Midlife Scavenger Hunt Clue: Sometimes demons are muses, and in your mid-forties, like heartburn, they can no longer be ignored.
I met Gloria Zimmerman, the protagonist in my novel Oxford Messed Up, during my year from hell—a year when my family, career, and sanity were severely tested. At DePaul University, where I’m on faculty, it was a prolonged nine months of insecurity and uncertainty as colleagues from my department, college, and university meticulously scrutinized my teaching, scholarship, and service, deciding whether I was worthy of tenure and promotion. While my record was solid, I was worried about the subtext underlying my dossier—the toes I may have stepped on, the asses I refused to kiss, and the students who sometimes found my school-law classes challenging.
As it turned out, fighting for tenure was not nearly as difficult as the fighting I would have to do at home. Almost overnight, we had to deal with severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder in our family. The psychologist described the OCD as “conflagration” as we watched the disease consume my loved one, severely undermining the ability to talk, to eat, to move, and to relate to peers in any way.
The psychologist and psychiatrist informed me that if there was a chance of the person in my life recovering from the OCD, it would have to be through the combination of Cognitive Behavior Therapy and medication. Both of these options seemed frightening, but it was more frightening watching the deterioration. Cognitive Behavior Therapy with its rigid “tough love” system of rewards and punishments seemed so archaic, but it was…and still is…the only therapy that has been proven successful in treating OCD.
So there I was in the Fall of 2007, justifying my academic record by day and justifying the painful limitations I had to place on someone I deeply loved by night. The only one who got me through was Gloria. Thank God for Gloria.
She was born on the shores of Lake Michigan, where I would escape every morning to walk by the lake as I listened to Van Morrison and occasionally some Bob Dylan. Gloria’s name came from one of Van Morrison’s most famous songs, “Gloria” (performed prior to his solo career with his 1960s band, Them), and Zimmerman is a reference to the last name Bob Dylan was born with. I don’t know if Gloria was a demon or a muse, but in my mind she was a 22-year-old young woman with untreated OCD. In my mind, she helped me understand what my family was going through. She consoled me. She gave me the courage to see the Cognitive Behavior Therapy through to the end, no matter how difficult.
At the end of my year from hell, I achieved tenure, miraculously earning unanimous votes at every level. Even more miraculously and importantly, my family member enjoyed a complete recovery from the OCD, although we still work with the doctors and are extremely vigilant. CBT is so difficult to administer, but its results are incredible and fast. But while our OCD was at bay, Gloria Zimmerman’s wasn’t.
At the miraculous end of my year from hell, poor suffering Gloria was still there, haunting me at Lake Michigan. She wanted her happy ending too. I couldn’t ignore her and the clue she offered. She was part of a fantasy life that I had kept hidden for years. She was now telling me we both deserved to be whole. Sometimes demons are muses, and in your mid-forties, like heartburn, they can no longer be ignored. And so my first post-tenure writing would be Gloria’s story and my story, Oxford Messed Up.