06 April 2015

Endorphin Soup

This is an excerpt from my email to Archer & Elegant, my application to be the demo of Endorphin Soup:

I took Primal Rush [my late husband, for those unaware] to his first Endorphin Soup.
He died almost exactly two and a half years later.

Let me begin by saying that I'm terrified of needles, terrified of hooks, and have always considered anything that pierces the skin to be a hard limit.
But sometimes... sometimes, you have go past your limits to move past your nightmares.

When I got Archer’s return email, I was driving in to work, Bonkers half-napping listlessly in the backseat. He’d had surgery last week, and the daylight savings time change hit us hard this year. My phone pinged, so with a glance at the sea of brake lights in front of me on 400, I thumbed open the message, and started hyperventilating.

I spent the next several hours in a daze. I snuggled Bonkers for a few minutes when I dropped him off with Lady Feline, who cares for him during the week. I drove in to work, parked as normal, made tea and breakfast, and have absolutely no idea who I passed in the hallways or spoke to.
Can I do this? Will it hurt too much? Will I be the first person to have to stop, to not be able to make it? What happens if I do, if I am? Can I face the breakdown that this will bring, in front of over a hundred people in the ritual space? I’m terrified of needles, of anything that pierces, i’ve never had any desire to do a hook-pull. Can I do this?
Can I not?

My reply was short:
Yes, I would like to.
I will give you a call tonight, about 7:15-7:30 on my drive home, if that works for you?

It actually took another 3-4 nights before we were able to talk, but the conversation then was reasonably brief, and I had an assignment: to write out the events of the day he died. Monday night, I sat down to write what i hadn’t relived since it happened. I went and sat on my newly built patio, in the dark, with a handful of candles around me as I wrote in the dark. Within a page, I was sobbing hysterically, my mind replaying my husband’s last hours with me over and over.
When it was over, when there was nothing left to write that wouldn’t be redundant, I closed the notebook I’d purchased, and walked inside. I remember thinking that I was moving like a very old woman- stiff and fragile, as though a harsh word right then would break me. I spent a long time after that in the shower- it’s my safe place, where I cry and whimper and let loose the vulnerability I don’t want to share with anyone.
Finally, when the tears had dissolved the hard lump of grief and guilt and fear in my chest, I crawled into the bed, pressed my face into Logan’s chest, and slept as though I, too, were dead.

My next assignment was to write out a series of statements- things he had said to me, things that I say to myself in the deepest throes of grief and rage and pain and ever-present guilt. I did that at work, because I would have no other time. I sat at my PC in my open office, listening to Florence and the Machine’s, “No Light No Light,” on repeat, shaking and silently crying as I wrote out the last things my husband said to me. When I finished, my shirt was wet with sweat, and that night the first thing I did on arriving at a friend’s was to borrow one. Every sweat smells different, and panic/crying sweat, on me, dries to an unattractive scent like an uncleaned litterbox. Thank every Deity ever invoked for borrowed t-shirts.

Then came another long conversation in-person, little of which I remember except Archer asking me, over and over, “What does ‘better,’ look like to you?”
I remember crying, and I remember answering his questions as best i could, but I didn’t know. I didn’t know how to answer. I couldn’t put into words that ‘better,’ meant ‘clean,’ grief, rather than the terror and guilt and rage that had been inextricably entwined with my every memory of him.

After that came 15 happy memories with him.
This was both easier and harder. I didn’t cry this time, but I found that specific memories were hard to pinpoint. I remember the pressure of his lips on mine in dreams and nightmares, but not the taste of his skin. I remember the way he looked the night we met, but not anything we spoke of. So many memories were the small mundane days and times and moments that are hard to record: the taste of a freshly made eggy-in-the-basket easing my pregnancy nausea, the protectiveness of his arm around my shoulder in the sunshine, the joy on his face when Bonkers rocketed into his arms at the park.


Finally, it was Frolicon time.
Thursday at work was impatient- my annual review came and went, and yet all I could focus on was the knowledge of the upcoming ritual. Logan and I got to Frolicon, unloaded, unpacked the room, and saw friends. I tried to go to bed early that night but slept lightly. I dreamed of Rush that night, and dreamed that he kissed me- the second time I’ve done so since he died.
Friday at Con was a special kind of torture, as I couldn’t drink much and all I wanted to do was escape from the awareness of the upcoming pain. But I hydrated as best I could remember, drank sparingly, and took a benadryl to ensure that I slept that night.
Saturday came too quickly and yet had taken an eternity to arrive. PoeticMotion went and picked up J, who had been Rush’s best friend, and brought him to be with me. Gypsy was en route, albeit it with Pequena, which meant she’d be late. As the moment approached, of course, I realized I’d missed or forgotten a dozen things. I ran to the bathroom to ensure that I wasn’t struck with a need to pee in the middle of the ritual. I realized I was still in jeans and boots and would want something easier to move in, so that required a fast run to the vendor room and a pair of flow pants. Then as Archer was starting the class portion, I realized I had to pee again. Of course. So a barefoot cannonball run as Archer explained the definition of the term, “ritual,” for those who were unaware, and then explained how the ritual would take place:
I would be brought to the front of the room, and hooks would be placed in the skin of my chest, a little above my breasts. Attached to these hooks is a thin, strong rope, which is then attached to a leather sledge. I would then be blindfolded and led around the perimeter of the room, where each participant would speak the words from a slip of paper given to them by Elegant, and drop a small bag of river stones into the sledge. I thought, based on the many times i’ve participated, that i knew what to expect, you see. I knew the words would bring out my deepest fears and grief, and I knew that the sledge would be infernally heavy by the time that I circled the half-of-a-ballroom that is the ritual room.
I thought I knew what to expect. I knew that Archer would ensure that the ritual pierced to the heart of the pain/guilt/anger that had festered inside of me for the last 18 months. I knew that the hooks would be awful, and that the sledge would require more endurance than anything short of childbirth, and remaining coherent the day he died.
I thought I knew what to expect.

I stripped to my bra and comfy pants when they called me, and went to the front. With my glasses off, i had no idea who was there and who was not- I still don’t know who was there, aside from a few people who told me they were. I had my Brave Face on, pretending I wasn’t absolutely terrified of the hooks coming up. At one point, I even called to the crowd, some of whom were averting their eyes from the hooks going in, “If i can get them put in, you can watch it!” One person laughed and replied audibly, “Fair point.”
I remember snatches of this part: Gypsy behind me, J with one of my hands in his. The thick needles being laid out, Archer gloving up and setting up as sterile a workspace as possible. The hooks, long and gleaming and terrifying, on the table. I remember asking Archer in a small voice, only half-joking, “Is it too late to wimp out?” I remember him pinching a fold of skin above my breast, in the pectoral, and pressing the needle through. I know I made a noise of some kind, and a deeply unhappy one at that. I have no idea if it involved words or just an animal sound of fear and pain. The second was both harder and easier, as he gripped a little bit differently and the needle went through a little easier. The hooks then, the ropes, and we paused while i sipped water and ate a bite of rice crispies treat- bringing up a sobbing laugh as I asked J if he had any idea how many pans of these that Rush and I had made and eaten while pregnant with Bonkers. J raised an eyebrow, and I told him- “3-5 a week,” and his shocked face was enough to make me giggle even in that moment. Logan made the comment that there was a reason Rush had gained 40lbs during my pregnancy.

I dimly remember standing, remember the blindfold, remember moving to the sledge by the pressure of Archers warm hands on mine guiding me. I remember wondering where J, Gypsy, and Logan were, and if they were okay.
And then we began, and I thought of no one else.
I don’t remember every phrase. Most of them, but not anywhere near all.
The first one was, “You’ll have to grow up now.”
He said that to me as we fought on his last day on earth. It was his threat and his promise if he died. I had thought that it would take a few minutes before I broke down. I was wrong. That one phrase brought a keening sob to my throat and I took my first step backwards, Elegant’s hands guiding me. The hooks drew taut, and the sledge moved with its first load of stones. I remember the sound that the first pull dragged from my throat, fear and pain mixed with the guilt and grief and anger of the words. I had the briefest thought that Archer was a sadistic sonuvabitch, and then I had to keep moving.

“What hole are you always trying to fill?” Step. Sob.
“What makes you think you deserve to have a happy life?” Step. Sob.
“Why didn’t you wait?” Step. Sob.
“You knew he was thinking about it.” Step. Sob.
“Did you take off your ring?” Step. Harsh, racking sob. Reflexive snatch at the ring I now wear on my right hand.
I had brief flashes of clarity, milliseconds of wondering how far I’d gone so far, of wondering why Elegant was the one guiding me.
Then clarity was washed away in more tears, hard jerking sobs at every step and every phrase repeated. “Now you’ll have to grow up.” “What makes you think that you deserve to be happy?”
I noticed that the pressure eased and had a second of confusion. Someone asked, “Whose burden is this to bear?” My sob in answer. Archer’s voice, loud and requiring an answer, “Whose burden is this to bear?”
My screamed, sobbed, response, “Mine!”
“Who is bearing it with you?”
Elegant lifted the blindfold: Logan stood in front of me, carrying the sledge, carrying my load of grief and pain, carrying my burden with me.
Elegant had to catch me because my knees went weak beneath me and I couldn’t keep moving.
He bears them with me, and always has. The realization hit home in ways it never had before. There aren’t words to explain the sudden clarity of that and what it meant.
We kept moving, the weight returning and another sound of pain ripped from my throat as the hooks in my chest took the steadily increasing weight of the sledge again.
At some point again, 30 seconds or a million years later, Archer’s foot on the sledge, and the words of the next participant, stopped me.
“Will you let this moment define his life?” I think that was the question. I don’t remember its phrasing.
I remember the message: to stay trapped in the day he died was to define his entire life- the life of the man I loved, whose smile was sunshine when he held his son, who held my hands as I gave birth, who laughed and cried with me and asked me to mark him with an obsidian knife- by the way that it ended.  
Again, Archer forced me to answer, forced me to say the words. “Say it. Say that you refuse to define his life this way.”
Anger welled up in me- I had always thought that phrase was a stupid one, from bad novels, but I could feel it boiling up through me and the words that came out of my mouth were almost a surprise as I growled them out, “I refuse to define him that way, I refuse to define me that way, I refuse to define OUR SON that way.”
I remember hearing a sound like shock or surprise from some of the participants, but I was moving again, angry and crying and determined and every step hurt more as the sledge got heavier and heavier with every participant I passed’s stones.
I remember J’s voice, “I’m going to wash away some of the blood.” I thought he meant that the hooks were bleeding, but instead, Gypsy brought a bowl and they washed my hands. I remember looking at her and telling her that it had been 2 days before I washed the last of his blood out from the whorls of my fingerprints. I remember J’s voice, “Your hands have always been clean,” and my knee-jerk instinct to deny it, my struggle to listen and accept the words as truth. I remember the tears in Gypsy’s eyes, and thinking for a split second that they are beautiful, before the blindfold descended again.
That moment marked the transition of the phrases, or at least my memory of them.
After that, the phrases were clips from my memories I’d shared: The motorcycle ride together on Father’s Day, the farmer’s market and Bonkers trying to eat an entire popsicle at 6mos old, pans of rice crispies treats. At some point, I remember Elegant feeding me a bite of rice crispies treat, reminding me, “Life is sweet.” I remember her saying that the dreams of him are his checking in on me, on us.

The last turn was the hardest, the sledge so damned heavy that I didn’t know at one point if Archer’s foot was on it or not until Elegant told me I had to keep going.
I don’t remember how far I moved from there, I don’t even remember the steps, only the pain of the hooks in my chest dragging the infernally heavy sledge, now full of its load of burdens and stones. I remember Archer’s hands wrapping mine around the scissors, and tilting my head back to be able to see the ropes well enough to cut them- and still missing on the first try.
The last thing I remember then is sinking to my knees on the floor, and people around me but I don’t know who was there.
I remember saying thank you to everyone my voice could reach, and I remember Gypsy’s, J’s, and Logan’s faces. I barely remember the hooks coming out, although I know I was coherent at the time because I remember speaking and Archer half-laughing at me. I remember being in the back, wrapped in my son’s blanket I took from his bed, and getting a harsh reminder in why you don’t hug anything to your chest with hooks freshly out of it. I remember being in the elevator line and leaning against J, and then my room.

Today, and for the last 2 days, I remember my husband with clean grief. I can think of him, and feel the tears below the memory, but they are unsullied by rage or by guilt. I can remember him, and I can smile now.

Last night, I told my son that he was so like his father, and for the first time in 18 months, my smile as I did so was a real one.
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I am just your ordinary average every day sane psycho supergoddess