Return of the Frog Queen

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Madison, WI

I was living in this house when I was 21 years old. My roommate from college took this photo a few days ago when he was visiting Madison, Wisconsin and posted it on Facebook. I was slapped in the face with so many memories: lying in the dark back room in the summer, the only room with air conditioning, listening to music; drinking Mickeys and playing Tetris wars; breaking plates and smashing the Atari in a collective rock ‘n’ roll meltdown; smoking cigarettes all night on that tip-top balcony outside my bedroom, having conversations I thought I’d never forget. I lived there with 5 or 6 men — boys, really, we were just kids — I think I scored the best room because I was the only girl. That school year (1994 to 1995) and the few years afterwards were the most emotional of my life. I can’t really think of a better word to describe them. It was the loneliest and saddest time of my life before this chronic illness, but also the most memorable, the most adventurous, the most creative years I’ve experienced. And all of it is inextricably entangled with music. I’d once made a sign for my Mother’s kitchen wall that said (it was multi-colored like this): NEVER BE WITHOUT MUSIC and I never was. I have an obscenely bad memory, but everything I remember from those years has a soundtrack. I think maybe the only reason I remember any of it is because there was music playing during each scene, searing them into my mind. 1995 was also the only time I experienced depression before becoming housebound and I truly, un-dramatically, credit certain bands with saving my life.

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CD bliss, 1996

I’ve tried to listen to music a few times over the last four years, but it’s been difficult. First, because I was just too sick and was always striving for the closest thing I could get to silence. Background sounds are still difficult on a too-much-stimuli level, but as my headaches got better, I started to dabble in a song here and there and discovered that, even if I could handle the noise, the emotions unleashed were too much, like a tsunami against which I’d have to quickly close the floodgates for fear of drowning. Memories of sad times making me sad for who I was, memories of good times making me sad for what I’ve lost, regrets about past situations, gratitude for past experiences and abilities — all of it makes my chest start to heave and my breath catches in my throat and I go, “Oh, no way, not going there” and quickly switch to watching happy elephant videos. What I’d give to luxuriate in my old albums, in the memories they bring up and in hours of sobbing! And it would be a luxury — it would be cathartic and fun on some level to reminisce, but the indulgence would be far outweighed by the payback. My life is about equilibrium now; I try not to rock the boat. Plus, it’s really not as fun to go down Emotional Music Memory Lane without a bottle of whiskey.

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Kristin Hersh

Having said that, 15 months ago, my brother in Connecticut told me that one of my favourite singers, Kristin Hersh, was going to be in Seattle. I thought it was kind of funny (and kind of sad) that my brother on the other side of the country had to tell me what was happening down the road, but I never look at local listings because it’s a bit torturous to see what I’m missing. I decided to go. It was a solo show in a small, mellow venue where you could sit down and eat while watching. Seemed like the perfect way to test the live music waters. And it went well. It was utterly surreal to be in a public place, especially at night. I felt like one of those animals allowed to walk outside on grass after spending their lives in metal cages. I was unsteady, gripping my husband’s arm, looking uncertainly at the steps, the ceiling and lights, eyes darting around at the crowd uncomfortably, hoping not to be seen in case one of them noticed the outsider and stood up, pointed at me and screeched like that scene in the old Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It was a wonderful night, the hardest part was gulping down the sneaker-wave of tears when she opened with probably my favourite of her solo songs. Again, that unreliable floodgate. It was the music, yes, but so much more. I was out at a show — out at anything, actually — for the first time in two and a half years. I was normal. Or, at least, doing a good job of feigning it.

Tonight, I’m trying again. Jeremy Enigk is playing a show in Seattle and my sister has connections, so she’s going to set me up in the VIP or ADA section. I’m so excited. I had seen Kristin Hersh live probably half a dozen times before, so last year’s venture was noteworthy, but not a bucket list item. But tonight… Enigk’s band Sunny Day Real Estate’s first album Diary was part of the constant soundtrack in that Madison house 22 years ago, so it’s fitting that that photo showed up on Facebook a day before I found out about this show. I took it as a sign. I doubt I would love that album as much if I were introduced to it now, but back then there wasn’t much like it and these guys were college students around my age. And … THAT VOICE. It ripped my angsty heart out.

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my own private Idaho, 1995

I wound up fleeing the midwest in 1995. I drove alone across the country to Seattle (actually, to Bainbridge Island) during what would turn out to be one of the best four days of my life. No company, no mobile phones or internet back then, just me, a camera and my music. A year later, still lost in so many ways, I found Enigk’s solo album, Return of the Frog Queen, and, again, the timing was right and it became one of those keep-me-alive CDs.

So… tonight. I’m going to my second live show in almost four years and this time I have months of improvements under my belt. I haven’t slept well and I have a pretty bad headache (which is rare these days), but I’m not going to stay home to “be safe.” I may not know anything that he plays — I may not even like anything that he plays, that album is twenty years old, after all — but I’ve never seen him live, don’t even really know what he looks like and, if his voice can still do that heart-tug, stomach-clench wail, I might even let myself swim in the emotions for a change.
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LIVE UPDATE: He’s playing some songs I know, I really like the stuff I don’t know and his voice can still hit the sweet spot. I’m floating (not drowning).

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Jeremy Enigk

Title Credit

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The Illness of Addiction

I have a research addiction. A knowledge addiction. A thoroughness addiction. I always have had. It’s manifested itself in various ways. Most recently, the countless hours I have poured into reading about people’s experiences with Lyrica before I’ve even popped a pill. But, I’ve always been this way. If I were traveling somewhere, I would read endlessly about the place I was going ~ from the cultural history to how to leave the airport to where to eat (after having read hundreds of reviews) to what attractions I wanted to see. I would look at maps for hours, so that when I arrived I had an idea of where I was and could orient myself to north, south, east and west. Before traveling, I would spend weeks comparing airlines and alternate routes. I would compare the various ways that I could use frequent flier miles and what sort of credit card bonuses I could get. I signed up for an American Express card purely to get the new card bonus and it worked ~ After adding a card for my Mom and my husband, I managed to get enough “miles” to get two free round-trip tickets across the country for a family reunion.

When I was in college, before I started a paper, I would read as much as possible on the subject to get a basic expertise, before I even knew what my thesis would be. But, I would do this to a fault ~ wasting weeks in the gathering-information stage and then pulling an all-nighter to churn out a paper that I never had time to proof read.

When I decided to go to graduate school, I researched colleges endlessly. To fulfill prerequisites, I took anatomy, physiology, organic chemistry and biochemistry courses, paying with my tips from waitressing. I volunteered at the University hospital, I paid dues to the American Psychological Association, I applied for scholarships, I gathered many reference letters and compiled binders of all information. I wanted to be everything, so I applied to multiple programs in Ireland and America. I applied for Master’s and Doctoral programs in different fields: two clinical psychology programs, forensic psychology, social and organisational psychology, dietetics (one that was research-based and one that was hands-on and clinical), two nursing schools and a program called The Existential-Phenomenological Therapeutic Psychology Master of Arts. Jesus! I got into every program but one, which began more endless research into the minute details of the programs, the job prospects after graduating, polling my friends, families, and customers to get advice…

In the end, I scrapped it all to become the manager of the restaurant where I worked. Revisiting my history now, it shocks me that I put so much time, energy and money into something and then just walked away. But I think I had invested so much that it overwhelmed me and the restaurant industry was a known ~ it was comfortable, I was good at it and it didn’t cost $50,000. My perfectionism kicked into high gear like never before. I wanted to prove myself so badly. I was willing to work any number of hours, any number of days in a row, for any amount of money. I made flash cards about the restaurant’s sales and finances, vendors, brands, inventory… I wanted to be ready for any questions my bosses might ask. I would literally study during the day at home and then work 10- or 12-hour shifts, leaving work at 3am. If I knew then what I know now! I thought I had to do it all. Nobody told me any different. I thought I had to know it all. I was expected to. I taught myself how to do my job; I called it my Master’s in Restaurant Management.

That job turned into a regional position and, eventually, I was in charge of the operations of seven restaurants as the COO of the company. For years, I was never home at night. For years, I was on the road visiting locations. And, when I finally transitioned to the corporate office, the anti was upped. Now we’re growing bigger, performance has to grow bigger, too. I was finally home at night, but I’d snarl at my husband if he suggested I stop answering emails while we were trying to watch a movie.

Until the bitter end, I compulsively studied the company to be prepared for any questions the bosses might have. For a long time, I knew every employee’s name in all three states. I reviewed costs, sales and schedules daily and made inquiries into anomalies. Why didn’t you have a host scheduled? Why were there only three people in the kitchen last night? Why was your labor so high on Saturday? Why did you clock out so early? Why are you ordering a different brand of oil? Why did you 86 salsa? Are you doing interviews? Why is your liquor cost so low? Why did the alarm go off last night? Have you completed your quarterly report? Why did you work 60 hours last week? I knew we had a different diameter straw and a thicker beverage napkin in our newest restaurant, two states away. I would work at rectifying those problems on the same day that I would have meetings with the PR company and interview general managers and discuss complaints with the executive chef and try to mediate HR controversies and taste the food in one of our restaurants, inspect the cleanliness of the bathrooms, talk to a server about dress code, review health insurance plans, listen to a manager’s frustrations, talk to lawyers about a guest that slipped, review and compare P&Ls, coordinate work on one of our build-outs (camera installation, chair order, lighting, employee training, liquor order, POS set up…), and talk to the owners about their next restaurant concept. I put together job position plans and, under “responsibilities”, mine said: “EVERYTHING”. This was true ~ my position had been formed under pressure, without much organisation, in a very quickly growing company, with incredibly high demands ~ but, it was also self-imposed. I wanted to be the best. I wanted to be indispensable. I wanted to be an understanding boss and a strong, knowledgeable leader. I wanted to be fair, but cut-throat. I wanted to be an exemplary employee who was never disloyal, money-grubbing, offended or overwhelmed. It was the most acute and most chronic addiction I’ve ever had. It was the hardest addiction to break and, in the end, the only thing that could stop me was a Myalgic Encephalomyeltis Intervention. After six months of trying to maintain that level of functioning, I gave up. I was getting sicker and sicker, crying in my car, worried I wouldn’t be able to make it home, shaking and sweating all night, unable to eat normally, unable to remember things, unable to get up stairs. And, once I left work, a new addiction began.

Which brings me to the reason I wanted to write this post. All day, every day, I read about ME/CFS. After I wake up, I lie in bed for over an hour, reading blogs and articles and books on my phone. I go to bed at 9pm, but spend three hours reading, lying on my side in the dark. I have countless books to read and hundreds of websites bookmarked. I scour medical studies and newspaper archives looking for treatment information, new theories, any tests I haven’t had done, research being conducted. I troll patient forums, looking for advice on drugs, asking what has helped them, taking my own poll of how many have recovered and where I stand on the Continuum of Evil. I have Nook books and real books and magazine subscriptions. I have emails with suggestions from my family and comments on this blog with advice from others with ME. I don’t watch tv without also reading my ipad (a gift from my former bosses). I don’t take a bath without reading an ME/CFS book. When I do my stretches, I listen to podcasts about chronic pain, mindfulness and meditation. I have underlined, highlighted, copied and pasted. I’ve emailed my doctors, corresponded with other patients, I have notes on pieces of paper, in the margins of books, in email drafts, and in apps on my ipad and a voice recorder on my phone. I beg my husband to help: “Please, there is so much to read, I need you to start helping me research. I don’t want to miss anything…” Like he wants to read about this shit when he has to live with it!

Last night, I lay in bed reading for three hours. After having a terrible day (IBS hell, headache, terrible back pain, aching hands, sore leg muscles, burning eyes, sore throat, low-grade fever, indescribable stiffness), I didn’t retire to darkness and peace to rest my brain and body… I read feverishly…addictively…as if there were a deadline…as if it would save my life. I get very distinct symptoms when I overdo things in this way. My eyesight goes haywire ~ blurry and jumpy, the words moving all over the page and what looks like Vaseline over my retinas. I get horrendous tinnitus, like the sound effects of someone’s brain after a bomb goes off in a movie. And, of course, my head throbs and my neck seizes up. Last night, my husband strongly suggested I stop reading and turn off the light. My hands were completely numb from all the blood draining out as I held my ipad up, my shoulders were tense and my eyes burned. “But, I need to figure out how to fix me“, I said. I did stop, though, until, a half hour after lying there trying to sleep, I grabbed my phone again and started reading blogs by other ME/CFS sufferers. And I did the same thing when I woke up at 5am. And I did the same thing when I woke up at 8am. And, as soon as I finish this unbelievably long post, I’ll probably go do it some more.

The irony is, I make myself worse trying to make myself better. Even now, writing this, I know I will pay dearly for how long I’ve been typing, but I’m compelled to finish. I need an intervention again. And I need an exorcism. I need Father Damien to stand over my bed and yell, “The Power of Health compels you!” while splattering me with fish oil. Maybe one day ME will stop possessing my body and I’ll move off the grid where there are no computers, mobile phones, electricity hums, florescent lights or Xbox games. Somewhere that’ll allow me to become addicted to cooking or walking or gardening or laughing. Or living.