Hello Dear One!
Soon after I retired, I was casting about for a way to make use of my creative energies. Probably after spending so many years on the 20thfloor of University Hall at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) stuck in meetings with literature faculty and creative writers, I wondered if I could do the fiction-writing thing. I thought it might be a good way to stretch my writing wings. So, I imagined a graduate student, Ruby Wasserman, who had been admitted to UIC’s prestigious English Ph.D. program. But things weren’t working out for Ruby – after a stellar undergraduate experience – she found herself inadequate. She just couldn’t cut it.
I Decided to Write a Novel (But I Didn’t Finish It)
Ruby was floundering. In her courses, she seemed unable to be the young scholar that she was expected to be.
And, Ruby was still grieving the recent loss of her mother. Now, in her quiet moments, she was slowly becoming aware of all the unanswered questions she had about her mother’s life.
And, to make matters worse, Ruby, is taken down with a terrible attack of Tri-Geminal Neuralgia. I wrote this section as the prologue to the novel (the remaining 80 or so pages sit in a “to be continued” file on my computer.)
But, I share this prologue, a portion of my unfinished novel, Mandatory Love, with you, because it seems like a good way to illustrate for you the pain that I went through during an attack and how I gradually learned to respond to this condition in ways that went beyond the mind-dulling medications, that, at one time, seemed like the only solution.
I’ll be back, in the next installment, to talk about new ways that I learned to understand my pain – and even re-train my response to pain.
Please let me know what you think and what this piece brings up for you!
Love and Gratitude,
Ruby pressed her hips gingerly against the kitchen counter knowing that any sudden movement would make things even worse, although she couldn’t imagine how that could be. With both palms cupping the edge of the counter top, she held her torso up. The muscles on the left side of her face and forehead continued to spasm, sending electric shocks like a meteor shower down the left side of her face. Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked rapidly, afraid that they would encourage this alien manifestation. How long could she stand here? How long would this go on? What greater level of pain could she stand? She didn’t know.
After a while, she realized that breathing slowly and rhythmically was keeping her from collapsing on the floor in a heap. She marveled that she could think so clearly even while feeling pain that was off any chart she could imagine. She wondered whether this kind of pain could kill her. “Now,” she thought with great focus, “I need to call the neurologist. She should be there by now. I need help. Whatever she gave me last week is not working. What the fuck are they doing over there?”
Turning slowly, keeping one hip pinned to the countertop — the physical connection grounding her — she picked up her I-Phone and shakily pressed contacts. Searching for Dr. Kishkinov, she touched the number and listened for the dial tone. Every movement was slow and calculated.
“Northwestern Neurological Institute . . . How may I help you?”
“I’m Doctor Kishkinov’s patient and I need a higher dose. I’m in terrible pain . . . face spasms and non-stop, razor-sharp shocks. I can’t eat; I can’t brush my teeth; I can’t do anything.”
“Hold on, hold on. Give me your name, date of birth, and address.”
“Ruby Wasserman, April 5, 1985, 1335 Milwaukee Avenue, Apartment 207. I’m in a lotof pain.
“Hold on, I’ll see if I can locate Dr. Kishkinov.”
Ruby kept breathing slowly, pressing her sacrum into the countertop, hoping that somehow, the doctor would help her through this: explain what was going on; take care of her in some way; help her to see a way out. This seemed unlikely, but she couldn’t think of a single other avenue of rescue. She was depending on this doctor but at some level knew that she would be disappointed. Ruby remembered that at the last appointment Dr. Kishkinov had been rather offhand, telling her to get in touch in about six weeks and to let her know how she was doing with the medication (but not really.) Dr. Kishkinov apparently could not be located. A new voice surfaced on the other end of the phone announcing that she was “Nurse Nancy.”
At the sound of the older woman’s voice, Ruby collapsed into gasps of tears, telling Nurse Nancy that the pain was unbearable and the Gabapentin wasn’t working and her face had been spasming and electric shocks had been running down her face all morning and she didn’t know what to do. Ruby wanted desperately to feel cared for but instead, was on the receiving end of Nurse Nancy’s cool, firm, liability-driven response, “Well, dear, if you are in that much pain you should go to the emergency room.”
Ruby sank down onto her knees, nearly dropping the phone. “No, no, no, they’ll just drug me up and charge me lots of money.”
“Well, Dr. Kishkinov isn’t here right now. I’ll tell her that you are in a lot of pain and having face spasms, is that right? She’ll contact you later today, but I don’t think she can raise your dose since you just started on 900 milligrams.”
Ruby cried softly to herself, “I have to fix this. I have a paper that’s due in three weeks. I have to fix this.” Her voice trailed off, realizing that Nurse Nancy’s silence on the other end of the phone meant she would be offering no solace, just a message transmitted to the doctor. She pressed “end call” and dropped the phone and pounded her fists against her the kitchen’s old wood floors dissolving into more tears.
When the spasms and shocks returned with even more vengeance than before, she sat up, on the floor now, her back against the cabinet and realized that she was fully on her own. No one was going to help her. She might get a higher dose and it might help, but this situation was worse than anything she had faced before. She was used to taking care of herself, that had been her life’s mission — to be fully self-sufficient, fully in control. But she had never been struck down in this way before.
Ramping up her breath again, she thought back to the first moment she had felt this strange disease surface. She was with Garrett, the brilliantly tattooed senior Ph.D. student, who was leading the graduate students’ unionization effort and in his scholarly work he was resurrecting Bartleby theScrivener,that old Melville classic, digging for evidence that might be construed as leftist political resistance. Hehad clearly marked Ruby as his next conquest — to work his irresistible charms on this sweet, but somewhat lost, graduate student.
They had been out late at Rotidy’s Pub drinking shots of ouzo after all the other students had split. Leaning towards her, he threw his arm around her, pulled her in close and kissed her cheek. A sharp shock ran down her face. She pulled away and looked at him shaking her head from side to side. She brushed the odd, painful moment away, asking herself laughingly, “Whoa, does this mean he is a truly hot guy?”
Now, collapsed against the cabinet, Ruby, afraid of what would happen if she touched her face to wipe away the tears, discarded the usual panaceas one by one. Not a new boyfriend or lover, not banana cream pie from Baker’s Square, not a handful of Sleep Science, not shopping at Nordstrom’s Rack. None of these things would make things right.
Her mother was gone. Dead and buried with so much unfinished business, so many questions. Graduate school was clearly not working. Clearly. Not. Working. Her paper on psychosomatic illness was fascinating to her, but Kaganoff, the department head, had almost sneered at her suggesting that she didn’t have the right stuff to get the paper to the tightly argued level he was demanding. Her fifth cranial nerve had now come alive attacking her mercilessly, reducing her to a useless pile of flesh. She was more alone than she ever could have imagined.
At Bhakti Fest, what was it that Emily Trent had said during that first yoga class with Four Directions Yoga? Ruby laughed to herself, “‘Suffering is optional’……ri-i-ight. Okay, Miss Emily, explain to me how this Tri-geminal Neuralgia bullshit is optional. I’d really like to know. The doctor said it’s almost unheard of for someone my age to get this. But here I am.”
Ruby’s own sarcasm rang hollow. In spite of herself, her desperation led her to reconstruct the yoga meditation they had done in the workshop. That day, during Emily and Luther’s workshop, when asked to identify a part of her body that she had a contentious relationship with, she had chosen to focus on her belly, always too soft, always creeping out over the waistline of her pants. It seemed completely obvious to her that her belly was the only part of her body that she had any issues with. That summer day, in the dark, warm room on her yoga mat, her concerns seemed blissfully cosmetic.
Now, laying down on the kitchen floor, she ramped up her breath so that she heard her inhales and exhales rhythmically filling and emptying her belly. Tentatively, she asked her brain, specifically, the fifth cranial nerve on the left side, “What’s going on? Why are you attacking me like this?”
Silence. No answer.
Instead of breathing into her belly, she gingerly sent breath up the left side of her face starting with her jaw, then up toward her temple, behind her eye, and then back toward the side of her skull behind her ear. “Why? Why? Why?”She breathed and she waited.
Silence. No answer.
She was breathing into what felt like the disgustingly filthy, dark red Persian rug she had found rolled up on the curb down the street that was now on her living room floor. She could see the rug as though under a microscope, small bugs, dust balls, hair, crumbs, and all the other detritus. Get that filth out! She drew in a long breath and vacuumed the shit up and then opened her mouth softly and exhaled it out.
No answer, but a just tiny, tiny bit of relief. Yes. Keep going.
More vacuuming the shit out of the left side of her brain. More exhaling it out of her body.
She felt waves of nausea ride over her, puss balls of foul sludge working their way loose and riding her breath out of her body. She began to feel anger, not just anger, but rage. This pain was directing her deep inside. Bitterness that her mother’s doctor could do nothing but ply her with pills; disbelief that she never really knew who her mother was; rage at Kaganoff for his self-serving advice and direction; anger at herself not valuing her own worth and letting others define who she was.
The shit in her brain began to clear. She asked again, softly, curiously, “Why?”
A small, childlike voice, deeply upset and on the verge of tears told her, “Because you discounted me; you continually ignore me. You give me timeouts and you don’t listen to me.”
“Who the heck are you?” Ruby asked, incredulously.
“For now, you can call me ‘Little Girl,’ was the reply.
“Okay, Little Girl,” Ruby was too desperate not to play along. “You mean, I should be listening to you instead of pushing you away. Got it. Where do you come from?”
“Do you remember that time in Hebrew School when Mrs. Batty called each one of us up to stand in front of the class as she played Israel’s national anthem, Hatikvah, on that old upright piano? Well, do you remember what happened when you got up there?”
Ruby replied smartly, “No, but I’m guessing you are going to tell me.”
Little Girl, putting her in her place, retorted, “Lose the attitude, you’re not in any shape to be a smart ass.”
Ruby backed off, “Okay, okay, sorry, go on. I’ll listen.”
Little Girl brings her back to that early event and reminds her of the shame she felt, “You started to sing and you thought you were doing great — a real star — but before you got five notes out, without even swiveling around on that piano stool, she shouted, ‘SIT DOWN!’ You couldn’t believe it; your face got really red and you ran to your seat and held a book in front of your face holding back the tears, but you knew you couldn’t hold them back for long, so you rushed off to the girl’s bathroom and sank down onto one of those low children’s toilet seats and sobbed into your shirtsleeve so that no one would hear you. From that time on you never sang another note and you insisted that you were tone deaf, but really you never understand what impact that event had on you.”
“It’s beginning to come back to me, but, so what? It’s sad but, like I said,” Ruby counters, “So what?”
Little Girl uttered a deep, long, exasperated sigh, “You really amaze me. You’re so smart. You’re in a fancy English Ph.D. program and you still can’t figure this out. This is Basic Human Existence 101, smarty pants. Don’t you remember what your yoga teacher, Emily, started that class with at Bahkti Fest? We all have wounded parts — children — inside of us. That’s what I am. When we disconnect from our deepest wisdom or from our soul we lose our ability to heal ourselves.”
Weeping softly, Ruby asked Little Girl, “Do you know why my face is exploding?”
Little Girl told her sternly, “You’re going to have to figure that out; I’m here to tell you that I’m that little girl who was told to stop singing. Time hasn’t changed a thing for me. I still feel that pain. That certainly stung — being told I can’t sing — but what’s worse is once you let someone define who you are, that pattern continues. You’ve been ignoring me and letting everyone tell you when to turn left and when to turn right. It’s wreaking havoc with your graduate school career. I just can’t let this go on any longer.”
Ruby thought she might be hallucinating. But the long, slow inhales and exhales were making a difference. The pace of the attacks had slowed and the spasms were softening. The pain seemed to be leaving her body, bit by bit, moment by moment. She put her hands on her belly, feeling for where Little Girl’s voice seemed to be coming from.
Desperately, she asked Little Girl, “How can I get myself out of this mess? What should I do?”
Little Girl seemed to be gathering momentum. As if she could grab both sides of Ruby’s head, she issued an ultimatum, “You must take charge of your own life. Find your own purpose. Breathe with your own breath. Feel how your breath can connect you to me. Healing is going to depend on you and no one else. There’s a door waiting for you. Put your hand on the knob, turn it, and walk through it.”
Thank you for reading! Comments? I’d love to hear!
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