Most of Me
By Robyn Michele Levy
The Bad Old Days
I wasn't always like this: so moody, so anxious, so volatile. I used to be just a little moody, a little anxious, a little volatile. And only when I was premenstrual, overworked, or overtired. But now things are getting worse. My mood swings are growing more frequent and more severe. The flashes of anger ambush me anytime, anyplace. I'll be at the grocery store, happily picking out vegetables; then, for no apparent reason, my blood starts to boil and my hands reach out to rip the broccoli heads right off their stalks. Or I'll be sitting at my desk at work, and a colleague will absentmindedly leave his empty Tim Hortons coffee cup next to my phone, and suddenly I feel violated and vengeful and imagine that I am a cannibal, ripping him to shreds with my razor-sharp teeth, devouring his flesh and guts, then washing it all down with gulps of his double-double-infused blood.
In the interests of keeping my job and shopping privileges, when I am out in public I struggle to keep it together. I put on a pseudo-happy face, complete all my assignments on time, keep my angry impulses bottled up inside, waiting until I get home to explode, eat my young, then blame my man.
When I walk in the front door, anything can set me off: clutter in the hallway, a stray sock on the floor, dirty dishes in the sink. Tonight it's a basket of clean laundry. At least, that's what it was earlier this week, when I washed and folded everything and lugged it upstairs to my eleven-year-old daughter's bedroom. Or should I say bedlam? What a mess.
"Naomi! Come upstairs right now!" I yell from the top floor down to the kitchen.
I only came in here to turn down her music. If I'd seen her room like this, there's no way I would have allowed her friend to come over. Or even allowed her to have a friend.
"Naomi! I said right now!"
There are clumps of clothes everywhere--all over the floor, the bed, the desk, the chair. And the laundry basket is exactly where I left it, next to the wardrobe. Nothing's put away. Everything's crumpled up with dirty clothes and half-eaten sandwiches and expired school memos.
"What is it?" Naomi asks, running up the stairs.
"Your room is a pigsty! You promised to put away your laundry! That was two days ago! Two days ago! I washed and folded everything. Now it's filthy. What the hell is wrong with you?"
"I'm sorry. I'll clean it after Denise leaves," she mutters sheepishly.
"No! You'll do it now!" I scream, slamming the door.
"But she's downstairs, waiting for me."
"I don't care. You have a mess to clean up. Now!"
Naomi's eyes well up with tears. We hear a knock on the door.
"What's going on? Can I help?" Bergen steps inside, then stands between us. Father Teresa to the rescue.
"No. Stay out of it, Bergen."
Nothing can extinguish my rage once it becomes inflamed. I feel the hate smothering my self-control and civility. Bergen bends down and picks up a dirty sock. I hear my shrill voice barking out orders, insults, accusations, ultimatums:
"Don't help her! Naomi needs consequences, not help. Why do I always have to be the bad cop? She made this mess all by herself; she can clean it up all by herself. And from now on, she can do her own laundry. Her friend can wait. Or you can drive her home. I don't give a shit! Naomi! Clean up this room!"
Fear floods my daughter's eyes as she jolts into action. Her tears begin dribbling down her cheeks as she frantically gathers up her jeans and T-shirts, socks and underwear, loose papers and magic markers. I walk down the hall to my room, slam the door, and force myself to lie down. Later, way past Naomi's bedtime, I crouch on the dark stairway outside her room and listen to her sobbing and Bergen consoling. I feel sick to my stomach. I am a cesspool of self-loathing; I am drowning in regret. I think that if only I could say the words "sorry" and "forgive me," I could escape from the fury. But I can't. I'm paralyzed with shame, and so I watch until it burns itself out, turns into cinders, then ashes. I'm such an ash-hole.
In the morning I wake up with exactly what I deserve--a pounding headache and explosive diarrhea. On my way to the shower, I see Bergen and Naomi at the kitchen table. They're both eating cereal and oranges and reading the comics. Our Yorkshire terrier, Nellie, is asleep by their feet. Only Bergen makes eye contact with me.
"Good morning," he says, quietly.
His warm voice slides under my skin, inviting me toward him, toward Naomi, toward contrition and reconciliation. As if it's still possible. But my heart is shackled with grudges and resentment, and I'm afraid of trying, of failing. But most of all, I'm afraid of facing myself and my deteriorating relationship with Naomi. So I keep my distance, exhale a feeble "hi," and carry on getting ready for work.
Today, I am the first one at my desk. I like getting here early, before everyone else. It's dark on these November mornings. It's quiet. I can collect my thoughts--at least the ones I can locate. They are so scattered that searching for them is like going on a scavenger hunt. I find them wedged between my worries, hiding beneath my habits, scrawled on sticky notes. Slowly, I cobble together my day's to-do list: book band for pre-taped interview, write script for live on-air interview, edit items for radio broadcast and website, attend music committee meeting, produce guest host program, ask boss about extending my contract, possibly go to lunch-hour yoga class. That's what I really need--deep breathing and inner peace. Something to take the edge off, to ease the stress. This new job--producer at Radio 3, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation--is killing me.
Radio 3 is the most laid-back work environment there is at CBC. It's like a dingy basement hangout for teenagers. The lights are dim, the dress code is casual, and the focus is music--new, independent Canadian music. Here, we play songs, talk to musicians, and cover concerts, festivals, and other music-related events. Fun stuff. It sure beats slugging it out in the pressure-cooker newsroom or on current affairs programs--chasing politicians, filing numerous stories, racing against the clock. Which is why I can't understand what's wrong with me, why I'm so frustrated and anxious.
I'm starting to wonder if something is really wrong. More than just pre-menopause, which is what I suspect I have been going through these past few years. I'm only forty-one, but it's possible. I have many classic symptoms: irregular periods; trouble sleeping at night; muddled thinking and problems concentrating; inexplicable aches and pains, muscle and joint stiffness, and fatigue; and terrible mood swings and bouts of depression. I've been taking vitamins and Chinese herbs to regulate my hormones. They seemed to help in the past. But not anymore. Now, the only thing that really helps me cope is sleep. Thank goodness I have no trouble napping in the daytime. At home, I just crawl into bed, pop in a pair of earplugs, and doze right off. At work, I sneak away to the yoga room when it's empty, assemble a makeshift bed with yoga mats and blankets, turn off the lights, and disappear. As far as career coping mechanisms are concerned, it's a real skill, which I'm proud of--it ranks right up there with secretly throwing tiny tantrums in the soundproof room or crying my eyes out alone in the ladies' washroom.
By the time my coworkers trickle in, I have written the script and left a copy of it on the host's desk. Later, he takes me aside and says, "Thanks for the script. It's great. Could have used it last year, when the band came in to promote their previous album. I guess you didn't notice they have a new release?"
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry. Do you want me to rewrite it?"
"Nah, I already did."
He walks away. I am crushed by the weight of my ineptitude and slump down into my chair. I am torn between needing to scream and needing to cry. But there's no time to do either--the boss is about to give his morning pep talk. So I take some deep breaths, swivel in my chair, and suck it up, all the while saying to myself, "Things will get better. Things will get better."
The next two months are a blur of work and sleep. My thoughts are becoming more agitated and jumbled; my body is starting to feel battered and shaky. Like I'm being bounced around in a rock tumbler. I'm also dropping things. Pens. Cutlery. A coffee cup. And today at work, I stumbled on the stairs. Something is definitely wrong. Or maybe I'm just going crazy. I should probably go see my doctor again. Maybe I'll call him later.
First, it's time to call my dad. We speak on the phone every day. He hasn't been feeling well for a while--he's been slowing down, having difficulty walking, and losing his balance. And even though I know he's been undergoing tests and seeing specialists, I am shocked when he tells me he has just been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. After I hang up, the thought that he's afflicted with this devastating illness is too much for me to bear. Whatever flimsy mechanism is holding me together suddenly snaps. I take refuge in a private recording booth and cry me a river of turbulent tears.
I have a confession: I have a Cry Lady living inside me. She makes me choke up anywhere, anytime, with anyone--at the drop of a hat, the stub of a toe, the hurl of an insult, or the hint of bad news. Fortunately, I'm one of the few middle-aged women who look attractive with puffy red eyes, blotchy skin, and a snotty nose, so my public outbursts don't bother me. They don't seem to bother my colleagues either--at least not the ones that scuttle away like cockroaches when my lower lip starts quivering and my eyes start leaking. This has been going on for weeks now, ever since my dad told me he has Parkinson's.
I've never cried so much in my entire life--though I have had plenty of practice. I've cried over broken toys, broken bones, broken hearts, broken dreams. It helps that I've been blessed with PMS and an artistic temperament. It's no wonder my repertoire of tears is so extensive--ranging from infantile to crocodile and everything in between. I was built to bawl. I was built to do a multitude of other things too--laughing being one of them. But I can't even crack a smile these days, let alone laugh. I'm afraid my joy is in jeopardy of becoming extinct. I need help. I need therapy.
Depression deserves discretion--that's why there's no sign on the clinic door. Just the address. I appreciate this gesture as I walk, unnoticed, inside. I also appreciate the steep staircase and what it offers--a hopeful climb toward a new beginning, or perhaps a hapless fall to a hopeless ending. I'm here tonight to meet Theresa, a cognitive behavioral therapist who specializes in treating depression. She finds me in the waiting room, leafing through a Reader's Digest.
"Are you Robyn?"
"I'm Theresa. Come with me."
I follow her around the corner, along the hallway, into a tiny office. We sit down opposite each other, me on the couch, she on the swivel chair. She smiles, takes a deep breath, then exhales slowly, loudly. Without intending to, I smile, inhale deeply, then exhale slowly and loudly too.
"Would you like to spend a few more minutes breathing together?" she asks.
I nod and follow her lead, and as we inhale and exhale in unison, a comforting intimacy overrides the awkwardness between us. Relaxed and alert, I take in her features: oval face, straight nose, stormy blue eyes, intelligent mouth, pale complexion, shiny shoulder-length auburn hair. She looks like she sprang from the same gene pool as Jodie Foster--a half-sister perhaps, or a first cousin. She probably thinks I sprang from the gene pool of a cosmetically challenged, hirsute cavewoman--given my frizzy brown hair, dark-circled bloodshot eyes, thick bushy eyebrows, and bleached mustache sandwiched between a runny nose and chapped lips. But we keep our first impressions to ourselves. After all, it's not the physical we're delving into, it's the emotional--that temperamental realm where once a week, in a tiny office, my Cry Lady confesses her life problems and emotional turmoil to a therapist with a compassionate heart, an intuitive intelligence, and an endless supply of Kleenex to mop up an endless supply of tears.
Thanks to Theresa's perceptive and skillful direction, our first therapy session is grueling--a real emotional workout. It starts with my telling her my abbreviated life story:
I grew up in Toronto in a typical dysfunctional middle-class Jewish family. I felt like the black sheep--the disobedient daughter who dated non-Jewish boys, who left the nest before getting married and moved to the other side of the country. My mom is fiery and flashy, spontaneous and demanding; my dad is laid-back and refined, cautious and accommodating. They have been married for forty-four years, and while learning to love one another they perfected the fine art of arguing, carrying grudges, giving each other the silent treatment, and blaming the other. They taught their children well. All three of us--me, my younger sister, and my baby brother. We spent much of our childhood embroiled in battles, tearing down trust, building up walls. It drove my parents crazy. Especially my mom. She had a short fuse, and her conflict-resolution techniques were often framed as questions. Sometimes she'd wait for an answer, like a TV game show host waiting for the contestant to make up her mind.
"Will it be curtain number 1? Or would you rather have what's behind curtain number 2?"
"Are you going to stop that crying, or do you want me to give you something to really cry about?"
"Will you apologize to your brother, or do I have to teach you a lesson that'll make you really sorry?"
"Can you and your sister stop that fighting, or should I bang your heads together and knock some sense into the both of you?"
Choices, choices, choices. It never really mattered who decided what--we usually got what we didn't want. And for me, the only thing worth getting was away. Far, far away.
I made my escape in 1986, when I was twenty-two. I moved to Vancouver, to study at the University of British Columbia. One year shy of completing my undergraduate degree in psychology and fine arts, I left school and started my own successful art business, Robyn Levy Studio. I sold my original paintings, greeting cards, and T-shirts across Canada and the United States and even in Japan (where my company name was advertised as Lobyn Revy Studio). In 1991, I met Bergen; in 1994, our daughter, Naomi, was born. Six years later, I started working at CBC, in radio.
"And why are you here to see me?" Theresa asks.
"Because I can't stop crying. I've never been so depressed in my life."
"Do you have any idea what might be causing your depression?"
"Probably lots of things," I sob. "Wonky hormones from PMS and pre-menopause. Stress at work. Stress at home. Naomi is depressed. We're fighting a lot. And she's having trouble at school. You know, girl culture; girls can be so mean. She's different, and it's hard to fit in when you're different. Then there's our house. It's unfinished. Bergen is slowly fixing it up in his spare time, but it's taking forever. There are always power tools and messes everywhere. I hate it. But the worst thing is my dad was just diagnosed with Parkinson's disease."
"Are you close to your father?"
"Very close. Always have been. I am so sad that he's sick, and I'm so far away. I wish I lived closer so I could be there, to help him."
"How is he coping?"
"Not well. He's incredibly depressed and anxious. Can't sleep. Can't work. Losing weight. Slowing down. He can barely talk on the phone. He's having all sorts of adverse reactions to meds. It's like my dad has disappeared."
Theresa nods, then says, "It sounds as if you are in mourning." "But my dad didn't die. He's still alive."
"Of course he is. But given your dad's health, he may never be quite the same as the dad who raised you, the person you are used to. It's possible you're mourning the loss of your pre-Parkinson's dad."
I let this idea sink in. Images of him from photos taken over the years flash through my mind: playing tennis, driving his vintage red convertible, hugging his three kids, napping on the brown couch, napping on the white couch, napping at the Blue Jays game.
Then a memory I'd long forgotten surfaces.
"I was in my early twenties, and my dad and I were walking on a path in a park. I had picked up an ordinary stick from the ground and was shifting it back and forth between my hands as we chatted. After a while, my dad wanted to see the stick. So I handed it over to him, and he casually asked, 'Do you mind if we share it?' It was an odd but sweet request, and I must have nodded yes, because he snapped it in half, passed me one part, and kept the other for himself. Then we continued walking, neither of us mentioning the stick again."
Theresa says, "Maybe nothing needed to be said. It sounds like the sharing was complete."
Suddenly I feel my chest tighten, and I begin gasping for breath. Theresa crosses her arms, places her hands flat against her upper chest, and says, "Try doing this with your hands. And breathe deeply."
I do, and within seconds I am overcome by grief--Theresa a witness to my weeping, my wailing, my Cry Lady crescendo, and the first of many mournful farewells to my aging, ailing father.
When I eventually calm down, I complain of a pounding headache and tingling in my left hand and left foot. The same tingling sensations that I've been experiencing on and off for weeks now.
"Would you like to do something to help relieve your headache and get rid of the tingling?"
"Are you offering me heroin?"
Theresa smiles. "Nope. Sorry, I'm all out of heroin. But I can teach some exercises that will help you feel better."
So for the last part of the session I mirror Theresa's movements: self-massaging my temples and jaw and neck, deep breathing while moving my head from side to side, raising my arms up over my head and then flopping them down at my sides, and stomping my feet. Surprisingly, my headache disappears, and the tingling in my hand and foot is almost gone. But not quite.
Our time is up, and Theresa says, "You worked really hard tonight. Drink lots of water when you get home; your body needs it."
After scheduling next week's appointment, I walk carefully down the steep staircase, out into the drizzling rain, and drive myself home--exhausted and cranky and thirsty as hell. I am thankful that Bergen and Naomi instinctively stay out of my way the rest of the night. Only Nellie, with her squeaky toy, dares to approach.
Come summertime, work conditions are perfect for a TV sitcom but pitiful for real life: poor management, tight deadlines, big egos, and hot tempers, and to top it all off, the entire CBC building is under construction. It looks like a war zone. The grounds are a wasteland of rubble and dust. Trees and shrubs lie wounded in piles. Parking lots are tunneled into massive graves--out of which will eventually rise the TV Towers condominiums and a world-class broadcast center--with an integrated multimedia newsroom, state-of-the-art technology, a performance studio, public spaces, and more. It's all part of CBC's Vancouver Redevelopment Project, which will take three years to complete.
Month after month, season after season, we toil away at our desks, despite the nerve-racking noise of dynamite blasting, pneumatic drilling, and jack-hammering. We write scripts and edit tape in workspaces speckled in drywall dust and demolition debris while breathing in noxious fumes from paint, cutting oil, and glues. We conduct live on-air interviews with guests while construction workers make a ruckus above our not-so-soundproof studio.
By early spring, our laid-back Radio 3 office has been laid to rest, and our team is transplanted into the brand-new corporate cubicle farm. Ergonomic specialists tweak our workstations--adjusting table heights and chair angles, computer monitors and keyboard positions, bending over backwards to make us comfortable and productive. My chronic back pain makes sitting difficult, so they give me three chairs to try. My left hand gets tingly and clumsy while typing, so they buy me a special keyboard. But no matter what they change, replace, or adjust, I'm Goldilocks from hell; nothing feels just right. Still, I do my best to settle in to this new workspace--not just for me but also for my Cry Lady, who now accompanies me to meetings, answers my phone, and replies to my e-mails.
This morning, my supervisor e-mailed me the most soul-destroying, nitpicking, inconsiderate critique of an assignment I've been working on. Her words crush my Cry Lady and trigger a waterfall of tears. Somehow, my Cry Lady manages to write this response:
Dear supervisor across the room, Am I correct to assume your ass is glued to your chair? And that is why from over there, you e-mailed me your carefully composed criticisms and slyly missed this lovely vision of all my tear ducts in a row? Because if this is really so, then fuck you!
Just as my Cry Lady is about to hit send, I intervene and press delete. Why stoop to my supervisor's level with an impersonal e-mail, when I can take the high road, go over my supervisor's head, and talk face-to-face with her boss? I muster up my courage, stomp across the room, and lay it on the line:
"Enough is enough! I deserve to be treated with respect! Give me constructive--not destructive--criticism! There's too much work piled on my plate! Assign this project to someone else! Supervisors aren't always right! Some supervisors are never right!"
When I'm done with my diatribe, I collapse into a chair--panting from exertion and euphoric with victory--like an underdog that has captured the leader of the pack. My efforts do not go unnoticed. Having spilled my guts all over his office, the boss commends me for my honesty and rewards me with a box of two-ply tissues. As I blow my nose and mop up my mess, he pats me on the shoulder and says, "I'm glad we had this little talk. I'll speak with your supervisor."
"Thank you," I sniffle, exiting his office and closing his door behind me. Nothing beats direct communication.
A little euphoria can work wonders. Over the next two weeks, my rage retreats and my mood lightens. My routine hasn't changed: I'm still working nine to five, going to therapy, walking the dog, sleeping on weekends. But now I am feeling hopeful. Digging my way out of depression seems possible, until I get a phone call at work from my dad, and suddenly digging out seems pointless.
"Hi, Robyn. I've got some terrible news." His voice sounds hollow, lifeless.
"Oh, no. What's wrong?" My voice sounds shrill, fearful.
"It's Mom. She's in hospital with a collapsed lung."
"What happened? Is she going to be ok?"
"She was having a test done on her lungs, and during the procedure, something went wrong."
I listen in stunned silence as he explains the grim situation.
My mom is unluckily lucky. Sick but not sickly. Dying but not dead. She has just been diagnosed with stage-four inoperable lung cancer. It's in both of her lungs and has likely been there for years. It comes as a total shock--considering she feels perfectly healthy and has been as active as always: looking after my dad, walking five miles a day, playing golf, shopping at the mall, getting her hair and nails done, visiting grandchildren, playing bridge and mah-jongg, going out with friends. She would probably still be in the dark, had she not volunteered to participate in a hospital research study. They were looking at the incidence of cancer among aging ex-smokers, like her, particularly heavy smokers who puffed away the early half of their lives and then managed to kick the habit and live smoke-free for decades.
Fortunately, it's a slow-growing cancer, and for now she is asymptomatic. She doesn't feel pain from the cancer, just from her collapsed lung, which the doctors expect to heal quickly.
I hear unfamiliar voices muttering in the background, and my dad tells me the doctors have come to check up on my mom. So he will have to call me back later.
After I hang up, I sit shivering in my chair, waves of nausea rippling through my body, conflicting thoughts gripping my mind: compassion for my poor mother and anger at her for getting sick too--she's supposed to look after my dad; he's the sick one. I feel overwhelmed by despair--what's going to happen now?
Lost in thought, I hear the gentle voice of a colleague asking me, "Are you ok?"
"I don't know," I answer. I clutch my belly and bolt for the bathroom, where I disappear into a stall. All I know is that I need a break--from work, from family, from stress, from life. But how? Days later, I find out.
Read more from the 2012 Stephen Leacock Memorial Medal for Humour finalists
**Excerpted from MOST OF ME by Robyn Michele Levy. Copyright © 2011 by Robyn Michele Levy. Excerpted by permission of D&M Publishers. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher, D&M Publishers.