The warnings came in June or July, portending a catastrophic earthquake that would destroy the entire Seattle area. I remembered sitting in my fifth grade classroom and being told exactly this, verbatim, right down to the preachy, sanctimonious tone. “Look at you, going about your life, failing to hold up the sky by constantly keeping the possibility of a 9.0 earthquake on your mind at all times! I know you brain dead morons won't listen, but I'm here to tell you about it anyway. At least I'll have done my job.”
So an earthquake might wipe us all out any minute. What do you suppose I should be doing about it?
I scoff because I can't conceive of such a disaster. I scoff because suddenly, out of nowhere, I'm once again being admonished for not living in constant fear of something I've always known. But mostly, I scoff because it doesn't matter. I love this place. I don't want to die, but if it goes down, it would be best for me to go down with it. What would I do without it? So I don't worry.
Meanwhile, I’d been gaining weight at an alarming rate. It had been happening for the past three months or so. No, the past year or two. No, since I’d had kids. Actually, no, it started when I was 19 and got a car. But no, it went back further, to when I was born. Wait, no, it started around March of 1976, when I was presumably conceived. Yes, I spent nearly the entirety of 1976 gaining weight like crazy. That’s my final answer.
But it had really picked up lately.
I consulted my doctor, who didn’t seem to believe it was inexplicable. Nevertheless, he offered me medication to help me lose weight. I’d really wanted to get to the root of the problem, but I’m an American woman. Offer me a means of losing weight, and I’ll take it. If you’re a medical professional telling me to take diet pills, which is what I secretly want to do anyway, all the better. He wrote me a prescription for Topamax, which I filled and started taking the next day, no questions asked, no googled search conducted. If there was some reason I shouldn’t be taking it, I didn’t want to know.
In August, I headed to New York to meet my husband, who was on a business trip. His boss had paid for me to fly out for the weekend. He'd even sprung for first class tickets. I should have been excited. I was excited. But when the time came, I didn't want to leave my kids, or my favorite little corner of the world. Suddenly, I was afraid the earthquake would come while I was gone, taking virtually everyone and everything I cared about except my husband away. My home. My parents. My brother. My kids. If I lost my parents, brother and children, would I still get to miss my home?
I'm easily distracted. I have a hard time disciplining myself to stay off my phone. I read, I write, I stare into screens. But one promise I've made to myself and kept is to always look out the window while the plane takes off. People have longed to fly since the beginning of time, and it may be the one miracle I don’t take for granted.
I'm impressed with any take off, but this one far exceeded any other I can remember. Soon, we were flying through a perfect blue sky. Mt. Rainier rose through the blanket of clouds, but that isn't unusual. I was awestruck because I could also see Mt. Adams. Two majestic mountains. What else have humans longed for since the beginning of time? Heaven. Here it was. Was this a secret perk of flying first class?
Naturally, I was miserable, fighting back the tears that come more easily with every passing year. I've become more comfortable with this, but was aware that perhaps the stranger next to me had not, so I tried hard to keep a lid on it.
I'm not a fearful flyer, per se – no crushing dread, no panic attacks, no Xanax. But I'm not indifferent to turbulence, either. It does make me think the plane might crash, a possibility I normally find upsetting. This time, though, when the plane started shaking, I calmly wondered if it was for the best. I'd had a decent run, done some of the things I wanted to do. Not all, but that's not going to happen, no matter how long I live. I could die right now and be spared a lot of pain. I'd never know of the earthquake that would shortly be taking out everything that mattered to me. I could leave this world never having lost a parent, sibling, spouse or child (listed in the order they were received). None of them would be able to say the same, but what are you going to do? It's a plane crash.
I love the Pacific Northwest, but it isn't my ancestral home. It's not where any of my parents or grandparents come from. When my maternal grandmother remarried and moved here, my young adult mother followed. My father and his friends got the call in their early 20s – go (north)west, young man. Climb that mountain. The one I was now looking at from my first class window seat.
In fact, if I have an ancestral home, that's where I was going. New York, where my great-grandparents died, and my mother grew up. That's what I'd call two generations, all in one place. I do feel a connection to it, just as I do to my father's Chicago (fireflies, and the flat landscape impresses me as much as Mt. Rainier does my midwestern relatives).
Once in Manhattan, I did what I almost always do once I've arrived somewhere – immediately decided I wanted to move there. I'd done the same thing when I'd visited my dad's family in the Chicago suburbs a couple of months before. I love the the New York accent, like all my mom's relatives had, affection baked into every word. I love the instant gratification; anything anyone could want, immediately, at any time of the day or night. The art, the restaurants, the infinite possibilities. I hadn’t been here since I was nine years old, and I wanted more.
Unfortunately for me, I was going on two or three days of the insomnia marathon that often hits me in August. Every exhausted pore in my body hurt, and it stood to reason that sleep deprivation may have accounted for the wild mood swings I was experiencing, too. In the morning, I planned no fewer than three sleep-related tourist activities for myself while Jeremy worked, but was too tired to make any of them happen. I poked around a bit, but mostly wasted half my time, rendering me sadder, sleepier, and less able to sleep than ever.
More than anything, I wanted to see St. Patrick's Cathedral, the church my grandmother, devoutly Catholic before I met her, had attended. I dragged my husband there the next day and looked around, enthralled. It’s beautiful, of course, like many Catholic churches are, but also a connection to my beloved and long gone grandma. This is where she’d come when she was young, so much younger than I was now. Before she’d been widowed twice before the age of 30, and left with a child from each marriage. Before she took her eighth grade education and rose, Peggy Olsen-style, from secretary to upper-management at the company where she worked for more than 20 years. Before she’d retired, married for a third time, moved across country, rebranded herself as the ideal, traditional grandma, and ultimately died.
It is not unusual for me to get teary-eyed when I remember her, but crying all the time, from morning to night, is not a part of my regular routine. Typically, I spend the majority of my time not crying. Something was wrong. I lit a candle, threw a few dollars into a donation bin, and prayed silently to St. Anthony.
“St. Anthony, St. Anthony, won’t you please look around? Something has been lost that must be found.” I repeated this in my head a few times before I realized I was talking to St….Patrick!?!?!
For once, I felt none of the Catholic guilt that must be programmed directly into my DNA, just anger at that St. Patrick for having the gall not to be St. Anthony. Oh, well. Off to the gift shop, where I bought a laminated St. Anthony prayer card, and a St. Patrick one, too. No matter how dismayed I may have been upon realizing he wasn’t St. Anthony, he was the one who was there when I needed someone.
Exhausted and edgy, my husband and I spent the next two days exploring Manhattan and meeting a friend for lunch in Jackson Heights, Queens, where my mom grew up. We saw Taye Diggs play Hedwig, observed a cockroach on the floor of the Museum of Modern Art that easily could have been part of an exhibit, but, we concluded, wasn’t, and got Italian ices that weren’t quite as magical as the ones I remembered from when I was nine.
I cried, picked fights, and hated myself for not enjoying it all more.
On the plane on the way home, I settled into my seat with my husband at my side. There's no doubt first class is comfortable. I was grateful to my husband’s boss for paying for it, and I’d choose it every time if I could. However, I was mortified to see people - my people - the ones who fly coach - stuck waiting behind the flight attendant while she asked me if I wanted a glass (an actual glass!) of wine. The plane was still boarding.
“No, thank you,” I answered, sinking down in my enormous seat. I stopped short of attempting to make eye contact with the flight attendant to communicate how much she was embarrassing me in front of Coach.
I wanted to shout at them as they walked by, “This isn’t me! I’m one of you!”
I probably should have just accepted the wine, because as it was, the flight attendants kept offering. But I couldn’t be seen doing any such thing. I was dying.
I attempted to watch the movie Still Alice, but can’t recommend you do the same. If you’re not in the best of spirits, it will make things worse. If you’re happy, happiness is fleeting - why drive it away? Besides, while the movie is technically “good,” Alec Baldwin is not believable as a loving husband. If you haven't seen it, imagine Jack Donaghy saying "I wish I'd known your mother and sister." It was like that. I didn’t finish.
I chose another movie, one about James Franco murdering his wife and children, then manipulating a journalist with his story. "It's not so much that you murdered your family," the journalist seemed to say, "but that you lied about it." It was a true story, and there was nothing cheerful about it, but perhaps because Still Alice seems more relatable to my own life, it didn’t bring me down quite as hard.
When I returned home, I finally googled Topamax.
Topamax is an anticonvulsant drug used for treating epilepsy and migraines. Although it is prescribed off label for weight loss, that is only a temporary side-effect. It can storm into your brain and cause depression and major personality changes. That’s what it did to me. And, although I did lose my appetite, and I did stop gaining weight while I was on it, I did not lose any. Which brought me back full circle to my doctor. I’d told him I was gaining weight inexplicably, he hadn’t believed me, and my mind had already been groomed to doubt what I knew to be true and submit to him.
I made an appointment and tried to explain it all.
“Yes, it’s true, I don’t eat anymore, but only because I walk around feeling like my mom just died. All the time. I look at my kids and feel no love. I also haven’t lost any weight.”
Was that a gleam I saw in his eye?
“Do you want me to up your dosage?”
“You don’t care if I die,” I thought. “You think I don’t care if I die. You think I’d rather be nearly suicidal than fat. You’re wrong.”
As a last ditch effort, I pulled out the pedometer on my phone, hard proof that I was above-average active.
“You just keep at it!” he told me as he exited the room.
Some might look at my weight gain and say, “Welcome to middle-age!” But I suspect my doctor’s condescending tone might be every bit as indicative.
Having politely declined his offer of a stronger prescription for Dementors, I left with the same one as before in my hand. But I’d already decided I wouldn’t fill it. As for my doctor, who I’d seen and trusted for years, I thought, “I will never see you again.” And I haven’t.
I set to work trying to find a feminist doctor, but doctors do not advertise themselves as such, so I settled on a young, tattooed woman with the same first name as myself. The problem with people named Erin is, I instinctively like them, unless they do something to displease me. At that point, I turn on them hard. Erin was no feminist, but she did send me for a psyche evaluation with a nurse practitioner who turned out to be a brilliant therapist.
I’d have followed her anywhere, but she only did evaluations. She refused to give me my Adderall, because reasons, and I accepted this, because she did a good job of explaining these reasons. She directed me to a fantastic, ninja-warrior type naturopath, who continues to help me get my game back. Maybe someday, I’ll even get there.
A couple of weeks ago, the earthquake warnings came again. This time, I told the part of me that would rather just die to shut up for a second. I am now the proud owner of a backpack full of survival gear. It’s hard for me to imagine it will make much of a difference if the time comes, but stranger things can happen.