It’s a Saturday here in Waldo County, Maine – a beautiful fall day when I don’t have to be anywhere because I don’t have a job. That’s true for most weekdays too, but on weekends I feel less awkward about it. I’m back in the area where I grew up, after decades away, now living with my friend Linda until I work out my next plan. I take the rubbish to the transfer station, and then decide to go riding around and start down the Bog Road, mainly because B-O-G are my daughter’s initials. All three kids have O’Leary for their middle name then their dad’s last name, which I no longer use, since the divorce. This is not a road I know, but it might go to the town of Brooks or maybe Frankfort. I’m pretty sure I’ll get lost but will eventually find my way to something I recognize – a house, a route number, a view. On these jaunts I get nostalgic – comparing myself now to who I was when I left in 1966.
I left healthy then but now I’m back, taking ten prescriptions for at least six diseases or conditions. I call them my situations and believe they might be playing games with each other behind the scenes. For allergy induced asthma alone, I take four medications. Breathing can be so important, no matter what my mental status is.
Brigid is my child most susceptible to one of my medical situations. I feel bad about bringing breast cancer into our family, even though I know it was no choice or negligence on my part. Breast cancer is something I can publicly claim with pride as if wearing a pink badge of courage, along with all the breast cancer T shirts, hats, and key chains. For this situation I hear people telling me I must be SO brave. I also get one of my least favorite comments: “You’re a strong person. You’ll beat it.” That doesn’t land on me as encouragement. It’s an attempt for the speaker to distance herself as in, Thank God you’re strong; so I don’t have to do anything. Worse, it makes me think of my fellow breast cancer patients, the ones who actually died. What is the speaker saying? They were weak? People may not mean it that way, but they should consider what they are saying.
In 1996 I was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer and had surgery, radiation, and chemo. It was nine months of nausea, fatigue, and confusion. Before it was finished, my marriage was over and I evolved further into the constantly struggling, questioning independent I am. Whatever I might have wondered about myself before, I started to chew over and over. How can I make it? What’s wrong with me that I can’t handle everything? Once that initial treatment phase finally ended, I took Tamoxifen to prevent a recurrence. Prevent is apparently too strong a term. Three years after the cancer was first identified, I was diagnosed a second time with Stage 1 and then had a mastectomy with reconstruction. I tell people my left one is a rebuilt.
Being brave isn’t something that enters into all this for me. I put one foot in front of the other to keep going. Self-care for breast cancer seems so black and white. I show up for appointments twice a year with my surgeon and twice a year with my oncologist. I take the medication and have an annual mammogram. Sometimes I even wear pink to show my breast cancer pride or just because I have clothes I like that happen to be pink.
Self-care for my depression, by contrast, is all shades of gray and blue. There are days when I want to wear a blue T shirt printed with “I support depression.” All my medical situations have varying effects, not only on me, but also on the people around me. Each seems to get its own bundle of responses. It’s alright to have osteoarthritis or asthma. Responses are neutral. If I mention I have arthritis in my knees, nobody blames me. Nobody says, “Are you sure?” It’s the same thing with asthma. People don’t roll their eyes or suggest I am overreacting when I go into a sneezing, coughing fit. I have three inhalers and don’t need a glass of water, but when they offer one, I know they are trying to be helpful. They never make cruel jokes saying I must be off my asthma meds.
There are medications for depression and I take some of those too but, like Tamoxifen didn’t prevent another bout of cancer, these don’t prevent another bout of depression. They can make the bouts less frequent or less severe, but again prevent is too strong a term. People sometimes have well-meaning advice for this situation but going out for a day of fun is no more a cure for depression than eating a healthy meal is a cure for diabetes. People who wouldn’t say to a diabetic “What do you mean you can’t eat sugar? Lots of people eat sugar.” act perfectly justified in trying to help someone dismiss their depression. I have a coffee mug that says Snap Out of It. Sometimes I like to drink from that and wear blue. Sardonic days are part of my self-care.
I know what I have. I know to stare right back at it, hands on hips, when it tries to pull me into a downward spiral. Even knowing that, isn’t enough every time. My depression isn’t always where I can get a good look at it. It doesn’t always have a precipitating event. More often depression has been attacking from within, insidiously, and eventually has me looking downward into the dark blue abyss before I know what has hold of me. Once I acknowledge I’m going through another episode, that this particular one of my situations has encroached upon my life again, I can start to defend and rebuild myself. The realization alone is helpful; it’s a move towards recovery. I remind myself to go easy and not get caught up in negative internal chatter. It’s no cure, but it is a strong tool. Writing also helps. For some reason I start spouting poetry at these times – not necessarily good poetry, but helpful poetry.
Today at the end of the Bog Road I have to decide to go either right or left. Brooks would be to my left and I know that area better, so I turn right, thinking of the poet Robert Frost taking the road less traveled. It’s a small decision to make; hopefully it will work out well. If not, I could always turn back, but I know I won’t. The pavement turns to gravel and I notice there are no power lines running along the side of the road. OK. I’m in the country now. No buildings, no road signs, no constructed landmarks. There are no expansive views; the road is a slice through the woods. Again, my thoughts spiral down and inward.
I wonder how I once had so much ahead of me, but now I have returned an abject failure. How could I be someone with nothing? Does that mean I’m no one?
My kids must be so embarrassed by me. They never make excuses about me, they say they’re proud, but how could they be? I’m the mother who left town owing money. I’m the one who can’t take care of myself. Matt’s even helped me pay my car loan. I cost him money.
I left here with so much ahead of me, so much promise. I want to believe I came back older and wiser. I am a lot older, but I only have a bachelor’s degree, never had a high-powered corporate job, never published a book, or was a world renowned expert on anything. Don’t own any land, never won an award, and have no equity. Success is an achievement I never reached. I wanted it but must not have tried hard enough.
I once decided to be a world traveler, but, except for a year in Israel and various trips to Europe, especially Ireland, I’ve never been anywhere. In Ireland people ask me directions as if I never left, even though I’m not from there. I figure I look local but walk American. I must look like I know where I am going. Today I’m back in Waldo County with no idea where I am headed. I’m stuck in thoughts of where I have and have not been. Nowhere. Anywhere I am is nowhere.
It hurts me to my core to be so much of nothing, to have accomplished so little that now I don’t even have a home of my own. It’s such a cop out to say I’ve had medical issues, a haunting childhood, or a husband who was not there for me when I needed him most. Lots of people have had any of those things. I put a lot of myself into raising my children but should have been able to do that and be successful in business, too. I could have if I weren’t damaged goods, if there were more to me. I left this place thinking I was headed for greatness and have crawled back a sorrowful soul.
I feel like pulling over to cry but keep going. That’s all I can ever do. I keep going, keep driving. I thought I might be on my way through to the town of Frankfort, but not yet anyway. I keep expecting to come to something I recognize, something to pull me back in a specific direction. I love the woods, the pine needle floor, but now I want something else. I want to go home, even though I don’t have one of my own.
I’ve taken a few turns along these roads today, and now feel more lost than found. I want to get back to the house, to eat, to relax but I keep going. When I see a sign for Newburgh, I realize I’ve been going north, not east as I thought. I guess at a few turns and recognize a dormered cape, a house I’ve passed on the road to Bangor. I know where I am. It’s not home in Monroe at Linda’s house, but now my mind has a way to get me there. It’s early afternoon when I get back to the house and Linda is home. I tell her I don’t know where I was but, “I kept going. That’s all I can do.”
BIO: Ellie O’Leary grew up in the village of Freedom, Maine, is the previous host of Writers Forum on WERU-FM, and has taught writing at the Pyramid Life Center in the Adirondacks and at Belfast (Maine) Senior College. She is the co-founder of Fall Writerfest, a new Adirondack writing experience beginning in September 2019. Her work has previously been published in Off the Coast, Northern New England Review, The Peacock Journal, Boomer Lit Mag, and in The Crafty Poet II. This piece is an excerpt from her unpublished memoir Up Home Again.