Sunday, March 4, 2012


The two things my mother always wanted to have were a suntan and a nervous breakdown. First, about the tan: she prized that peanut-buttery epidermis that, before tanning beds, required a great deal of leisure and money to acquire. “Look at that tan,” she would sigh as a woman strolled past her, and if the woman in question also had straight, blonde hair (hers was black and curly), she’d be even more envious. To Mom, a tan meant that you had the abundant leisure time to focus exclusively on yourself and your beauty, and that, clearly, was a mark of a superior sort of person.

Every year on the last day of school, she would tell me, “Why don’t you get a tan this summer?” Um, no. The only place in my unairconditioned St. Louis home that would have been more depressing than the basement (where the snowy black and white television got moved every June 1), would have the weed-choked backyard, where I’d be lying on a beach towel, gazing at the chain link fence and listening to “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo” on my AM transistor radio.

And as to the other item:  ah, how her voice would lilt when she described how someone she knew had suffered “a complete nervous breakdown.” (No one ever, in her telling, suffered a partial one.) For an Irish woman who adored all talk of illness, tragedy and misery, the CNB was the tops.

And now, according to the Wall Street Journal, they’re making a comeback, just like cooking your own food and saving money. In the article, “Time for a Good Old-Fashioned Nervous Breakdown?” Melinda Beck says that the term was never an official diagnosis, just a popular euphemism and convenient catch-all for the inability to function due to psychological stress. Clearly, she never met Katherine Clifford Kendrick, for whom “nerves” were a highly prized diagnosis. Whether it was her dipsomaniacal, narcissistic sister Loretto or my food-addled and raging father, she had an elegant explanation: nerves. In that one word, she managed to convey the idea that the behavior in question wasn’t really the fault of the jackass who’d done it.  They were suffering, she implied, from something marvelously exotic.

Bullshit, I thought, just about as soon as I could form a thought. But no one asked me, and even the slightest display of emotion in our household would be met with the hysterical offer to “rush you to the hospital” for your oncoming CNB. I never got rushed, so I wasn’t sure what exactly would have happened when we got there. As poor as we were, I’m sure I would have been sent home. Aunt Loretto had enough money to fund several stays in the local asylum, and my father was allowed to drop into bed for a week or so whenever his n-word got too bad, but I never tested my ability to drop out, and, like my mother, I’ve continued to solider on, while secretly, sometimes, wishing I could collapse.

Mom's schedule was always too busy to be able to pull off a CNB. Instead, she favored the havoc that being “high strung” could wreak on the human body. She would often proudly tell of the time when she had picked a big rut into the top of her skull. This discussion was always accompanied by a discussion of how the rut was as big as her thumb, with a wave of the thumb in question. (Health-related matters in my family always had a measurement, usually food-related. Tumors as big as grapefruits and black eyes as big as plums are two descriptions that I still, sadly, remember.) As soon as she’d displayed the thumb, she’d sit back in her chair and discuss how the woman at the beauty parlor had been so worried when she’d found that rut.  “And I told her,” my victim-mother would say with a little flourish, “it’s there because of … nerves.” That rut was one of her proudest accomplishments, the tangible proof that the world had mistreated her, and she was mistreating herself.

There was another thing she was proud of, and that was the year she got a tan. She spoke of how she’d scrupulously “sunbathed” every day, religiously applied baby oil and looked, well -- wonderful. Then my father lost his job that September, and she went to work as a secretary in an office. For the rest of her life, she looked, as she always complained, “as if I’d been dipped in a flour barrel.”

And me? No suntan. I fidget too much. And no CNB, either.  Like my mother, I can’t seem to find a way to fit it into my schedule. Not that the thought doesn’t seem tempting. Fourteen years ago, my mother died in my arms, on my front lawn, after mentioning that she wasn’t feeling so hot. I came back from the emergency room to a three-year-old, a nine-month old and a strong desire to crawl under the covers, Jack Kendrick style. Instead, I changed diapers, got up at two a.m. for bottles (Mary Katherine still wasn’t sleeping through the night), and answered Emma’s endless loop of questions about why she had watched her grandmother fall down, why no one let her save grandma because she could have done it, why, why, why, why.  

I confessed to my best friend, who was single and childless, that I was ready for a nice CNB.  “I’ve done that already,” she said, “and it really doesn’t make things any better. Plus, you get pillow prints on your cheek after a while. Just move on,” she said wisely. “Make lunch. Make the bed.” And so I did. And so I do.

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