scholars and rogues

Crazy happy New Year

3143027500_d2c487b79f_mBy Ann Ivins

The holidays began this year sometime around the ides of November, with a surprise in the mailbox: a birthday card addressed to me in my younger brother’s wretched handwriting. After the obligatory “older than I am” joke, he had written:

You’re old, old, old, old, old. And crazy.
Love, Jason

His first observation was debatable. True, if I kick the bucket at forty, this could very well be my dotage, but unless he has plans I don’t suspect, the end of the Golden Age of Ann is still unknown.  His second observation, however, was and is unarguable. Not only do I have what the DSM now classifies as a “serious mental illness,” my case set in sooner (before it was recognized as a disorder, in fact) and has consistently whacked me out further than the majority of my twitchy compatriots. I am serious and severe. I go to eleven.

In all modesty, a talent for psychopathology runs strong in my family; we are not only remarkably good at crazy, we tend to survive long enough to breed and pass it on.  So I can’t take full credit for my precocity, and although as an older sibling it pains me to admit it, my brother may well have surpassed my achievements in this arena. He’s one to talk. Nevertheless, I carried that piece of paper through the house for several days like a terrier with a favorite sock, occasionally remarking to anyone around, “Hey, look. Jason sent me a birthday card.” Neither of us, for a multitude of reasons, is particularly good at the timely recognition of special events, and at this time last year, any envelope to me from Jason would more likely have contained anthrax than birthday greetings.

In October of 2007, after listening to an oxycodone-laced monologue while driving him home from work, I made the tactical error of committing to e-mail my feeling that perhaps he and his wife were not equally committed to the improvement of both their marriage and his mental health. I may have worded it a bit more explicitly, but for me it was a model of diplomacy, and all might have been well had his charming spouse not read the e-mail. Oops. Harsh words ensued. Silence was declared. Mom, originally a big fan of the fatal epistle, decided that perhaps the truth wasn’t always best (she had a point) and frequently reminded me that in the end, family was all you had. I pointed out that Jason had spent at least half of his adult life pissed off at me and that this, too, would pass. He’d talk to me eventually.We’d see each other again.

We did. We saw each other on February 14th, 2008, about two hours after his lovely wife decided to end their marriage with a phone call from her workplace.  On Valentine’s Day. We saw each other in a tiny upstairs bathroom, face to face, me sitting on the toilet cover in an orange sludge of melted methadone tablets, him propped against the opposite wall: no longer bleeding, telling me not to help him.  He had stopped seeing me by the time the police arrived, and I remember wondering why the male officer looked so strange. Surely he’d seen blood before, even in pools, even splashed on walls, even used as ink on a cabinet door.

As it turned out, he had seen this much blood before: under dead people. True to the grand traditions of our family, Jason had achieved perhaps the rarest of suicides – both a lethal (his heart stopped twice in the next hour) and a near-lethal attempt (he lived); rather like double-medaling in the Suicide Olympics.  I told you we were good at this. My subsequent case of PTSD, by the way, was textbook; another notch on the old straitjacket.

Nine months later, I got the first birthday card he’d ever sent me.

A month after that, we met at Mom’s house near Fort Worth to create the Second Annual (With One Small Interruption) Sibling Gingerbread House.  There was planning. There was debate. There was a noticeable absence of synthetic opiates, although the sweet soothing presence of SSRI’s pervaded the warm kitchen like the pharmaceutical Ghost of Christmas Present. Despite my lecture on the subtleties of Tudor architecture as it translated to gingerbread construction, he insisted on a peppermint-supported portico, and a compromise was reached. Patterns were made, dough was rolled and cut. Mom (“Not interfering!”) buzzed about happily, a comely and prescient housefly, landing with unerring accuracy and the appropriate surface cleaner on every potentially sticky spot.

Of course, issues arose. Mom peremptorily vetoed my idea for a gingerbread mental asylum, complete with little cookie men wearing tinfoil hats and hanging from licorice nooses. Frank Lloyd Wrong cut a wall pattern into geometric shreds rather than cutting out the window opening. After mocking him mercilessly, I. M. Peitient cracked the biggest candyglass window by attempting to pry it from the baking sheet before it had fully cooled and was forced to wait even longer as it was reheated and recooled. Much merriment ensued when Jason unexpectedly turned on the mixer and I leapt like a started hare – oh, that hilarious PTSD – and we discovered to our great amusement that we had, like a wacky professor and a dog in a Disney film, begun to acquire each other’s pet disorders.  I gave him some sisterly advice on how not to panic-puke in bed; he confirmed that thinking about not thinking about suicide was, in fact, suicidal ideation. Duh.

It was a warm and comfortable afternoon. Normal… for us.  Strangely normal. Normal enough. Good.

So tonight, Jason, here’s my New Year’s greeting to you.

You’re crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy, crazy. And precisely ten and a half months older than you had planned to be. Ha ha.

Categories: scholars and rogues

8 replies »

  1. Your family sure knows how to celebrate the holidays, Ann. Because of the sanity of your writing and your cheerfulness, I keep forgetting about your disorder. A New Year’s resolution: Don’t take Ann’s wisdom and compassion for granted.

  2. Ann,

    I think that those who have ever suffered from difficult emotional health issues understand what it took you to write this, and how very difficult it is to appear to dash it off in such a breezy and funny manner. I’m sure it wasn’t dashed off at all. Nothing this painful ever can be.

    I’m deeply impressed, as always, with the way you write. Thank you for sharing this.

  3. Russ: so noted.

    Aside from the times that i’ve cursed my family for making me crazy, i generally thank my lucky stars that i was only made as crazy as i am…much more and i’d be in serious trouble.

    “…the sweet soothing presence of SSRI’s pervaded the warm kitchen like the pharmaceutical Ghost of Christmas Present.” Sounds like my family’s kitchen (though my family tends towards thoughts of homicide rather than suicide…at least until the latter seems easier to deal with than the former).

  4. Yes, and now I’m stuck making this whole life thing up all over again…. Thanks just a whole bunch, and I plan to make sudden loud noises around you at every opportunity. And I love you , too.

  5. As a former rubber-room inhabitant, I read this with trepidation. I did not want to be reminded of a failure long ago.

    But … having read it, I deeply appreciate the re-emergence of hope it conveys. We all need that.

    Thanks, Ann. Best to you, Jason.

  6. Oh, my darling. I have no words except to say I’m insanely (ha!) glad Jason is around to tweak your architectural aesthetic.

    Hope to see you soon.