Self-possessed

“There’s no room for demons when you’re self-possessed.”
― Carrie Fisher

The genius of her writing is exemplified in this simple complex sentence. I’m not bipolar like Carrie Fisher was. Hard to write about her in the past tense. She has been an idol of mine since I was a little girl. First as Princess Leia, but most enduringly and endearingly as the writer I most aspire to resemble. I feel an unfortunate kinship with her and appreciated her work to remove the stigma from mental illness. Her honesty and specificity often make the reader uncomfortable, but she knows how to put in a laugh to cut the pain. When it comes to turning a phrase, she’s on par with Dorothy Parker.

The brilliance of Carrie Fisher’s statement about demons and self-possession is in the literal and connotative meanings. It echoes an Emily Dickinson poem I once used as inspiration for a post about my own mental illness, “One need not be a house to be haunted.” Demons are literal in literature, art, and religion. Demonic possession and something to do with the uterus were the top two explanations for any mental illness in women prior to about 2008. 

Therefore, literally, she is the demon who possesses herself and there isn’t enough physical space for other demons. No room at the inn, as it were. 

Metaphorical demons abound. Fisher’s personal demons were the biological illness she had and the numerous substances she used to medicate it. That includes the love drug. The desire to be loved by people who wouldn’t love her. Love, freely given, doesn’t heal the self-loathing. The golden ticket is to win the love of a person who can’t love. To people who don’t have depression or self-loathing, it can be very tempting to dismiss those conditions as self-inflicted and therefore self-correctable. In Postcards from the Edge, an openly autobiographical novel turned film, an addiction specialist tells Meryl Streep, playing Carrie Fisher, that taking a bunch of pills and ending up with her stomach pumped in the ER is suicidal behavior. “The behavior may be, but I’m certainly not,” she replies. This line demonstrates the other meaning of self-possession. She knows herself and understands what is happening. She is calm, composed and in control of her feelings. Ironically, the only way to be in control of her feelings as a person with bipolar disorder is to admit that she has absolutely no control over what comes out of her brain or when.

When I accept the “demon” possessing me-the biological illness in my brain that is as much a part of me as my earlobes-I am “self-possessed” and don’t need any external demons. In this way, the quotation is incredibly hopeful. No room for the demons of drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, promiscuity, infidelity, or drama-filled relationships. On the other hand, you know that those demons will appear, so fill up the space they seek to claim inside of you: be self-possessed. Claim yourself, flawed as you are. As we all are.

Carrie Fisher also wrote, ““If my life wasn’t funny it would just be true, and that is unacceptable.” I’ll close with this. On the internet program “Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee,” Jerry Seinfeld and John Oliver discuss how non-comedians don’t understand the overwhelming drive to get to the joke, even when it causes all kinds of calamity. There is a moment between Seinfeld and Oliver of profound kinship. The “You get it!” moment. “You see me!”

That’s what Carrie Fisher’s writing was and is for me. I got it. I saw her. 

 

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Happy Vacation Rant

Ah, vacation. One of the true perks of teaching. No matter how much I bitch and moan about what a tough job this is, I cannot deny that my December 20-January 6 holiday break makes up for a shit ton of manure that I endure as a high school English teacher.

A week before break, the mother of a student called to schedule a conference about her kid’s grade (extremely proactive with four teaching days left in the semester). When I answered the phone, it took the parent nearly 5 minutes to even tell me who exactly she was. She started instantly with her epic poem of grievances, and barely drew breath. When I finally got a chance to interrupt, I only got part of a sentence out-a clause fragment, really-before the rosy fingers of dawn introduced yet another Homeric chapter of loathing for yours truly.

I get one of these about every three years. Usually a mother, but not always. Generally regarding her son, but not exclusively. Always about how we do not have a meeting of the minds about his perfection and my incompetence. She did not have a chance to tell me absolutely everything she hated about me as a teacher and a human being, even throwing in that she heard I was a mother, and I must be a terrible one since I have no heart. It was a Friday. I had to leave. I gave her 15 minutes, of which I spoke for about 2, but not consecutively. My obligations couldn’t give way for an unscheduled phone call. I genuinely believe that no human being who has ever had a conversation with this particular person was able to end it without cutting her off.

Not to worry, though, she followed up our conversation with a 2,000 word email about how horrible I am. I know because I used “tools” to word count it, not because I read it. I skimmed it, but in the interest of self-care, I forwarded it to my principal then deleted it.

I am not without faults. I am riddled with faults. Faults run through me like post-fracking Oklahoma. I hate grading papers, so it takes me a long time. I have a philosophical repulsion for posting grades outside of the 5, 10, 15, and 20 week progress dates. So I don’t. What else? Maybe I should have saved that 2000-word email.

Here is what I have noticed: my male colleagues can get away with every single one of my criticized behaviors with nary an exasperated sigh, much less a phone call followed by an email (followed by stomping into two different administrators’ offices, in turn). I used to have a coworker who was the stereotype of the male teachers Robin Williams was juxtaposed with in Dead Poets Society. No one ever said to him “Mr. Scary White Man, you, too, are a parent and should see how hard your class is for my child. Because you also have a child!”

I know, it’s not all about sexism, but it also is about sexism! Remember when Donald Trump said he could go out on 5th Avenue and shoot someone and he wouldn’t lose any support? I have a colleague like that. He could literally tell his classroom full of sycophants that they are moronic pimple-faced dumbshits, and they would dreamily Tweet “Mr. Populist isn’t a pussy; he tells it like it is. #BestTeacherEver #Pizzagate.”

I am exaggerating, of course. They’d never use a semi-colon or capital letters.

Part of my anger is guilt. It always is. Of course I could have taught better! Of course I could have worked harder! Of course I’m not as good at my job as my male colleagues, else why would the students worship those guys despite my superior AP scores?

My teaching role-model is Professor Stromwell in Legally Blonde, played by the exquisite Holland Taylor (I get it, Sarah Paulson; I really do). Confident, at the top of her game, terrifying because if you do not know your shit she will destroy you with a gaze. She has no patience for smart people if they’re obsequious; however, she wouldn’t get impatient with the kid who stutters because when he finally gets it out, it’s the smartest thing anyone’s said in a week, or better yet, it’s an intriguing question. And she smacks students on the heads with pencils.

I just realized that this rant will go on forever if I don’t knock it off. Time to downshift to gratitude. I am grateful. There is so much to be grateful for.

For my family, especially my husband and children. I am extra grateful for my father, since just last week I was reminded that none of us is promised tomorrow with our loved ones when his dear friend died suddenly of a heart attack. I am grateful for my sister who is my best friend and TV-loving soulmate. I am grateful for my friends who know at all times that they are better friends to me than I am to them, but stick with me anyway. I am grateful to have a job that I love, hard as it is, in a world where so many people are struggling.

I am grateful for my life. I thank the Universe. I thank you.

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