So what was this flag girl part of me ready to say I am not having it? The part that, as time went on, was so in-tune with how-to details. “Hmmm, Mary Kerr keeps a garden hose at the ready in the trunk of her car,” I said to myself as I read her memoir, The Liar’s Club. “How interesting.” (Picking up this last paragraph from Part II.)
The plurality of parts within me that was mostly so characteristically all-in but then occasionally all-out only began to make sense after my immersion in Internal Family Systems (IFS), which understands how we contain multitudes, that Walt Whitman “Song of Myself” line we turn to so often and that allows for the sometimes conflicting inner personalities that make up our sometimes contradictory, dialectic whole.
Understanding this multiplicity of my own parts, each with their own occasionally competing interests, helped me begin to understand others, too, including a person I worked with decades ago who I simply could not make sense of. On the one hand, she was first chair cello in a respected orchestra. On the other, she was in love with Mickey Mouse. She wore Mickey Mouse watches. Mickey Mouse paraphernalia decorated her desk. She talked about Mickey Mouse all the time. But most of all, she treasured her Mickey Mouse ears. Ears! So key to an exceptional musician, with Mickey’s being a bridge of sorts between her two worlds. Inscrutable.
Topping it all off, she nick-named herself Perky Girl.
There was nothing remotely close to this chirpy cartoon character I could relate to, exactly opposite from the deep, interesting, witty, creative, smart, individualistic, sometimes mildly subversive sorts I responded to and therefore hoped to be. Not only could I not square the ridiculous mash up of this classical-music-playing Mickey Mouse, her perkiness got on my nerves.
But if we are made of many parts, not only could I understand how there could be both a classical musician and Mickey Mouse in this one person, I could begin to grasp how I could be all-in and also occasionally all-out, providing a workable explication of the nature of the times I had struggled to keep myself alive. In which case, what was it about those particular occasions that brought the part of me forward that wanted to drive off the cliff? What did I need to understand about the conditions that set that part off?
Pinpointing the nature of this crossover from being willing to live to unwilling seems for me to be an exquisite collision of a current crisis coming along during a period of weakened resources accompanied by a sense of being trapped in a particular terrible strain of emotion, all happening on the specific stretch of highway surfaced in unresolved shit that I happened to be traveling upon at the time. The feel of the emotional wreckage resulting from the collision of those factors seems impossible to mitigate, like being trapped upside down in a car with a locked-up seat belt and a caved-in roof smashed-up door. It is only reasonable to urgently want out.
But to get out of a mess like that requires extrication along the order of the Jaws of Life, which you have to wait for with the clock only beginning to tick once someone happens upon the scene of the accident and makes the call. In meantime you must endure until this person and these Jaws get there, and sometimes those Jaws are just too intangible to see or feel when you are looking at the world upside down through busted glass and twisted metal with the sound of everything so weirdly amplified but the view so very small. That there is such a thing as Jaws somewhere out there is not nearly so meaningful as the need for it all to be over right now.
While this crossover into suicidal ideation has looked a little different for me in the handful of occasions it has come up in a sustained way, there is a common, underlying build to them now serves as a useful flag. One of those occasions was in the aftermath of my workplace-inspired breakdown when the levels of despair I dipped into had weakened the barricade I had built the previous year to protect me from the guilt I had over dragging my children along with me into a very brief marriage happening soon after the demise of a very long one. This marriage made no sense to anyone in my circle including me, and combined two families which made no sense being combined.
In this diminished state, one of the images that haunted me (and still breaks my heart) is the picture of Hunter’s Toyota Celica parked out in our driveway. Before Ed and his children moved into our house, it was my Kia Sorento and Hunter’s Celica in our two-car garage. But Ed was the new adult in the house who also paid bills, and it was hard to work out how his car should be out in the driveway. And so Ed drove in and Hunter was required to drive out.
This did not go down easily. Why would it? It was a corruption of motherhood. I had chosen a man over my son and now Hunter’s car was parked outside, a choice so visible and bone-deep clear. You just couldn’t not see his where his car now sat.
It’s not that I think step families are wrong — my life is enormously blessed by a few of them. And it’s not that I think children should always maintain the inside spot; it’s just in our case, this particular step family should never have happened and so Hunter never should have been parking out in our driveway. And now that I had driven down that disastrous road, I had no idea what kind of lasting injury I had caused them. Even if Hunter and Ellen claimed they were over it, I couldn’t feel as if they could be when I, myself, felt like it was unforgivable, as if I’d been driving drunk with my children in the car.
In that diminished state that year after my work breakdown, with all my mistaken marriage defensive barricades blown away, I began to feel that what I had done as a mother to my kids could not be integrated into the story of me. In my mind, I had been so dedicated before. I’d stayed at home while they were young. I’d arranged much of my working life to take them to activities. I had doted on them. I had felt my devotion as a mother in my bones. In sum, I felt I had been a good mother. And then I wasn’t. With one mistake I had undone all that I had stood for.
With my professional collapse blurring into my personal one, I walked around with such dead heaviness, such a black mass where my heart was supposed to be, such an endless leaking of tears and life force and such a weakened grip on life that after months of this and with the feel of the edge coming closer and closer, I finally felt I had no choice but to say to Hunter that I did not know if I could go on if he couldn’t forgive me. I did not know how I could go on if I had damaged him and wrecked who I was to him as his mother.
And so he did. He made it clear that he had forgiven me, that he had gotten over that period in our life and that he was fine. In all of a minute, it was done. In all of a minute, I no longer felt death reeling me in.
But what a thing to put on your child. I hated myself for that. And not for a hot second did I think we ever get over things like being put by your mother out in the parking lot in the sense that we return to whoever it was we were before we were forced into new families, but what Hunter said was enough to let me go on and so I accepted his grace because ending your life is also doing the unthinkable to your children.
Later, of course, from stable ground, it’s easy to see how illogically disproportionate my life-ultimate response was to the anguish I felt for dragging my kids down that road, indisputably bad as that road was in our family’s history.
Now I am driven to get inside my head and figure this out until I find the way see my inner workings in such a way that I will be in charge. I dedicate my life to this. I think about this every second of the day as my default in all the in-between spaces of normal life, working out my scheme, my structure, my system, my philosophy of the world that will allow me not only to live, but to triumph, to be carried by beauty and truth and compassion and kindness and spirit and the wonder and awe of the fact that we walk the earth. This structure has gone through iteration upon iteration for 10 years and I have imposed this on friends and family, requiring them to sit and listen to one wild vision of “the way it all works” after another, each iteration advancing me in my quest, bringing me closer, ever closer.
This much is crystal clear: I have a capacity for extreme feelings which are occasionally serious to navigate. In the past I’ve always understood this capacity in a spectrum-sort of way because a spectrum’s brilliant simplicity lets us begin to see and understand the human things we express: sexuality, autism, pain, ADHD, colors, political positions, weight, and of course feelings. And it has its comforts. You can pick your number or your place and locate yourself, even if you don’t love the location. At least you know where you are.
But the range-based orientation of a spectrum has a static sort of feel and now I sense something more about the nature of feelings beyond where we place on a continuum. I’m beginning to understand feelings as more of a susceptibility than a set spot on a line.
Susceptibility has more room, it’s bigger. It’s about a propensity for something, a leaning, an attunement, something we more readily hear, something we individually just happen to have an ear for, like bluegrass vs. rock n’ roll. It’s like the radio stations we put on our speed dial, like radio station KFKD Bird by Bird author Anne Lamott says she’s tuned into when she’s in one of her really bad mind space frequencies. Suicidal ideation just happens to be one of the radio stations I pick up out there on the airwaves.
Susceptibility is like that. It’s like the way people lean toward optimism or pessimism, how some people are inclined for perkiness or joy or sorrow. It’s like how some people pick up on the hilarity while others sense the heartbreak.
But why should susceptibility stop with feelings? Take suicidal ideation. It’s an idea and it’s a feeling. Why wouldn’t we be just as susceptible to certain ideas as we are feelings? Why wouldn’t “catching” more random ideas like pitching babies out car windows also be something we might simply have an attunement for? After all, ideas like jumping from high places, pitching babies out of cars, and dreams about teeth rattling around free in their sockets come from a common place, just like faith, philosophies, talents, conclusions, connections, expressions, the great themes of literature. Who are we to own everything?
Take math. No one owns math. No one invented it. But some people — not me, that’s for sure — are highly susceptible to those math facts, as if they are able to sense the alive-ness, the there-ness of those mathy facts. Just like some people sense the science behind gravity and others are able to access the rationale for border walls or lean toward the risk view of vaccinations or pick up on the delicious potential of salty and sweet. Surely all of this tracks as susceptibility.
In fact, who’s to say that all of the connections I am making right here in this story, pulling together this memory and jamming it together with that and making the conclusions that I do aren’t just a latent configuration — one of many — that simply exists out there in the vast planetarium of ideas, connections, feelings, expressions, and facts? Who’s to say this fully composed, weird-ass Flag Girl symphonic arrangement isn’t simply the one that by listening really closely with my own Mickey Mouse ears I happen to be able to hear though there are any number of others out there which, were I someone else, I would be hearing instead?
And here’s the great thing: if all that we think and feel is already out there, it means we are not the inventor of every crazy thing that enters our head. Oh, that crazy idea? I didn’t think that up. No need to keep beating the meaning out through deep analysis here. That thing about pitching babies? Just something I heard on the radio.
Not that we aren’t responsible for subscribing to whatever our susceptibilities are offering up from the vast storehouse of thoughts, feelings, ideas, conclusions, facts, tastes, preferences and viewpoints that exist in the universe, but subscribing is different than creating. Subscribing doesn’t make us who we are, any more than ordering the lamb special does. It just points to what we felt like for dinner that night because we have a taste for it, a taste for lamb being a thing out there we may have a susceptibility for. Who we are, it seems to me, is a collection of attunements — a capacity to tune in more readily to certain sounds, along with an ear that can be more finely tuned to others with some organization and training. And with every idea, thought, concept, math problem, storyline, theme, discovery, and feeling already out there in the universe just waiting for someone with the right susceptibility to come along, it also means our healing is already out there waiting for us to connect with.
It’s generally understood that for someone to be able to integrate their traumas and make sense of their experiences, they have to be able to tell a coherent narrative of what has happened to them. This story then becomes a container that we have created, which puts us in charge of our experiences in life as something of an artist, making a thing of beauty. That makes so much sense to me.
And through this ordering and organizing we are able to sort out our traumas and disturbances in a way so unifying it allows us to step back enough to see who we really are and revel in this unique planetary constellation that is us. We can live on in the awe and wonder of what we are doing here and that we are something at all.
It’s funny. If I went to the symphony this weekend and saw Mickey Mouse ears sticking up out of the cello section I have no doubt there would still be a voice out there muttering about the ridiculousness of those ears and how they are a disturbance of taste if not the mind. But there is also a louder voice out there saying, You go Perky Girl. Let your freak flag fly. Stand on the side of the road and hold up your Mickey Mouse sign. We have to be the weird whole of who we are.
Special message: I could not read a story like this without wondering what it would be like to have a parent write about breakdowns and suicidal ideation and whether Hunter is okay with his mother putting it out there. While I don’t know what it’s like to have a parent be truthful and public about such things, I can say that, yes, Hunter is good with me publishing my story. He is something.
Photo credit: Thanks to my daughter-in-law Rachel Umphrey for taking my flag pictures are on really, really cold day!
Note: As a person who does wellbeing as a profession, I am all about suicide prevention. Read more about suicide prevention at the end of Flag Girl, part I
The stories in this blog are excerpts from my memoir, The Organization Project. While they are true to me and reflect how I see, I acknowledge there are multiple truths, including my own which change over time, even as the events themselves remain the same, whatever they were. What I make of an event 5 years out may not be what I make of it 10 years out or 50 years out.