Chapter OnePresent Day
On a sunny autumn day in Mount Summit, Pennsylvania, back in 1999, a friend of mine, a fellow named Donald, declared in no uncertain terms what he saw as the trouble with most people.
"Maggie," he observed, "we live in an embarrassment of riches and spend our days lamenting over our need."
I knew he was referring to me. Although we hadn't known each other very long at that time, Donald's lectures always seemed pointed at me. I was sort of his living example of what's wrong with people in general. I took no offense. Well ... I did, actually, because I could see that Donald was seizing on my shitty outlook as an example of how not to think about life. But I let him go on because, well, that's what friends do. Besides, I had to admit he was right. I knew myself and what a pain in the ass I could be.
All around me that afternoon the glories of autumn were on display, but I couldn't see them through my own self-pity. I failed to notice the trees with their coats of gold - more brilliant than the treasures of the ancient gods.
I was blind to the rich tapestry of the mountainside, with its claret reds and burnished oranges - more beautiful than anything man could weave to hang on castle walls.
Today I recall vividly the grandeur of the trees, the majesty of the mountains, the satisfying crunch of oak and maple leaves under my feet, and the sensation of crisp, clean air filling my nostrils.
At the time I could not have cared less. I was lonely - living in a new town and far away from my family and closest friends. I was pissed off - convinced I was a victim because I'd had so many bad things happen to me in life. I was sad - experiencing just about the lowest lows I had ever known.
I realize now that Donald was offering me a gift that sun washed afternoon - the gift of perspective. He was suggesting an alternative view - another prism through which to view my sorry life. He was offering a way to see my wealth instead of what I lacked. But I was blind then. All I saw was my poverty - poverty of hope, poverty of spirit and poverty of soul.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, Donald, you're always right," I said nodding absently, trying to be agreeable.
I kept listening to my friend, but I really couldn't see what he saw. I was incapable of it at the time. I was too busy lamenting.
I traveled that road of self-pity for a long time, until one day I happened upon a strange and winding path. I had no idea where this path would lead. At times it was downright frightening. I felt as though I'd wandered into a gnarl of tree limbs and protruding roots from which I'd never escape. More than once I got snagged. More than once I got bruised. More than once I tripped and fell on my ass. Confusion was a frequent companion. At other times, I thought I was going nuts.
Then I made my way into a clearing - where I stand now - and saw the light. In this place, the sun illuminated every drop of dew on every leaf. Everything seemed to glow with wealth and possibility - my wealth, and my possibility. I could see for miles in every direction.
Note: I can't really see for miles in every direction. My eyesight actually stinks. I'm lucky to find my eyeglasses when I get up in the morning, and I need my glasses to find my glasses.
But you get the drift, right? The path was a seriously difficult one to travel - difficult and strange. My head and heart took some lumps along the way, but looking back, it all makes sense to me now. It seems that everything I ever saw, heard, did or learned - everything I had experienced, both strange and normal - occurred so that I would reach that clearing.
My name is Magdalena Bishop. My mother named me after a Russian princess she read about in a love story a long time ago. Not that I was ever treated like a princess. In fact, it was quite the opposite. I was just some poor little schmuck living in the projects in Brooklyn. However, that reality doesn't matter anymore. That lies in a past where I no longer dwell.
Today, I live in the present. My new address is the here and now. And although the totality of my life experiences led me here, one particular and illuminating realization - my "one clear moment," to quote British songwriter Linda Thompson - began a few short weeks ago. It was an interesting trip.
Chapter TwoThe Last Normal Day
The adventure began on a Friday afternoon. As I weaved my trusty old Buick along Haddon Avenue in Haddonfield, New Jersey, I avoided running over a jaywalker, then out-maneuvered the local bus that insisted on dropping off its riders seven feet from the curb. After a few choice words mumbled under my breath, I made it to the corner.
It was a warm spring day and as I sat at a traffic light, I noticed how the sun filtered through the clouds like rays of light from the fingertips of God. For some reason, like a premonition, it made me feel hopeful - more so than I had ever felt before.
I had given up hope of finding real happiness. Actually, I had given up on life. And, sad to say, I had given up on poor old, well-meaning Donald.
Embarrassment of riches! Please.
I was in the poorest of places, albeit, a place I created in my own mind. Then, one day at lunch, I confided my feelings to a friend and colleague, Jennifer Hallohan. She told me about a therapist she and her husband had been seeing.
"Her name is Diane Peterson. She's great. She has worked wonders with me and Henry. We're like a whole new couple. And she helped me, too, with so many of my personal problems, like depression, anxiety, you know, stuff like that. Thanks to her, I have more self-confidence than ever. She really put me in touch with my own inner courage," Jennifer said, raving about the experience.
As I parked in the small lot behind Diane Peterson's office building, I recalled Jennifer's praise for the therapist, particularly the part about courage. I decided I could use some of that, as I could be pretty wimpy at times.
And as far as self-confidence went, well, all my life therapists had told me my biggest problem was low self-esteem. How could I feel anything but hopeless?
I got out and took a deep breath. "Well, here goes."
Diane Peterson's office was on the second floor of an old Victorian-styled office building on Kings Highway. As I passed through the alley between her building and the Chinese restaurant next door, the pungent aroma made my stomach rumble. An Asian man stood in the open doorway smoking. He nodded as I passed. I returned a polite smile.
"Can you slip me an egg roll?" I imagined myself asking him. I skipped lunch and my freaking stomach was growling.
There was a wrought iron fire escape attached to the wall of the office building, the bottom rung only inches from my head. With my mind on won ton soup and pork fried rice, I almost walked into it. But I caught a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye (yes, I had my glasses on) and stepped to the left. When I reached the front of the buildings, I was back into sunlight. One quick right turn and I was standing at the front door.
I checked the door number with the one on the note Jennifer had given me. I was at the right place. I stood there for a moment looking at the bronze numbers. The number "27" was imbedded in the thick wood that framed the doorway. It was an impressive building - old brick, working shutters, thick paint on carved wood.
I really like old buildings. I like that they have a history. They have endured. As I opened the massive oak door and stepped into a dim hallway, it was like stepping back more than two-hundred years. The first floor was dedicated to Myers and Stern, Attorneys-at-Law. The double pocket doors were opened, hidden inside the walls. I couldn't resist, so I peeked in. A carved mahogany desk sat to the left. To the right was a Victorian sofa upholstered in rich green and tan brocade and a matching chair.
Caught in a fantasy - it's what I do when I'm stressed out - I imagined it being the turn of the century. I could see women in long dresses and big hats meeting with solicitors over such matters as wills and deeds after the untimely passing of their controlling husbands; women who spent their days cooking and cleaning, caring for the children, and doing needlepoint while their husbands went out to work.
A horn sounded from the street and I was yanked back to the present. I remembered why I was there and wondered if women ever got depressed back then.
Then, I turned my attention to the unusually long flight of stairs that loomed before me. I looked up, took a deep breath, and started my climb. It was hard. The steps were higher than the ones on a conventional staircase and, as my lungs twisted in agony, all I could think of was that there were so many of them. For my own satisfaction, I counted as I ascended. There were a total of twenty steps. They had to accommodate the high ceiling, I realized.
The staircase curved to the right at the top. Out of breath and wheezing like an asthmatic, I peered both ways and discovered that Diane Peterson's office was to the left at the end of a long narrow hallway, the far end.
"Of course it is," I whined to myself.
Her name was carved into a plaque on the door to the outer office. When I stepped inside, I found a waiting room, bright with huge windows that wore no treatments and reached almost to the ten-foot ceiling. There was no receptionist to hand me a stack of forms requesting information about health insurance, and everything else from my first visit to a doctor to the last time I took a leak. I was glad of that. Just talking about taking a leak makes me want to pee. Go figure.
Anyway, I took the seat closest to the door and waited. I looked around, fidgeting with my hands like the neurotic I was. It was a nice room - clean, small and sparsely furnished. There were five wooden chairs lined up along the walls and two slim-legged tables with magazines spread out invitingly. A maroon, flowered lamp with a cream shade gave the room a cozy atmosphere. The floors were solid wood, old, thick, and painted a deep walnut. They shone brightly around a flowered area rug trimmed in deep rose with a cream-colored fringe.
Opposite the entrance was another door. It, too, was large and thick, and made of rich dark wood. I wondered if she was inside.
Should I knock? No, I told myself. She must have heard me come in. Christ, on these floors you could be heard wearing socks. Besides, the entire building was as quiet as a church on Monday.
I didn't knock. Instead, I sat there and patiently scanned a copy of Philadelphia magazine, not really reading. I couldn't concentrate. I just waited and wondered if this woman knew something the other therapists I'd seen didn't.
"Probably not," I whined again. Feeling sorry for myself was my favorite pastime. But I was so miserable I'd decided to give therapy one more shot. What, after all, did I have to lose? Diane Peterson was the seventh or eighth therapist I'd sought out during the course of my twenty-seven-year marriage. I'd lost count after the guy who told me, "Just don't think of the things that upset you."
What an asshole! If it was that easy, therapists would go out of business. No, people like me were their cash cows: $125 an hour. Moo. Moo. Moo. Cha-ching. Cha-ching. Cha-ching.
As I waited, I thought about what I would say when she asked why I had come to her. All I knew was that I cried for no reason almost every time I was alone, and no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't feel happy. I no longer felt close to anyone - especially not my husband, Carl, whom at times I thought I hated.
Let's be honest. Doesn't every spouse feel that way about his or her partner from time to time?
Somehow I had allowed my marriage to become ritualized. There was no more excitement. There were no more surprises. I was drifting away from my children - the only people I was capable of giving unconditional love. It wasn't that I didn't want to be around them. I just wanted to be alone. I was no longer in contact with my sisters and brothers, people with whom I'd shared so many experiences. And I always kept my friends on the perimeter of my life.
On top of all that, the overriding emotion that flavored my days was anger. Most of the time, it was all I could feel. Anger seemed to reign triumphant over all my other emotions. I directed it outward and inward with equal intensity. Truth is, I hated myself for the things I had done and said, and for the way I always had tried to manipulate people and circumstances to get what I wanted. I believed I was not a very nice person.
Pent up, filled with self-loathing, and tired of being pissed off at the whole world, I only knew I wanted to feel better. I wanted to be happy. I wanted to be at peace. But I had no idea where to begin to straighten out the mess I'd made of my life.
These were the thoughts that filled my head as I waited in Diane Peterson's comfortably-appointed waiting room in downtown Haddonfield. And it was in the midst of these ruminations that I recalled the event that had brought me back to therapy.
Truth to tell, it wasn't Jason Voorhees coming at me with a big, bloody knife. But it was frightening.
Here's what happened: One morning, as I was getting dressed for work - putting the finishing touches on my hair and make-up and the like - I found myself immobilized, looking in the bathroom mirror for a long time, overwhelmed with hopelessness.
I stared at a woman I no longer recognized. Who is that sad person?
I then asked myself a rather frightful question. "Should I go to work or simply end it all?"
End it all. Yes, end it all.
I was riveted to that spot for the longest time. Then I peered past my reflection toward the bathtub and a horrible thought process began to take hold.
In quiet desperation, I thought about filling the tub up with scented bubble bath, getting in, holding my hands under the bubbles so I couldn't actually see what I was going to do, and slitting my wrists - slitting my wrists for Gods sake.
Then, like a light going on in my mind, something snapped me from my trance and told me that was not an option - at least not a healthy one. I later realized it was my own good sense taking over but, nevertheless, it was a frightening experience.
As I stood there considering my alternatives, I realized a few things.
One was that I didn't own a regular razor blade. The best I could do was use one of my disposable razors - the pink plastic ones with the little raised flowers on the handle. I decided that wouldn't do the trick. I'd just end up late for work with nothing to show for my effort but smooth wrists. No, those things are really only good for shaving my legs and armpits.
The second, and I believe most important thing I realized, was that, although there were times when I didn't want to live anymore, I knew I wasn't ready to give up, to die. I liked life. I just wished I was better at it. And that led me to the third realization. I was no quitter. And, thank God, there was always therapy.
That was when I made the decision to try again. Besides that, I loved therapy. It was so soul-cleansing, so cathartic. You get to spill your guts and know your audience isn't telling anyone. How cool is that!
I knew I was just stuck in the realm of unhappiness and that, no matter who I blamed for my unhappiness, the only one capable of making changes that would bring about happiness was me. I just needed some help. So there I sat, disillusioned with life and extremely dismayed, feeling bad about myself, yet hoping to find the answer. Irony of ironies. I was, after all, Donald's perfect example of the forever optimist.
The inner office door opened. When I looked up, a tall woman of slender build stood before me. As she said my name, she hesitated, as most people did when they saw it written down, then continued to pronounce it incorrectly.
"Magdalena," I said, stressing the "leena" at the end. Then, almost immediately, and as a matter of habit, I added, "Please call me Maggie. Everybody else does. It's just so much easier."
Diane Peterson laughed. I liked her immediately. She had dark brown hair, cut in a short and nicely-styled hairdo that tapered around her neck and ears. Her eyes were a greenish-blue surrounded by thick, black eyelashes. Although she wouldn't be considered beautiful in most circles, she had a certain European charm about her. I almost expected an accent.
"Ready for the challenge of your lifetime?" I said, stretching out my hand.
As we shook hands, she flashed another smile, this time revealing large teeth, encased in silver braces.
"I love a challenge," Diane said, and the silver caught a piece of the sun and twinkled. "I'm Diane Peterson," she said. "Please, come in."