Monday, June 4, 2012

absolutely cuckoo

Okay, I've got some chicken lettuce wraps for you today that are crazy delicious.

But first, here is one of my favorite songs by Magnetic Fields (or here's another version, which I can't embed, but which comes with an adorable animated video someone made):

And here are the lyrics:
        Don't fall in love with me yet
        We only recently met
        True, I'm in love with you, but
        You might decide I'm a nut
        Give me a week or two to
        Go absolutely cuckoo
        And when you see your error
        Then you can flee in terror
        Like everybody else does
        I only tell you this 'cause
        I'm easy to get rid of
        But not if you fall in love
        Know now that I'm on the make
        And if you make a mistake
        My heart will certainly break
        I'll have to jump in a lake
        And all my friends will blame you
        There's no telling what they'll do
        It's only fair to tell you
        I'm absolutely cuckoo

A few weeks ago, a former student of mine posted this Slate interview with Maria Bamford on Facebook. It's a great piece. I particularly appreciate the fact that interviewer points out: "One of the striking things about [Bamford's] more recent material is how [she] engages with questions of mental health in a way that’s serious and thoughtful as well as really funny. There’s so much misunderstanding and ignorance about mental illness, so it strikes me as a really difficult topic to handle in a thoughtful way that still makes people laugh." Bamford's response to these comments is both hilarious and insightful:

          Yeah. I have a joke about how people don’t talk about mental
          illness the way they do other regular illnesses. “Well,
          apparently Jeff has cancer. Uh, I have cancer. We all have
          cancer. You go to chemotherapy, you get it taken care of, am
          I right? You get back to work.” Or: “I was dating this chick,
          and three months in, she tells me that she wears glasses, and
          she’s been wearing contact lenses all this time. She needs help
          seeing. I was like, listen, I’m not into all that Western medicine
          shit. If you want to see, then work at it. Figure out how not to
          be so myopic. You know?"

I spent a long time feeling ashamed of my own cuckoo tendencies, so I see Bamford's point. I agree with her: medication can be a very good thing if you're stuck in a bad spot and need a toe-hold. It shouldn't be stigmatized or viewed differently from treatments for other ailments. So, while I concede that a potentially problematic tendency to overmedicate does exist with certain illnesses, I can also definitely vouch for medication's benefits in my own personal experience. I mean, ultimately, I think all of us, if we're lucky, find our own way, by hook or by crook, through the crazies. And the way through looks different for everyone.

A few months ago, I wrote about my tendency to have bad dreams, and I mentioned that my friend Jim bragged that he habitually dreamed about ruling over a bevy of scantily-clad beauties. The truth is, I too have visions of being in charge. Mine just aren't as fun. In some distorted part of my mind, I'm responsible for everything. More specifically, bad things.

Though I loved Jim's wife Angela (she was kooky and hilarious and always insisted that the Rolling Stones were actually singing, "I'll never be your big Suburban..."), I somehow ended up being closer friends with Jim than I was with her. For one thing, he and I discovered at our first practice that we had signed up for the same class at The Healing Arts Centre, a former tiny church whose sanctuary had been converted into a yoga studio. The stone steeple itself had been removed from the roof and "planted" in the front yard of the building. It was a glorious place that smelled like incense and lavender. Chimy, new-age music played in the background. The lights were dimmed almost all the way. The chancel was merely a raised platform where the instructor would demonstrate the asanas. Behind her, where a cross used to be, was an aquarium built into the back wall. It was full of miniature monoliths with lintels, just like at Stonehenge, and in the watery light, large fish drifted among the sculptures and greenery.

At the time Jim joined up, I had already been taking yoga classes for almost a year, based on what others had said about yoga's salutary effects of mindfulness and serenity.

A couple of years before that, back in Knoxville, when I first moved out of my parents' house for grad school (later than most people, but then, my sister had died and my case was a bit different), I had discovered a disturbing new tendency towards obsessive-compulsive behavior. My symptoms weren't enough to completely upend my life - no eight-hour-a-day hand washing or anything like that - but they were disruptive, bothersome, and, of course, worrisome. In a beautifully cyclical way, OCD kind of perpetuates itself: worry leads to checking leads to worry leads to checking, et cetera.

I was habitually late for everything - not because I was passive-aggressive or rude, but because I had to check an irrationally lengthy and specific list of things in my house multiple times to make sure they were turned off, locked, and/or unplugged. The stove. Electrical outlets. My hot rollers. Lamps. Faucets. Locks. Not just a couple of times, but sometimes a dozen checks for each thing. When I moved out of one Athens apartment in 2006, the front door knob was loose and wobbly from the literally thousands of verifying yanks I had administered to it over the years. I had disturbingly vivid mental images of the building going up in a towering conflagration with my cats inside. Burning my journals and all my photos and keepsakes. Incinerating my unprepared neighbors, who screamed in agony as they burned alive. On especially bad days, I would be out of breath and my blood pressure would have skyrocketed by the time I got in the car to leave. And once I reached campus to teach, there would be at least a couple of hurried, exasperated but resigned walks back across the parking lot to my car, in order to check that my parking brake was set so that my car wouldn't roll down the street and kill someone. (That was my explicit, baseless fear: that my brakeless car would meander down the street towards a person who would only be able to stand there, paralyzed in shock, and let it hit him.) And sometimes I'd do just one more brake check to make sure. And sometimes just one more. Mmm, better do one more.

For a while, I saw a behaviorist through the university's health center. She was most avowedly a scientist. It was a weird experience, like being a lab rat. She would give me weekly assignments, and when I returned the following week with the results, she would make notes and adjust the variables accordingly. For instance: Last week, when you left for school, you left the lamp in the living room window turned on all day while you were gone. This weekend, when you leave for Tennessee to visit your family, you will leave that lamp burning again. You will also leave the bathroom sink tap dripping all weekend while you're gone. In addition to our experiments, she also instructed me to make and photocopy a sheaf of checklists, to be kept on a clipboard by my apartment door, of everything I needed to check on my way out. I was only to check (and then check off) each thing once, and then I must force myself to leave.

I saw her every week for several months, but there was a coldness to our interactions. I think that was probably the point. She was proceeding according to her own set of scientific principles, and there are a number of studies that indicate such a treatment plan works for many people. It bothered me, though, that we never even discussed how all this stressful activity affected my life, or (even if it was purely chemical, a pragmatic case of "bad wiring" in the brain) how events in my history might have exacerbated a preexisting tendency to OCD. I'm more a psychotherapy or analysis kind of gal. I want to see things more holistically than that, in terms of what they mean, in addition to what neurological mechanism is behind them. 

I also tried changing what I ate. I had read a couple of articles that suggested that serotonin was a factor in OCD, so I introduced more bananas, turkey, and other foods into my diet. Didn't really help.

In the end, from a pure coping standpoint, yoga was more helpful than behavioral therapy, both because it was incredibly difficult physically (and thus precluded worrying because it required intense concentration on what I was doing at that exact moment) and also because it included the profoundly relaxing yet equally difficult savasana, or Corpse Pose, at the end of every practice. This required one to lie on the floor perfectly still and "scan" the body, part by part, for tension and fatigue. It was a lengthy process that culminated in I-still-don't-know-how-many minutes of total silence, in which we were supposed to settle into a state of quietly and peacefully witnessing the basic fact of our body lying there breathing.

People, this sounds easy. But it is not easy.

Have you ever tried to lie completely relaxed and just notice your respiration, without trying to control it? To, as our instructor Meghan directed us, "let your eyeballs rest like two pools of water, peaceful and entirely still, lying just underneath your eyelids"? Have you ever tried to do this, on an evening in the middle of a busy week of work and running to-and-fro and worrying that you're going to accidentally murder someone with your car, without either a.) trying to forcefully wrest your body into a state of meditation (and hence failing), or b.) falling asleep? I did the latter once and felt like an utter failure at meditation. Luckily, Meghan was the most affirming instructor ever. She would perambulate the converted sanctuary, murmuring, "Byooo-tifulll, yogiiis...." no matter how bizarre and awkward we looked as we moved into the different asanas, no matter whether snores or flatulence permeated the room - and both frequently did. After all, when you position your body in new and unusual ways, you're shifting it around and making space inside it, and then... you know... things come out.

Anyway, when you're doing savasana right, it feels like you're descending into another layer of your body, like you're really down in some basic place, living in your physical being for that moment. Simultaneously, it also kind of feels like you're transcending your body. You're fully conscious, not sleepy, and not trying to control your body. If you're doing it right. More than any of those hard-ass poses, this was the one that gave me trouble. Shoulder stand? Plow? Triangle pose? Meh. For me, corpse pose is the hardest.

Afterwards, we would slowly roll over to one side, slowly raise ourselves on one elbow. Gradually the lights would be turned back up. We'd sit there for a few minutes "integrating," or gathering into ourselves everything we'd experienced during that practice, noticing how we felt. We would chant Om shanti and Lokah samastah sukhino bhavantu. In Meghan's translation, the latter part meant, "May the entire universe be filled with peace and joy, love and light. And may the light that is within me bow to the light that is within you." She would advise us to take it slow, go home, soak in a bath if possible (to wash away all of the toxins that our sweaty yoga practice had brought to the skin's surface), and head to bed in pretty short order.

I was always compliant with this instruction before, 'cause I'm generally docile like that. But once Jim joined up, first of all, I always had to be aware of where he was, because if I fell over, as I inevitably did while attempting sirshasana, he'd make fun of me later (and I'd hear his heh-heh-heh a couple of yoga mats over), and two, after yoga practice, we had a standing dinner appointment, so there was no going home and going virtuously to bed after a light meal and a glass of water. He and I would most often adjourn to the Taco Stand on Milledge, order a huge burrito and a can of PBR, and sit in one of the sticky booths, wearing our t-shirts and pajama bottoms, listening to the Monday night '50s show on WUOG, and shooting the breeze before we went home.

Crazy? Perhaps. Fun? Yes. Megan would probably have been horrified at our junk-food dinner. But Jim also pegged our next instructor, in the more advanced yoga class we took six weeks later, as the same "good-looking, busty red-headed woman" who had bummed a cigarette from him at a show at the Georgia Theater the week before.

Health and balance are apparently hard to achieve for everyone, even expert yogis.

My OCD has come back recently, and I'm running late for things again and feeling kind of nuts. I'm not entirely sure what to do, but I'm thinking about finding another yoga class. In the meantime, fixing an elaborate dinner makes me feel better. This one requires lots of chopping, as well as lots of lovely, aromatic ingredients. Here's hoping it gives you a momentary measure of serenity, too.

Recipe notes:

I like shiitakes here because they make the whole thing taste extra funky - way more so than regular mushrooms. Be sure to discard the stems, which are too woody to eat. You can find tamari (an extra-concentrated form of soy sauce) and sweet chili sauce in the international or Asian section of the grocery store. Finally, feel free to add more scallions, ginger, and/or garlic if you'd like.

stir-fried chicken lettuce cups

2 tbsp. sesame oil
1 tbsp. canola oil
3 tbsp. reduced-sodium organic tamari (or soy sauce)
2 tsp. cornstarch
1 lb. ground chicken (not chicken breast - too lean)
2 tsp. fresh ginger, finely minced
1 tbsp. garlic, finely minced
4 scallions, finely chopped, divided
1 pint shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and finely chopped
1/2 c. toasted cashews, finely chopped
1/2 c. bottled sweet chili sauce
large, loose leaves of your favorite lettuce (Boston, romaine, or cabbage is good)

In a large bowl, mix together tamari, cornstarch, half the scallions, and ground chicken. Let the mixture sit for about 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium-high to high heat. When skillet is really hot, add canola and sesame oils. Immediately add mushrooms. Saute for 30 to 45 seconds, until mushrooms are browning. Add garlic and ginger and saute for an additional 45 to 60 seconds. 

Add ground chicken to the pan and stir. Add more oil(s) if needed. Saute, stirring occasionally, for 5 to 7 minutes, until chicken is fully cooked. Using a spatula or a flat-edged wooden spoon, chop constantly, until it's in tiny pieces. As an alternative, you can put the cooked chicken mixture in a food chopper or processor and pulse it a few times, until it gets to a finely chopped consistency. 

Spoon into a bowl, and stir in remaining scallions, chopped cashews, and sweet chili sauce. Serve with lettuce leaves for wrapping.

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