One year ago today I broke.
For months, on the nights that I slept at all, I had been waking in the wee hours in full blown panic attacks. Simon and I had moved to New Zealand almost a year and half earlier, and we had been in our house for a year, but I still felt untethered and completely, catastrophically alone. I spent whole days curled up like a fist. Even on good days, I was trapped in the wrong end of the telescope. There were days I couldn’t feel my arms. Days when everything tasted like sand and I couldn’t swallow. Days when my pulse roared in my ears like the surf. I wanted to cease to exist. I wanted to have never existed.
One Sunday night, I started to cry and I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t think. My mind had shattered.
Simon intervened. I can’t imagine how frightened he must have been. He insisted I request a compassionate leave from my job and seek professional help.
I had committed to participate in a bilateral engagement with a delegation from Vietnam the next day. I rallied my reptile brain and managed to get through the meeting without humiliating myself or my hosts. Then I walked away from my career to mend and, I hoped, find a way to want to stay alive.
The past year has been an extraordinary journey to the centre of myself. With Simon’s support and the help of my excellent doctors, I have healed. I have moved beyond fear and loss to reclaim my life. I have stopped striving to become the person I thought I should want to be and am, finally, discovering and nurturing the person I am.
I got my first tattoo.
I am learning to play the accordion.
I have chickens.
And, one Saturday morning at the Riverbank Farmers’ Market in Lower Hutt, I became the Kale Whisperer.
This wasn’t my first crackup. I’ve lived with the black dog on my shoulder most of my life. The first time I clearly remember being depressed was when I was 10, during our first year in Georgia. The first time I remember coming completely apart was in my second year at University. I was a crazy intense student. I was working two jobs, maintaining a 4.0, not sleeping, and living on Dr. Pepper and Milky Way bars. I passed out in Botany class. I got myself to the end of the Semester and spent spring break in bed. In a tight little ball.
A dozen or so years later, it happened again. I had finished my Ph.D. and was a few years into my career as a defence analyst. I’d been battling a prolonged period of depression, self-harming, and a relapse into the bulimia I developed while ending my first marriage. Since University, I had been wrestling with what I thought might be a call to become an Episcopal priest. As a defence analyst, I felt like a fraud. Everyone knew more than I did. More to the point, they all seemed way more interested in the ins-and-outs of the Pentagon than I would ever be. So, I had taken the step of starting the gruelling process of discernment of a call to ordination.
My discernment hit a brick wall that threatened not just my faith but my survival. My escape route into seminary was gone. I was like the mythic hero who rode his horse into a valley that grew ever narrower until, at the end, he couldn’t go forward, he couldn’t go backward, and he couldn’t get off his horse. I was broken and I hadn’t the slightest idea how to begin to get mended. So I took pills. Lots of them. My best friend, Susan, found me just in time. To my everlasting amazement and gratitude, she remains my best friend to this day. I’m Godmother to her beautiful daughter.
For the next two years, I was in and out of hospitals until I finally connected with a sensible therapist who helped me get all the odds and ends back into the closet and set me on a more-or-less steady course. I found a comfortable and challenging professional niche. I bought a house. I was determined to learn to like myself. I started to learn French. I was, at last, on an even keel.
Then my world shattered again. My father, the one steady anchor in my life, my hero, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. My mother was agoraphobic and wouldn’t leave the house. Neither of them would even talk about moving. In a desperate attempt to keep them in their home, every other week for the next two years, I drove to Georgia and spent three days cleaning my parents’ house and filling their freezer with delicious and nutritious food. It was the one way I could still show them how very much I loved them. It worked for a while. And then it didn’t. My Dad died in October 2007 after a short but nightmarish illness, for which I blamed myself.
I got through all the turmoil of those four or so years because I had to. I accepted the support and generosity of friends who helped look after Mom and Dad when I couldn’t. Paul came over from the UK to help me sort through the house and move Dad to Virginia. Kline and Carolyn opened their home to me. Carolyn fed me to near bursting and took me to Target at dawn on the day of Dad’s Memorial Service to buy funeral clothes because USAir lost my suitcase and all I had to wear was bluejeans. Elsie shuttled Dad to his neurology
appointments and took him to the lunch buffet at the Peking Restaurant. Nash drove Dad and his beloved cockapoo, Maxwell, to the dog park. Nash and France adopted Max after Dad died and gave him the pampered retirement he deserved. I took anti-depressants to calm my anxiety. Mom’s best friend, Margaret, and the ladies of St. Gregory’s Episcopal Church arranged two memorial services and two receptions to farewell my parents. What they say about Southern Hospitality? It’s all true.
When I finally brought Mum to Virginia, she had lost the will to live. I could tell she was staying alive for me. Because she knew if she died, I’d be alone.
On a professional trip to Australia in 2008, I met a handsome chap from New Zealand on a cross-country train journey. The rest, as they say, is history. Mum met Simon when he came to Virginia over Christmas. She relaxed. I would be safe, and happy. When she was diagnosed with lymphoma, she was ready to let go and passed much more peacefully than my Dad, in May 2009. Two weeks later, Simon got his fiancé visa. We got married in Hawaii in July. Three years later, we decided to move to New Zealand.
When I broke a year ago, I survived by leaning on Simon, seeing doctors, stripping wallpaper, and cooking.
As I began to feel better, I contemplated both my past and my future. For years, as my defence career got ever more frustrating, I toyed with the idea of a new career. Gourmet dog cookies, perhaps? A personal chef? A food and travel writer? New Zealand’s next Master Chef? A pizza blogger?
A pizza blogger! In an effort to do something to get the rest of my life started, I started thinking about creating a vegetarian pizza blog.
My young cousin, William, came to spend a few months with us in his break between graduating High School and going off to University. So, for the first time since we had moved here in 2012, I also started exploring New Zealand. William and I traveled all over this beautiful country — Dunedin, Stewart Island, Fiordland, Napier, Rotorua, Christchurch, Hokitika. We ate seafood chowder in the far South and went to a Maori hangi in the geothermal North. As I fell in love with my new home, I also started to learn, slowly, how to live with myself.
And I continued to cook, trying new things I’d never had time to explore when I was working and traveling all the time. My vegetarian food universe expanded well beyond pizza. I tried to invent vegetarian versions favourite comfort foods. For me, cooking became an exercise in mindfulness. A way to calm my anxious monkey mind. A way to connect my American roots to my new life in New Zealand.
Today, one year later, I am — dare I say it? — happy. Most of the time. I expect I will always feel the presence of the black dog. I will probably always get sad at Christmas. I expect to take anti-depressants for the rest of my days. But, through it all, I will cook.
The biggest challenge for me has been to learn to live in the moment. I cannot change the past, and the best way to ensure a good future is to have a good present. My new routine of going to the Saturday Farmers’ Market to buy whatever produce is in-season and beautiful, creating seasonal pizzas, nurturing a weekly batch of sourdough bread, and cooking food that is absolutely the best I can make it today has healed me. It has grounded me to my New Zealand home. It has also brought me back in touch with my long-ago roots in different family rituals in different and far away places.
Now my scars are honestly come by, from a blazing hot pizza oven or careless use of the mandolin slicer. They tell stories of pizza and coleslaw; of bread loaves and pickles; of kiwi pies and vegetable calzones; of turning hot corn tortillas with fingers instead of tongs.
And in sharing those stories, I will explore life from my new perspective and continue to heal.