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  • Writer's pictureKurt Keefner

Red Bottom

I'm 62 years old, and I've gone my whole life without knowing what's wrong with me. I've been diagnosed as bipolar (even though I have never been can't-get-out-of-bed depressed or even close to psychotically manic, although I've frequently been hypomanic. I've been diagnosed as having OCD, and if it's possible to have a mild case, maybe I do have it, because I have a lot of repetitive thoughts. But they feel more like fantasies rather than something truly intrusive. I don't wash my hands all the time or anything like that.

What I fantasize about most is killing myself. Don't worry; I've never tried it, never even assembled the pills or the knife. Never wrote the note. I don't need to go to the hospital. Fortunately, my wife of 21 years is very supportive, although I hate inflicting my problems on her.

I have thought about suicide ever since I was a teenager. Sometimes I'll go a week without thinking about it; sometimes I think about it 50 times in one day. It doesn't feel like depression to me; it feels like anxiety or hopelessness that I simply cannot stand anymore. Thinking about suicide sometimes makes me feel better, as strange as that sounds.I can be anxious "about" anything: something happening at work, an argument on Facebook, almost anything.

I've been given a lot of pills over the years. Some seemed to help. For a year or so, I cried almost every day, and the pills seemed to make it go away. But I kept being given more and more pills, never ratcheting down again.

I've had quite a few therapists, some of them nice people, but other than helping me cope, I don't think they've helped me with my problems. The nicest one I ever had told me during our last session that my reason was intact but my emotions were a rat's nest. Guess she thought it was OK to mention that when we weren't going to work on the issue. The absolute worst therapist was a social worker at an HMO. Thirty minutes into our first session she ran into the back and got a doctor to write a script for Prozac without him ever seeing me. Do you know what Prozac does to people who are bipolar? It makes them manic. Soon after I started with it I became hypomanic for over a week, and when I crashed it was awful.

But the worst thing she did was at the end of our last session (again with the last session). She told me that maybe I didn't need Prozac; maybe what I needed was more courage. That was 25 years ago and I still hate her for it. I've thought of writing nasty notes to her or sending her a box of dog shit. I don't remember thinking about killing her, although I have had many such thoughts about other people. I don't want to talk about that. I've never hurt anyone.

Lately, it's been very bad. I don't get enough sleep. I've cried a few times, especially over my new refurbished Mac, which turns out to have been sold to me under what I regard as false pretenses. (I'm going to return it for a full refund, but now I have to find another one.) That was one punch too many to roll with right now.

However, I think I've found the key to the whole thing. I have been working on an essay for my next book that will be concern the way in which we know things preconceptually, especially through feelings in the body (think gut feelings). My research led me to a book titled The Body Keeps the Score, by psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk. It's about trauma. It tells some horrific stories about people who underwent abuse as children or who were in terrible accidents or suffered in battle. Van der Kolk and other researchers have made enormous progress in the neurology and treatment of trauma. Apparently, feeling in the body is of enormous aid.

After awhile I started to recognize myself in some of what the author was discussing. No, I'd never been raped or put into foster care. I've never been in a serious car accident. I was never in the military. I wondered whether I was being hypochondriacal.

But there were things in my childhood, and I am going to share them here. They mostly had to do with my father. Dad was a high-functioning alcoholic. He had people fooled into thinking he was a nice guy. My mom said that he treated his kids like they were his step-children.

And he was abusive. He hit my older brothers, who were six and nine years older than me. He had mellowed a bit by the time I came along, when he was 34. I don't remember him hitting me very much. But there were occasions that I don't remember. All I have are stories from my mom and sister. Apparently, Dad would spank me when he was drunk and claim the next day that he didn't know where the marks came from.

My favorite color, except when it isn't.

My sister told me the worst story. Dad had spanked me so hard that my bottom was red. He liked bare-bottom spanking. Mom took my sister and me to visit Grandma. Mom wanted to go out to a bar with her old .girlfriends and left me in my sister's care. My sister is 11 years older than me, so she would have been an appropriate age to baby-sit. But here's where things get really bad. Mom told my sister that if anyone asked about my red butt, she was supposed to say that it was diaper rash.

I guess that's a typical spouse-of-an-alcoholic maneuver: cover for the drunk spouse while betraying the children. I don't remember any of this, but it had to, shall we say, leave a mark.

Where my memory of Dad starts is when I was maybe 3 or 4. I was a finicky eater, and when we sat down to dinner one night, Mom served chunky soup or stew; I don't remember which. I didn't want any. That wasn't good enough for Dad. He wanted me to eat that damn food. He spoke quite menacingly. I was terrified and took a mouthful. I couldn't keep it down and threw up at the table.

After that I didn't eat "normally" until after I went off to college. I had weight problems and still do, even as I ate more widely as an adult. Throughout my childhood, however, I lived on breakfast cereal, snack crackers, nuts, etc, in addition to a few "grown-up" dishes like round steak.

So, clearly Dad had some control issues. One time when I was maybe 7 or 8, we were rough-housing and he drove me into hysterics. I think he threw a glass of water in my face to "calm me down."

I hated birthdays because Dad would sing "Happy Birthday" in a mugging, exaggerated way and embarrass me.

There's more about Dad, but I think you get the idea.

Mom was a different case. She never hit me or yelled at me. I gather she had been pretty wild as a teenager, but when she was in her late 20s she had a nervous breakdown (or whatever). She spent some time in the psych ward and received electro-shock therapy. The doctors put her on tranquilizers, and she stayed on them for the rest of her life. I took them too--in utero.

Mom was stable after that, but emotionally suppressed. She took care of me, but she wasn't very affectionate or interested in me, although she did buy me books. She seemed to do things because she "had to," and I've always been very anxious about "have-to's" and "duties." For many years, I had nightmares about being chased by zombies, and I think it was because Mom seemed like one and I was afraid I would turn into one.

Mom was problematic in her own way. She had had spinal surgery before I was born, and couldn't pick me up when I was a toddler. This hurt my feelings. And she stayed with my father until I was 11. I had begged her to divorce him for the last year or two of their marriage. I don't know what Dad would have done if he found out I had been going behind his back. But I lived the last two years of their marriage in terror of him. I was afraid to walk past the door of the room where he was watching TV. He spanked me again and knocked me on the floor, almost cracking my skull on a piece of furniture. I don't remember Mom ever coming to my defense, although she did eventually divorce the bastard.

And then there was my nearest brother. We'll call him DD. DD had problems of his own. He had ADHD and was hard to be in the room with. He was abused by others in the family, and he abused me, teasing me into tears, including making me ashamed of my body. Later we did become friends. He had a rough life, struggling to become a successful musician. At the age of 45 he killed himself.

I was sexually abused, but not much. Just a little groping. The least of my problems, really.

After my parents divorced when I was 11, things were much calmer around the house, at least after my sibs took their pot-smoking somewhere else. My mother found a nice man and he became to nicest step-father you could have. Unfortunately, he had premature hardening of the arteries and took to walking naked around the dark house with a gun. After a couple of years, he died on our kitchen floor. You know what they say about a dying man's eyes glazing over? It's true. I watched my step-father's brown eyes turn blue. He was DOA.

I think that's enough from the Horror File. What effects did this have on me? I can think of two big things: first was something I called the "dream state." It was dissociation. Nothing seemed quite real. I felt mostly real to myself, but other people pretty much seemed like "he" or "she" rather than "you." Like people "over there," rather than with me. Sometimes I would be startled into a cataclysmic feeling of reality, but that was rare.

Second, and related to the first, was an aloneness that became a deep feeling of loneliness. I've always had friends but they usually lived too far from me or were in some ways very different from me (younger, non-readers, whatever), so they only made me feel somewhat better. It wasn't so bad when I was a child. I read an enormous amount. I built things out of Lego. My mom always made sure I had drawing paper and pencils around. I did a lot of work with math. I owned three slide rules, and I was the first kid in my school to get a calculator. I used it recreationally.

We did move around a lot after the divorce. I went to three different middle schools. On the bus ride home from the third one, people would hit me over the head with a textbook while my back was turned or hawk and spit on my jacket. Only two or three times each. I was bigger than most other kids, but that didn't help with the future thugs.

I did date, although not in college. Later, I belonged to a debate society. I almost got married. We broke up after she told me to shut up when we came out of a screening of Yellow Submarine. I don't know why my singing bothered her, and I don't care. It was flat-out anti-life.

A year and a half later, I met the love of my life. I fell in love with her at first sight, and we moved in together about two months later. That was 36 years ago. Something went very right.

I don't want to get into the details of my marriage, but I will mention one thing. I had always had a lot of fantasies about girls I was dating, not sexual fantasies but imaginary conversations and encounters, not always pleasant (nothing violent). I was more involved with the phantom woman at times than with the real woman. There's absolutely nothing like that with my wife. She does not haunt my mind. Sure I think wam thoughts about her or I feel I need her, but she is not in my head. That's a big reason I know that she's The One. Paradoxically, real love for me means not thinking about her all the time. Thinking about her would make her seem unreal.

Fast forward to the present. My friends and family all live thousands of miles away. We Zoom or text or DM. Unless I feel well enough to read or write at night, I scroll Facebook or read political and cultural commentary elsewhere. I'm afraid I often do not feel well, but that's another story.

Nighttimes are the worst. Due to our work schedules, my wife goes to bed long before I do. After she does, I obsess over things I read. I feel a lot of boredom, envy, contempt, and disappointment. Many people seem to be smug or robotic.

Most of the people who know me probably know that I listen to a great deal of music. I write about it. I explore different types of music. Right now I am listening to music from Algeria. I share it on Facebook, and almost no one is interested. This makes me mad. Did your musical taste really stop growing when you reached the age of 23? My therapist pointed out in a matter-of-fact way that there is no reason why people shouldn't like the music of their youth. Well, OK, maybe.

It isn't just the music. Very few people are interested in what I value. About ten years ago I published a book about American culture. It was a good book with lots of good insights, even though it would need some serious revision if I were to publish a second edition.

It has sold about 130 copies. I am working on another book, which will be the culmination of a lifetime of thinking. I have to discover ways to promote it, because if it does badly, it will break my heart.

I consider myself to be about 95% Objectivist, but many of the "serious" Objectivists I know do not nourish me emotionally or stimulate me intellectually. They are not much interested in the subtleties of Ayn Rand's work or the possible applications. They are frequently brittle, unkind, and unimaginative. Others of course are warm and have broad interests. But mostly I feel like almost no one shares many of my values.

I am incredibly lonely much of the time.

Trying not to whine here.

The other bad thing that happens at night is when I climb in bed and can't go. to sleep. I think about suicide, homicide, being disfigured, arguing with people. The pills don't help.

So, Doctor, what do you think is wrong with me? I think if you put it together, the inescapable conclusion is that I have post-traumatic stress disorder. I discussed this with my new therapist, and she said it was obvious. The dissociation and attachment issues are part of the complex.

I am not sure I am going to stay with this therapist; she has a thick accent, and I have trouble understanding her. On the other hand, she is very nice and supportive and wants to treat the actual problem rather than just help me get by. I'm giving her a try.

Challenges abound. My health isn't good. I don't get enough hours at work. My mother died in August, although she was 93, and it was her time. The October 7 massacre disturbed me deeply, even though I am not Jewish. (I bought myself a stuffed black panther toy to hug.) More recently came the news that someone I love has terminal cancer and many only have a year to live.

On the positive side, the writing has been going well, and I love spending time with my beloved.

Although I've had some bad days recently, I have some hope. If we're right and the fundamental problem is PTSD, then there is treatment available. I still feel lonely, but just identifying the feeling and my coping mechanisms, which do not always help and are not always appropriate, seems to be a step in the right direction. My therapist tells me to start working on human connections, and that's what I am doing.

Writing this has made me feel better, even though I am describing some awful things. Thank you for reading!

I can be quite intense.

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