Stories for Lent: #10 The Poison Ivy Moment

There’s a section in Stephen King’s “On Writing” where he describes a childhood incident involving a bathroom emergency and poison ivy. Later in the book, he compares being on drugs to wiping his ass with that poison ivy again. I keep coming back to that page. I keep coming back to his description of his family too – his family who didn’t talk about feelings, bottled things up, and danced in the jello.
I’m thinking that everyone has a “poison ivy” moment – where you do something that’s bad for you, even if you know it. I’ve had several.
The last one involved bird shit.
I’d been running and running and running. Not physically – a monster cold struck me down, grounding me home until further notice – but in every other sense of the word, I was firing up on all cylinders, with no rest and no fuel. School stuff, writing stuff, stuff for next year, stuff for last year, work kept piling up and I gleefully added to it, circling short story competitions and adding them to my calendar without any consideration as to whether I can pull them all off or not. The novel I’d been working on for years was getting rejection after rejection, and in order to keep my head above water, I decided that quantity would be the name of my game for a bit. Like a lame inspirational slogan, I would dream less, and do more.
And I did dream less. I also slept less, and I made myself feel bad for not eating less, too. Anybody with experience in recovery knows this is a dangerous cocktail.
It got bad enough for my supervisor to pull me aside and tell me I needed to take a break. To be sent home in tears is humiliating enough – to be sent home in tears because you’re clearly working too hard is the stuff of C-grade romantic comedies, except there’s no handsome best friend character waiting in the wings to sweep me off my feet (as soon as I get done with the hard work of “fixing myself”, because that’s what we’re all fucking about these days. DIY self-improvement.)
I’m supposed to feel lucky. We caught it in time.
This past week, ever since that episode at work, I’ve been walking around as though I’ve been shell-shocked. Work started to fall away – one task after another, I handed in assignments and said goodbyes for the holidays. I got well enough to run, well enough to receive my purple belt, but the inside of my head is full of debris and balled-up to-do lists.
Self-care is a strange beast, one I’m not entirely comfortable with. Sitting with myself for long periods of time, and trying to figure out what I need… it’s deliciously self-indulgent, and two years ago, I did a bang-up job of training myself to hate everything that’s delicious. Like Emma Woolf, I’d developed a secret hatred of anything soft or comforting, while simultaneously craving it like crazy.
To go out into town, with no purpose other than to treat me was only fun at first. Very quickly, I became agitated about finishing a short story I’d started the day before so that I didn’t have it hanging when I left. I worried about missing the train. I worried about getting to the station on time. And then, once in the shopping center, I couldn’t stop looking for things that irritated me: the queue at the haircut salon was too big. There were too many people in the drugstore. I couldn’t find what I’d promised to get for my Mum. The underwear drawers at Victoria’s Secret were badly stocked, and why were their pajamas so dreadfully beautiful and expensive?
And when things couldn’t get any worse, I looked down and saw bird shit, all over my jacket and my trouser leg. I suddenly realized why a homeless man had yelled after me a few minutes ago.
I’m thinking about another memoir on writing, Dani Shapiro’s memoir, to be precise, where she describes a book called “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No-Good, and Very Bad Day”: “and just when he thought things couldn’t get any worse, he saw people kissing on television.” (Still Writing, p 80-81).
Standing in the middle of (another) haircut salon, using the last of my hand wipes to manage the damage, I don’t think I felt such despair. Not even when my supervisor pulled me out of shift and I ended up breaking down in tears in front of him. There’s catharsis in crying – even when things are at their darkest, the act of it zaps you of your energy, leaving you too tired to worry about anything else. I couldn’t cry in the salon. I didn’t feel like I had the right. It was just a little bit of guano, for fuck’s sakes, why was I being so hung up about that?
But it’s not just about the guano, is it? It’s not just about the poison ivy, or the people kissing. You can look away, you can get something from the pharmacy, you can take a wet wipe and scrub yourself clean. But when things have been building up, one on top of the other, over a long period of time, and you don’t take a moment to check your foundation, eventually it all falls apart. Possibly on top of you.
That’s what was happening. My pile was falling apart, projects and other half-finished dreams knocking off my head before finding the floor.
The high priests of our DIY self-help culture tell us that this is a valuable moment, and I guess in retrospect, it is. At the very least, it makes for a good scene in a C-grade romantic comedy (The climax: Katherine Heigl ugly-crying on the street, before rushing to her best guy friend’s home, mascara smeared from the rain, and the two end up having Teh Best Sex Ever right there, against his door. Coming to your local cinemas this Valentines’ Day.)
What is rarely, if ever said, about poison ivy moments, is this: They suck when they happen. You feel tired and wrung out and shell shocked. None of the things that used to help distract you or bring you joy help. It seems like you’re so tired, you will never feel happy again. You know that statistically and realistically speaking, that’s impossible, and yet you believe with all your heart that you will be that one outlier who never gets better.
Those lucky enough to know how to be gentle with themselves manage to get to the end of the day and then fall gratefully into sleep. It doesn’t feel like a victory – in fact, it feel anything but – and yet, when you barely have the energy to keep one foot in front of the other, walking is still an achievement.
I was lucky yesterday.


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