June 20, 2021 by The Citron Review
by Jen Rouse
What if I start the story here, today, in a room with 15 people, a Dialectical Behavior Therapy counselor, an overly bright-eyed unbelieving psychotherapist, two perfectly coifed social work students, and my incredible disdain. For. Almost. Everything. You might ask, what did I do with my past? Where are all of the influential figures, crushing losses, greatest loves? I’m trying to decide here, with you, now, on this day, in this room, with a kid trying to stay clean, having killed almost every brain cell, with a woman who plays with a stress ball like she will most certainly destroy it—I’m trying to decide what is worth telling.
Because this room is filled with people who are desperate to move forward, and forward on a good day is an incredible stretch, like a toy Stretch Armstrong kind of a stretch. Every thought demands not just attention but a specific type of regulation and work. I’m always interested in the responses to this story, of my going forward with a bipolar diagnosis—so many Wow, who struggles like that? responses. Who is this circus freak before us?—and not merely because of some unplucked chin hair. So many of you go through days without having to practice crisis management. Without having to practice breathing that looks like obsessive handwringing, keeping you from wrecking all the things. Forward. Forward is difficult.
But this room, with its mustard-colored carpet squares and cafeteria and weed smell—well, no one knows I’m here for the next two hours. And there’s something about being gone that is so attractive. I will make my lists of pros and cons for resisting my crisis urges. I will try to meditate to the ringing bowl, ignore my ringing ears. To step outside of it all and think how in the fuck did I get here? And then to fight back, step back in, and say, listen, it really doesn’t matter.
On this day in this room, sitting next to the woman who looks like the thinnest glass and rarely is allowed to see her children, I decide to participate. Because I like ridiculous challenges. And today’s is how to stop one’s sorry crisis-ridden self by dunking one’s head in a basin of ice water up past one’s temples. Disdain. Which is also panic. Which is also hating to be seen. Which is also a kind of fear of drowning and putting one’s giant head in a tiny basin in front of a room full of people. All that. All in.
Ten seconds. The ice cubes bob around my cheeks and the bubbles are startling. Up again and down into the small plastic head-sized pool. The shaking becomes harder to control. But I refuse panic. And I finish the skill.
The white of the fluorescent lights is transporting. The others are encouraged to look at those of us who’ve completed the skill. It is oddly much more difficult to care about being watched. For a moment I remember our childhood cabin, our lake, running off the dock with my sister in the rain, into the spring-fed water, no matter how cold the day, always to feel that kind of beauty of being wild and alive.
Jen Rouse directs the Center for Teaching and Learning at Cornell College. Her work has appeared in SWWIM, Pithead Chapel, Cleaver, Always Crashing, Mississippi Review, and elsewhere. Her books with Headmistress Press include: Acid and Tender, CAKE, and Riding with Anne Sexton. Find her on Twitter @jrouse.