey with Mental Illness and ADHD. I was diagnosed when I was in the second grade with ADHD. At age fourteen, I was diagnosed with depression.

How do you navigate a social world you don’t understand, but everyone else seems to get?

When I examine my son’s journey with ADHD and autism, I see many events that parallel my own.  All of the sudden, the pieces in my memoir connect.

Rough draft of my Prologue:

Imagine you travel to a different country. Use a translation app to ask a local person directions, or if you’re old school, use a Guide to Speaking French. Someone looks at you as if a piece of spinach is stuck in your teeth while you continue to eat a steak. You ask for directions in a foreign language again. Maybe louder or with an odd accent. You don’t realize you’ve become a version of Chevy Chase in National Lampoon’s European Vacation.

            The traveling scenario is like my experience as a person diagnosed with Mental Illness, ADHD, anxiety, and the eternal struggle to understand people and their social cues. I feel as if I’ve spent my life figuring out how to ask people for directions in the right language. Then when I figure out the correct language, is it better to use the words left or right, or to be more specific with north or south? Throughout my life, I’ve struggled to learn the language of the real social world spoken by those people, who seem to fit in easily. Like the moms who are friends for life and go away to the beach for a girl’s weekend. How to know when to ask about another person’s life, when not to, what you’re supposed to ask or not ask, or which girl is talking to a certain boy.

            Some people got that social chemistry, but not me. If I pause for a moment, I feel alone. As an adult, I’ve met people as a teacher and through my husband’s experience with the National Alliance for Mental Illness, NAMI, who have felt like they are stuck on a city street in a strange country struggling with the act of how exactly to ask for directions. People like me are born with different diagnoses. We do not choose them. Although culture in the United States has become more accepting of people with disabilities, people like me are still figuring out how to ask directions out of the city.  

            Sometimes people with Mental Illness don’t understand themselves until they’re adults.  It took the birth of my son, and his later diagnosis of autism and ADHD to revisit the trials of my childhood, youth, and early adulthood with every social hiccup and failure or success. Only by backtracking can I help my son understand himself and maneuver through the world at a younger age.

This is only a rough draft, but I’m inspired again. It’s been a long, long time, since I’ve had a center for my story. I think Mental Illness and other disabilities need to be discussed in order for people to feel like they’re not alone in a room full of people. My grandmother, as I wrote, is one of the most complex women I’ve met. She’d say, “Don’t put all your business out there” while also advising to “write what you know.” But the most important thing she ever told me that no one else did was: “Write.”

Dedicated to Mimi. 

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From Fiction to Prose Poetry

My husband said, to my family’s horror, the poet has gone into the cave this week.

I didn’t grade or check my work email. I let the most essential part of myself, the author, fly free.  I love teaching, but so much of myself has to be constrained. It goes with the professional atmosphere, and I try to keep the artistic side of myself bundled up in a parka in my classroom or anywhere near work.  I don’t think it has to be that way anymore because I’m finally in a place where I’m away from the fear of being unable to support my family.

The year, 2015, was the last time I had something creative published by a press or online lit mag. I had a co-authored academic publication about educational technology and equal access published last January.

Most of my publications have been journalism, freelance, short fiction, essay, and one poem connected to my novel, Sons of the Edisto. I don’t talk about writing much in person to people I work with or I’m friends with because I never want to appear egotistical. In fact, there is nothing — besides the faces of my children — of which I’m more proud than my writing.

I reached my goal to be published by the time I turned thirty. I was first published as a journalist when I was twenty-two.  My first creative publication happened when I was twenty-six. They are small publications, but they matter to writers like me because they give you a platform. I’ve never been much for self-publishing beyond what I’ve posted here on my blog.  I was grateful, but also fortunate that my different styles of writing were published.

The most natural form of writing for me is fiction.  I can manipulate conversation, character depth, and plot. I had classes at the University of South Carolina and the University of Kent at Canterbury in the UK. I was grateful to Alfie Dog Fiction in the UK for publishing three of my Adventures of Elliot McSwean stories from Summer 2014-August 2017 for purchase. Before the company downsized, it was one of the few places that would publish middle grades stories.

The essay that was published twice, “We Never Said Hello,” and it’s follow up “The Write Mother” were both published in collections. KY Story out of Kentucky published “The Write Mother” in its collection Motherlode. “We Never Said Hello” was published in Impact and in paniK as “Grass from the Grave.”

The reaction to my essay inspired me to do something with creative nonfiction because I had so much to tell: journalism, mascara-running-down-your-face kind of relationships, autism, losing my home, battling to represent my son’s needs over a teacher program, and being forced to change a grade at a previous school for a child who plagiarized because of influence and the good old boy system.

I tried doing stories based on them. I wrote the first set of poems about Ben and I, but they were too abstract at the time I wrote them. I was grateful to feedback from one magazine that almost published my poem “Bad Economics.” There were issues with random rhyme scheme.

I had to figure out how to do poetry in a way that fit my writing style.  I am not a Shakespeare.  I loved what Carl Sanburg did in his poetry. The way he opens “Mag” makes your heart sink to the bottom of your stomach, because there is nothing elaborate about it.

I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.

Sandburg just told the story of a broken relationship.  He told a story of broken, messed up, and destroyed without pretty floral rhymes.  Until I read his work, I never knew poetry could be that way.

I began changing poems like “Bad Economics,” and stripped them of rhymes.  I reconstructed what was a collection called Fractured Snowflakes to Never Saw Jesus in the Mirror. I started fresh with reconstructed poems and new material.  I was inspired by the title from a poem I  wrote because I faced a lot of judgement when I stood up and spoke loud or made mistakes.  Can there be forgiveness in depression, anxiety, and anger?

I met so many people in the last twenty years of my life, yes going back to twelve, that changed my perspective on people and forming close friendships. You have to be so careful. People will easily judge you, but what I love about writing is it doesn’t judge me. I can judge it, and I am free.

To be an author or poet, it’s not enough to bleed on paper. You have to take what you’ve written and form the pieces. The one exception, for me, after all these years is “We Never Said Hello”/ “Grass from the Grave.” I blasted out that essay in ten minutes. The only thing that changed about it was the fact one publication wanted to change the title. I said, “Okay.”

“We Never Said Hello” is about the choice to have my son and my husband’s family choosing to never speak to him or their brother and his mother’s death. It inspired me to take a storytelling, creative essay style and mold it into prose poetry.

#NationalPoetryMonth

Shifting Focus

 

I won’t always have a lot of time to write, not like when I was in college the first time.

It’s spring break. Much to my family’s terror, the long buried artist has returned to make the claim on time and writing.

For so many years, I’ve pushed down my first love, writing, so I could do what it took for my family to make it.

I’m a teacher now, and I’m gradually getting settled into a demanding, but fulfilling career. It took me six years to work my way up and get the degree because experience didn’t seem to count for much as it did in journalism.

I always valued work experience, and I love working.  It also finds its way into my writing, too.

This week, I decided to shift the focus of my first memoir-in-verse, with poems written in the style of prose poetry, from the end of my first marriage when I was expecting to earlier in time. I wanted to cover some of the experiences from when I was a small town journalist.

The economy, beginning  back in 2008, played a major part in my coverage and in my writing.  I never forgot the lines at the unemployment offices. I never forgot the amount of accountants I met who took jobs waiting tables.  I never forgot that the recession didn’t end at some imaginary point in time. It’s ten years later, and the people who suffered with the loss of money, jobs, and housing are still out there.

I thought I would be betraying what I saw people go through, something beyond my story, if I sacrificed that story. With it, there is a broken down love story broken from the start.

I often mention how spoiled I was growing up, and I had a narrow view of the world. Journalism woke me up, and the realities of my first marriage woke me up see things in a new light.

The poem Rapunzel’s Understanding takes place one year before I started working as a journalist.

 

Some Memories and Prose Poetry

I am still here.

It is a miracle. I have not had the time to submit writing for publishing as I did during graduate school and before my daughter was born.  Even in graduate school, I had to squeeze in the writing and editing time.

My writing tends to focus on doing the writing and editing.  I’ve worked on a second project since I stopped work on my eight year project, Sons of the Edisto. About four years ago, I started putting together poems. In the original script, they were called “Fractured Snowflakes.” I had some good feedback on the poems, and almost had one of the poems published.

I had some random rhymes in it, which doesn’t work with modern poetry. In fact, returning to poetry at all is a big deal for me because from the time I was sophomore in college until four years ago, I wrote mostly fiction. I didn’t feel my poetry was that good.

When I went to the South Carolina Governor’s School of the Arts for Writing, freshmen program, I established more of a reputation with my poetry than my fiction. I wrote my first prose poem at the time. I don’t remember what it was called. I’d probably call it a piece of crap now just like my first few novels.

I think, as writers, we come to understand our process better as we go through it. It’s okay if it’s not the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’m okay with just recording a poem I wrote from my collection or getting it down the first time.

I wrote a poem yesterday, and I won’t say the original title, but it is for a second collection of memoir-in-verse about my first year teaching. I’m planning on changing the title to “Caterer”

Whether writing poetry, fiction, or nonfiction, I think the process is one of constant change. It keeps it refreshing and fun. It’s not that every time you edit, you’re going to “kill your darlings.”  You may return to an original idea.

One essay I wrote was published twice. It was originally called “Grass from the Grave.” When it was published in paniK, the publisher kept that title. When it was published in Impact, the publisher changed its name “We Never Said Hello.” I was fine with that. I actually liked that title better.

In writing my memoir-in-verse, I Never Saw Jesus in the Mirror, it covers the time in my life when I had left journalism and was pregnant with my first child to graduate school. Some Memories, which I’m sharing a recording of, is my introduction poem to the collection that brings everything into view.

I’m working on two versions of it. The first version I started putting together two years ago after I dismantled Fractured Snowflakes, and I began to choose poems for Never Saw Jesus in the Mirror. The second version is taking the poems and making them into visual poems. I want to have both versions.

A Blue Ridge Tale is one of the only poems I kept from my original collection. I have edited it a couple of times. Who knows, I may get rid of it? But I realized for the collection to be successful then they needed to tell a story.

It is cathartic to write them, edit them, break them apart and turn them into visual poems, or read them.

Taking Communion #metoo

a sestina

#metoo

Taking Communion

By Rebecca T. Dickinson

I

White cloths—embroidered with a gold cross—cover two loaves of bread.

Another covers a silver pitcher looking like the folds of a Victorian dress.

The pastor calls the congregation row-by-row to come before the alter and kneel.

When I kneel, the associate minister whispers in my ear,

“This is the body of Christ broken for you.”

Then comes the grape juice; meant to be blood or symbolic wine.

 

II.

On my first night as a college freshman, a boy and a girl bought beer; not wine.

We went to a party in Columbia. One apartment. One drink. Another. No bread

to calm the spinning ceiling of an empty room after going away from a “Hey you.”

Two strangers came. I locked my legs when they tried to pull up my dress.

One with a hat that says, “Cocks,” whispered in my ear

“Have done it with two?” I said, “No.” They wanted me to kneel.

 

III.

Two Busch Light boys fingered me, but I did not kneel.

The new friends from college disappeared smoking weed, drinking beer, and wine.

I pushed a hand away, and I said, “No.” The other licked and bit my ear.

I screamed inside. Do I want this? No.  I wanted Mom, Dad, or a taste of bread.

The fan, spun, and if I moved, I would throw up. “Stop. That’s my dress.”

One went away whispering Hush, and the other kept touching. I said, “Not you.”

 

IV

“Nothing happened,” I said. “That’s not what he said about you,” said the boy I road from Newberry with. I never let him have sex with me, nor did I kneel.

“You’re not invited back,” he said. Ride to Newberry, long, in my rumpled dress.

Why did I leave Newberry College with strangers? Dip bread in juice or wine

I remember from long ago, and His body, the broken from bread.

I remember crying hearing it again whispered in my ear.

 

V

Years later, I try to forget glances, or “Did you hear about her?” from ear to ear.

The blame, almost raped, or a slut anyways lay not with them, but always, “you.”

News states Betsy says, “Colleges will recognize rights of accusers.” I break bread,

and spread vegan cream cheese. Drop the knife. Think: Was she ever told to kneel?

Try to forget that night and days when no one spoke to me. I drank more wine

Until I gave it up. My daughter’s curls twirl, dreaming of princesses, in her dress.

 

VI.

Never have I taken my daughter to communion to kneel in a white dress

For her to hold my hand, go to the alter, and a pastor to whisper in her ear,

This is the blood of Christ spilt for you,” before she would drink symbolic wine.

or the whisper, “This is the body of Christ broken for you,”

because church or man, she decides on her own to stand or to kneel,

and if the hunger in her stomach is enough to accept a bit of bread.

 

VII.

 

I still hear Betsy saying, “There will be better rights for you.”

The you, the men, who order or force a woman to kneel

A girl—a baby—like my daughter to be a piece of their bread.

Parting with Anger

I’ve written about anger before …

In poems for my memoir ….

Anger’s Beginning

Anger itself is not violent, but when left to fester, it can become a hurricane sweeping through the Caribbean to Florida up through my home state, South Carolina. Those storms are never forgotten.

The reason I write about my experience with anger, just like my memoir, is to tell a story and maybe at least one person will realize he or she is not alone.

I’m not naturally an angry person. On my best days, I like to reach out to people. Sometimes I sit back and listen.

When I was younger, I was more naive and opened up to people more easily.

From where come my anger’s origins?

There are many experiences for which I have felt anger, but at its heart …

…. was the feeling of complete professional failure when my husband and I lost our     first home, and I gave up time …

with my son.

Excerpt from Never Saw Jesus in the Mirror

(Title Poem in Memoir)

“I never saw Jesus in the mirror. No blue-eyed saint from a Venetian religious piece on display in an art museum. People in my hometown, Peach Corner, said, ‘Isn’t your mom amazing?’ They would say. ‘She was my favorite teacher.’ I shook my head and said, ‘Sure.’  I thought about the times she’d come home after school and laid down. The only time I looked for her in the mirror was to see if I’d gained weight, or evidence of a weary face revealing the me who didn’t want to read anymore after reading to and with students all day. Hayes asked me to read to him ten times or more.

Bad daughter? Admitted.

Bad mom?  Admitted.

I never saw a preacher glance at her Bible from a pulpit and lower her voice for her final summation in the mirror. I never saw my dad in the mirror, but I walked behind him on the day when he first served the church.  He walked on the sanctuary’s blue carpet—the color of old hospital walls.  He pulled a vacuum out of the sanctuary closet, and began to clean the sanctuary floors.  That was 1997, and the day I discovered my second favorite hiding spot in the church when the youth group played the game, Lights Out.  (My favorite hiding place was the top of the commode in the boys’ bathroom sitting cross-legged.)  Dad joined the choir, and he was almost always the first person to shake the new pastor’s hand.

Choir ladies held my hand, and said, “Your father does so much for our church.” With white-gray bobs, the same women said, “You have a beautiful voice. Why don’t you sing in the choir with your father?”  They saw my dad as a hometown saint, and at one time, I had a scholarship to some small college for singing. One day, I stopped singing in public, and I shrugged my shoulders. I sing to my son, I thought.

I admit Dad became a certified family saint when he helped with my family’s rent because Ben’s paycheck still hadn’t arrived.   Mom and Dad took us in when we were evicted.  When I looked in the mirror, I saw a mother with a small log at the bottom of her stomach left over from baby weight, who feared judgment from old choir ladies and mom’s former students. Why? Because I would always be seen as a helpless; maybe hapless child who could not buy a house for her family. I admit I never saw Jesus in the mirror.

My Daughter and Postpartum

Since my daughter’s birth, my anger grew from postpartum depression because the anger itself was under the surface.

It is–and was–never my daughter’s fault.

The anger came from a storm deep within. Any person or thing that took more time than necessary from my children felt my furry. There are a lot of experiences I’m good at describing, but the absolute and total depression I felt when leaving my children during my internship and to drive 45 minutes away to my first teaching job was almost inconsolable. When my son told me a few months ago after I was already experiencing a difficult first year in my job, “Why are you coming home so late? I want you home”;

I thought my heart would burst. 

When a former, indirect adviser — from a different department in my college — told me I had to attend a mandatory meeting for teacher candidates over my son’s IEP meeting with about six teachers and a principal to determine whether or not to move Hayes to a different school because of his behavior, I exploded. I mean, plain out exploded in email at this person. 

How can youI thought, in an age where you’re competing with the University of Phoenix and other online universities to recruit working students and parents tell me I must choose this meeting over my son?

Rage, like a light rain, quickly fades. I regretted wording my email the way I did.

I also regret requesting that six teachers and a principal reschedule the IEP and decision because of the demand that I attend this meeting.

Yes, I was angry, but not all of the time.  Near the end of my first school year, I realized I needed to go back to therapy.

You know, it’s okay.

I take medicine.

It’s okay. 

I began working out and writing again. I took time for my kids without feeling guilty for not completing any job. 

I forgave others.

Then I forgave myself.

Not only did I start working out the whole body like I used to, I began eating better and keeping a fitness journal. In this fitness and health journal, I began writing Bible verses down. I had not done this since I was a teenager.  If I am going to be a good teacher, I have to take care of the tools. The first tool is me. 

Now

I have a wonderful education and background. I have two wonderful children and an absolutely, amazing husband, who has been through the thick and thin with me. I have a new job in a wonderful district to which I’m moving my children.

And…

I was told today.

“There is no reason your son should be on a modified education plan because he is high functioning and clearly smart.”

I cried for joy. I cried because someone wasn’t just going to throw my baby into a cage. Someone understood his specific needs, and they’re placing him in the exact class to help him manage his behavior and reactions.

When I tell you God held my hand today, I felt it.

When I tell you it is not easy to talk about my faith, believe me.

When I tell you someone saw my son as a person, and not his disability or demanded I take time from him; I will break down in tears.

When I tell you no, I never saw Jesus in the mirror, but I saw a hope for my son’s future where he wouldn’t just be a number or …

a date I had to change.

A special thanks to everyone, including my husband, parents, mentor teachers, and friends who took this journey with me.