Category Archives: Parenting

I Won’t Bite

I have decided to address one of my lingering self-destructive behaviors: nail biting.

This is not a New Year’s resolution. The timing is just a coincidence; I’ve reached this point now because I had time to think about this over the holidays. My daughter has been urging me to address the issue for months; she has inherited her grandmother’s beautiful and strong nails and looks askance at my thin and dry ones. Or, more often, at the bleeding and inflamed beds of flesh where my nails should be.

I’ve resisted trying; I’ve been telling her that I have a lot of things going on and it’s not yet the right time for me to tackle this bit of self-improvement. If you read me regularly, you know that I have reasons to pick my battles, and I suppose I think of my nail biting as no big deal even though it is severe enough to require band-aids now and then.

But I’ve been given the honor of talking with and listening to her on a new level lately, and I know she will soon be facing new challenges and be asked to adjust to more new information. She feels overwhelmed too, and her Higher Power didn’t ask her whether she was feeling overwhelmed before dropping these things in her lap.

One of the reasons she can share things with me is that she, whether consciously or unconsciously, trusts my strength more than she used to. She sees me as more present and reliable, and feels safe being a little more vulnerable–and I cannot find words to express how happy I am about that and how much I want it to continue. I was thinking about this in relation to my nails, and I realized that I don’t want her to see me bite them, or wince in pain, or make excuses about why I’m not ready to stop yet.  It may not be much compared to other behaviors from my past, but it’s not carrying the message I want to carry.

As an addict in recovery, I carry a message when I live my life. As a person living with mental illness, I carry a message when I live my life. As a parent, I carry a message as well; one that is even more potent. When I treat myself in a loving fashion, that message is one of hope and self-respect. When I screw up but take responsibility for it and get better, that message is one of hope as well. When I suffer from symptoms but work hard not to make things worse, and she gets to see me get through it, it’s a message of hope that may help her in her own struggles. The message is carried by all aspects of me; none are exempt.

So if I have the power to boost the positive content of that message, I want to do it. I’m not trying to be perfectionistic, but I want her to see me saying: yes, there is a lot going on, and life can be like that, and I have faith that I will receive the help I need instead of not now.

The truth is, I do have faith. That faith gets hidden under a pile of bullshit from time to time, but it’s there. It’s proven its power too strongly for me to deny it–the thought that my spiritual source, having done what it’s done, would not be up to this task too is quite frankly absurd.

It’s just one more layer of the onion; one more surrender. It won’t be the last, and I get to do this one with a little extra love.

Guess What?

I have some new information to process, which is another way of saying I feel as if I’ve been kicked in the stomach. I did a lot to get this information, and on this Thanksgiving eve I am grateful to have it…but it’s going to take some processing.

As I wrote in Seriously?, I’ve been seeking help with finding the right schooling and services for my daughter. Part of that has been getting a detailed assessment done, the first in several years, independently of the district and the doctors who did her earlier ones. We finally got the results yesterday.

Without going into details, let me just say that they’ve come up with a theory about her issues that makes a lot of sense, feels intuitively right, honors her strengths…and means that for the last five-plus years we have been working with a completely wrong diagnosis.

Pop quiz, my friends. What’s going on with me emotionally right now?

A. I’m proud of myself for intervening the way I have, getting her into counseling, and pushing for objective assessment in response to my judgment that there was something else going on. I am aware that things would be much worse if I had not acted with courage in certain ways.

B. I’m blaming myself for taking this long to see what is needed and for all of the imperfections and delays I introduced into the process. I feel overwhelmed about finding the services she needs and am convinced that I have failed her as a mother.

Correct! We are dealing with mostly B at the moment. I’m worried and frightened and guilty about all of the same old stuff. I don’t know how I am going to manage to find the medical services she needs, and I don’t know how I’ll cope with the increased appointments and still handle schooling. I’m enraged at myself for the decisions that have us living where we are, when our old place would have been more convenient and healthier for her.

I’m afraid. And I’m ashamed. And I’m angry that I’ve internalized a view of motherhood and myself that makes it impossible to blame the people who made the wrong diagnosis, or the teachers who urged me to accept it, or the doctors who ignored her physical problems, or the school system that kept ignoring her physical needs and getting her injured: I am always ultimately to blame, because I should have seen something sooner, acted sooner, fought harder, been a different person.

It’s not constructive to blame anyone, and I don’t want to. I know in my head that everyone, including me, did the best they could with the information they had at the time. But I don’t know how to let go of it. Once again I have to struggle out of the guilt and shame that is, ultimately, a manifestation of selfish ego on my part—I can’t stay in it because it will try to make this about me and not about her.

So, I need to process, and this one may take a little time. I need to process in ways that won’t be self-destructive or sabotaging. I have hope that when I have worked through this, I’ll be able to see the positives…after all, if they are right, getting the correct treatment could gradually improve her quality of life, and that’s fantastic. But I’ve got to step up, do my best to live in the present, and trust in my program to help me do what needs to be done.

 

Wait a Minute…We’re Fish!

First, the fish needs to say
“Something ain’t right about this camel ride…”

(Hafiz, translated by D. Ladinsky)

Self-acceptance. We talk about it, we advocate for it, we want it for ourselves–but we secretly fear that having it, or acting as if we do, would mean we are not trying hard enough. We see the logic of an honest assessment of our strengths and weaknesses, but that logic breaks down when we consider giving ourselves permission to choose ways of living that work well for us, instead of breaking ourselves on the wheel until the choice is made for us.

When my daughter was a toddler, our favorite singer was Laurie Berkner.  Laurie had this self-deprecating grin and contagious laugh that I loved, and she seemed to enjoy her own songs as much as we did. Her song “The Goldfish” talks about some fish that are doing different things in each verse: for example, they go through detailed steps of taking a shower. But then, at some point they stop and say, “Wait a minute…we’re FISH! We don’t take showers! Let’s go swimming!” and off they go into the chorus. The next verse they get into another un-fish-like activity and have the same epiphany.

It was one of our favorite songs to sing with, because we loved shouting that phrase. There was something liberating about it. “WAIT A MINUTE…WE’RE FISH!!” we’d shout with the CD, breaking into giggles afterward. It felt exuberant, unapologetic, life-affirming.

I wish I’d embraced this idea more outside of my kitchen or car. I used to feel such shame when I struggled at a job. I’d sneak off for long restroom breaks that were really just an excuse to be somewhere out of everyone’s sight, get myself together, and go try to act normal until I had to take another one. I think it would have helped me to say to myself “Wait a minute…I’m a fish!” or some metaphysical equivalent. Even if, as many do, I needed to keep the job as long as I could for practical reasons, I might have felt less ashamed and uncomfortable there.

I could have accepted the fact that I was uncomfortable there because it wasn’t my right environment. Have it not be a value judgment but simply a fact: yes, things are going to be hard for me, I am going to feel different, and that’s what it is. I’m a fish in the desert, and it’s not going to come naturally…so I’ll do the best I can, and stop comparing myself to lizards, and try to arrange to go swimming soon.

Ah, but now I hear that voice: that critical voice ripping shreds in my little self-comforting speech. You think everyone else at your job felt comfortable? it says. They all probably hated it as much as you did. They were just as scared, just as ashamed, they probably threw up and had panic attacks in the bathroom too, but they are still there! They didn’t end up in the fucking psych ward. You know why? Because they’re better than you! They tried harder! They’re not lazy and they don’t make excuses! 

There it is. If I cut myself any slack based on my mental illness, that voice is right there saying it’s a cop-out. Imagine how hard it is for someone without a diagnosis to make a life choice that goes contrary to what their critical voice says they should be doing with their life! What courage it takes to choose to obey the call of our hearts or personalities for no other reason than wanting to do so: to be ourselves just because we want to, instead of first having to prove, time after bloody time, that being anyone else doesn’t work.

Hafiz joins Laurie Berkner in advocating an acknowledgment of the fish’s dilemma. The fish in his poem has self-acceptance: it doesn’t gaze at the dry sand and say “something’s not right about me.”  If we accept ourselves this way, then we are faced with the experience of realizing what’s not right around us. We get to look at how far we are from our ocean–and how much we long for it.

 

Legacy

In my recovery it’s important for me to look honestly at how my addictive or self-destructive behavior has affected my daughter, no matter how much I want to tell myself that I tried to minimize the impact of it. For addicts like me, this duty can all too easily be twisted into a weapon with which to beat ourselves. For me personally, it gets harder when I also worry about my mental health issues, which are more severe than I knew when I chose to become a mother. I worry that I’ve handed down bad genes for these as well.

Mixing honesty with clarity and compassion is tricky, and I’d be lying if I said I knew how to do it well all of the time. I still get defensive, ashamed and rebellious. Again and again, I have to almost physically yank back my perspective and see my daughter and myself from a more spiritual angle. Get back in touch with the awareness of her as a metaphysical entity with a past, a future, and a divine component of her own.

I say “back in touch” because I have always known this about her. The day after she was born, we had our first real conversation. I’d been moved to a room with a window, which after days in the dark labor room seemed like emerging from the underworld. Propped up in bed, I held her closely and looked into her gray-blue newborn eyes. It was weird. Of course I loved her. I’d expected that. But what I didn’t expect was the strong awareness of something alien in her gaze. I looked at her, and something looked back at me. Something that was not a baby at all.

One day, when she was about two and a half, she turned to me in the middle of a Blue’s Clues episode and said “Mommy, I want to go home.” I refrained from replying that we were, in fact, in our living room, and said instead “Where is your home, sweetie?” “Up in the sky,” she replied matter-of-factly. A year later, she started mourning for her cat, who ran away and disappeared in the forest. Comforting her was made more complicated by the fact that we’ve never had a cat. When she was four, she cried in my arms one night, saying she wanted her mommy. She knew I was her mother, but she missed someone else in that moment–someone she could only describe as her “real, realest mommy.”

What could I say? I felt so powerless. Thinking it might be a past life thing, I just said that I believed she would be with that mommy again someday, but I had been chosen to be her mommy for this stay on Earth. That I loved her very much, and I would try to be the best mommy I could. Later, I wondered if the “realest mommy” was not so much a past life memory as a reference to the archetypal Mother, a feminine Divine. I kind of wish I had thought of that at the time, and talked about how we can seek that Mother (or whatever we want to call a loving Source) even while we are here.

Whatever the context, the lesson I took away from these incidents is that my daughter didn’t arrive into this world a tabula rasa; she came with some of her own stuff. As much as I regret my shortcomings, it would be the height of arrogance and blindness for me to think that my good or bad performance created all of the complex and changing being she is.

The selfish, prideful, or guilt-ridden parts of me sometimes wish that my daughter could be more “normal.” That she would feel comfortable around others, function well on a campus, or not have the traits that make me worry about her future in terms of mental health. That she was not quite so much like me. But the truth is, we have a lot in common. Not everything–she finds the learning issues that skipped me to be especially frustrating–but she is clearly closer to me than to mainstream folks, and would be so even if I had never had any challenges as a parent.

Then there’s the other side of my feelings about it; the side that is awed by her imagination and growing depth. The side that rejoices at the idea that we share the positive traits that can come with some of these hardships.

But damn, I really don’t want her to suffer. Or struggle, or know despair, or be lonely, or feel left out.

What would I choose, if the choice were mine? It’s not, and it never was, but would I try to change her? Or would I have the courage to say: Yes, your life will be hard. You’ll have to choose your work, your friends and your relationships carefully, and you will have times of loneliness. You may have to battle your own mind and/or an addiction just to do things that other people take for granted. But, if you are lucky and you persevere, your path will open you to your creativity and to seeking the Divine. You’ll have a chance to experience moments of blinding wholeness and scatter love like light through a prism. You’ll reel from the impact of beauty, drink in the sunlight after each time of darkness; even have glimpses through the veil of linear time.

This is your birthright; I and my fears have no right to deny it to you.

I want to believe that I’d have the courage and the humility to stand back and let her God decide, and I’d willingly take on any pain and hardship coming my way.  But who knows? I am no hero. Fortunately, I don’t need to be one. The decision was made long ago, and not here, and not by me.

Seriously?

Again? I have to feel this way again? I have to drop the ball again, go through the worry and guilt about it again, try hard not to make things worse again, and slowly pick up the pieces again?

Well, yes. Yes, that’s exactly what I have to do. But I don’t want to. I’m sick of only being able to do this life thing well for a few days at a time. I’m sick of always trying to make up for the things I let slide during my last dip. Fuck this bipolar disorder and the chimeric horse it rode in on. 

I feel completely overwhelmed. This is what I facetiously call a “double dip” because part of it is definitely a brain chemistry fluctuation, but there are issues in the outer world making it more intense. I have decisions to make about my daughter’s special needs and her schooling: tough ones, and ones I don’t feel very supported in. I won’t talk details, because some of it is not my story to tell, but I am feeling worried. I need to seek advice and practical help about this issue, and in order to do that I have to do two things: first, get through this attack and second, remember how much I want help after the intensity of the symptoms fades. 

You might wonder why I don’t just ask for help about it now. Mainly, it’s because I would not be able to communicate well or process information I receive. When it comes to parenting matters, I have to be clear-headed enough to talk with “normal” people, weigh options and not have my credibility shattered by tears, hypomania or shutdowns. As a parent with a dual diagnosis, I’m already pretty much wearing a red-lettered sign that says “It’s All My Fault.” It helps if I don’t act too messed up.

When I am feeling more in control, I have to avoid putting this off any more. Even if, for a few days, it seems less overwhelming. Asking for help isn’t easy for me–it gets really tied up with my insecurity and guilt. Why should someone take time and effort to help me do something I “should” be able to handle myself? Why do I deserve it? What am I giving society in return to be worth it? Hard work is needed to silence those tapes and keep my focus on my child’s needs.

Even in my own family, it’s hard for me to ask. Knowing how much my mental illness and addiction forced others to do more than their fair share in the past, I feel as if I could try hard for the rest of my life and never pay it all back. So it’s always hard for me to ask them for extra help, even when “extra” is something they used to have to do all the time. A great deal of emotional and spiritual work has gone into the project of learning to love myself more and shame myself less, but the structure I have built is still fragile. Those dark, denouncing thoughts are never far away, and when it comes to an area like parenting–an area fraught with very real regrets and anxieties–they try to convince me that the future is bleak indeed.

The angry, exasperated words I wrote at the top of this post may not be my most mature, but they serve me nonetheless. Anger–as a means to access Fire–can be a weapon against shame and despair. If nothing else, I can feel and hold onto my passionate and stubborn desire not to give in. So, I have to go through the cycle again. So I’m powerless over that. But I do have power: to name, to talk back, to create new thoughts. To tell the truth, at least.

No More Tangles

2009

These are my hands, I tell myself as I watch them move. These are my fingers; they move in response to my thoughts. See, there is something I control. It’s the morning of the first day of fourth grade, and I’m combing my daughter’s hair. I watch my fingers carefully, patiently separating and untangling the wet wheat-colored strands. It feels like a sacred ritual because I am so focused on each tiny movement.

For just a few minutes I am only her mother, doing what a good mother does, and I’m treasuring this brief taste of normality. My senses want to remember it: the golden morning sun tinged pink by her curtains, the texture of her skin as I smooth the hair back from her forehead, even the artificial pear scent of the detangling spray I am using.

When I’m finished, her father will take her to school, and I don’t know how long it will be before I see her again. An hour ago we made a plan, he and I: while he drops her off at school, I will take a shower. I will put on some clean clothes and the first shoes I have worn in a week. And when he comes back, he will drive me to the emergency room. Where they will send me is unknown.

Knowing a change is coming gives me a paradoxical feeling of calm, and yet underneath this my heart aches to know I won’t be picking her up from school today. Someone else will get to hear what she thinks of her new teacher or what her friends did this summer. Someone else will tuck her in and read Harry Potter tonight.

I know I did the right thing when I told her father it was time for me to go. I know I won’t survive another night like last night; the fifth night without a single minute of sleep, the fifth night rocking and praying and gasping for panicked breaths; the fifth night resisting the urge to end it once and for all. So I’m going to go tell the truth, and accept the consequences to my liberty and our finances.

How do I explain to her that I’m leaving her so that I won’t leave her? I can’t. I’ve told her a little about mental illness and why Mommy can get sad or nervous or very tired for no reason. She’s nine, not stupid. She knows the difference between a real expression and a mask pinned precariously onto a flat or despairing reality. She knows when I’m phoning it in, and I respect that. But talking explicitly about the fact that I need help not to commit suicide would be too much sharing, and I respect that too.

We both have a full day ahead of us. While she pledges allegiance to the flag, I’ll be signing consent forms. While she puts on her name tag, I’ll be having my wristband attached. While she runs on the playground during recess, I’ll be pacing that little cubicle in the ER, and while she and her friends talk about Pokemon, the doctors and I will be talking about Depakote.

Her hair is finished now, and they must leave or be late. I tell her how beautiful she looks, and give her a big hug, and say I love her. I hold the front door open as they go through, and as it clicks shut the smile melts from my face. Mechanically, I walk toward the shower. These are my feet, I tell myself.

Grief-Stricken Fleas

When my daughter was about three and a half (yes, the “Never Give a Duck a Scarf” era again) our bedtime reading one night was a book called “Look Out for the Big Bad Fish!” It was the story of a little tadpole who is impatient with the length of time it takes to move on into being a frog. He acts out by disobeying his mother during a succession of days, swimming farther each day down toward the forbidden section of the creek where the Big Bad Fish lives.

After numerous warnings from creatures he meets, one day he encounters the Big Bad Fish. Just as the fish is about to eat him, the tadpole miraculously jumps away…his legs have been growing little by little and now he is a frog. A happy ending, except perhaps for Darwin. At least I thought so, until I noticed my daughter looking up at me with a troubled expression. I asked her what was the matter. She fixed her big, serious eyes on me and said, “But the Big Bad Fish didn’t get any lunch.”

Empathy outside the box. I thought it was the cutest thing ever, and chalked it up to preschool-age philosophical musings. But it didn’t go away as she got older. My latest reminder of it came this spring, when we were going over a unit of medieval European history. It wasn’t a good time for Europe, and after giving the Inquisition a good going over she was ready to call it a day. Eager to finish the chapter we were in, I insisted on covering the Black Death as well.

The book only spent a few pages on it, mostly basics. Fleas on rats as transmission vectors, percentage of deaths, changes brought on by the lowered population. My daughter pronounced the 14th century the most depressing century ever. “Seriously, Mom? The Inquisition and the bubonic plague? Did anything good happen at all?” “Well,” I said, “there were some good effects of the plague. Serfs and peasants were treated better, because labor was in shorter supply.” She huffed in response. “Tell that to the poor grief-stricken fleas!”

“What?” I floundered. “The fleas, Mom. The ones that carried the plague on the rats. Think about how terrible they must have felt!” “THAT’S what you’re focusing on?” I came back. “What about all the people who died?” She sighed patiently. “Of course I feel sorry for them too. But they have plenty of sympathy, because everyone feels for them. The fleas are alone and guilty and nobody cares about them. Somebody needs to.”

Did I mention that she’s thirteen now? So this isn’t going away. Part of it was brought with her from wherever we obtain our unique spark, but if I am honest with myself I realize that she may get some of it from me. I’ve always been inclined to empathize with the “underdog” in the empathy ranking. It’s hard for me to explain that this doesn’t take away any of my feeling for those everyone else is championing. It’s a paradoxical feeling, and an uncomfortable one.

As a counselor it was sometimes my job to work with the “underdog.” The guy who hit his girlfriend and is going to anger management group; the mom in trouble with Child Protective Services. Situations where the “choosing sides” seems automatic and obvious. I was good at my job because I could do this strange mental twist that, while not thinking the behavior acceptable, let me feel for the suffering being played out in it. In that sense, it’s a good quality for me.

It’s also responsible for a few of my dirty secrets. For example, the recent “not guilty” verdict for George Zimmerman brought understandable outrage to many. My dirty secret is that beside my grief and outrage on Trayvon Martin’s behalf, there exists a corner of my psyche that feels something for Zimmerman. That feels some compassion for the scars his soul will bear, even unconsciously, and how what happened will affect his karmic path. This part of me has no wish to save him from the consequences of his actions. It’s not about that. But it does exist.

Another secret is one I’ve carried for almost twelve years now: my reaction to 9/11 had these paradoxical qualities too. I felt ashamed of my thoughts. How could I admit to anyone that I thought about the pilots? That, even before any information was released, I wondered what kind of lives had prepared them to kill and die? That I imagined them waking up in some kind of afterlife that didn’t match what they were taught would await them, and what betrayal and guilt and despair they might feel as they gained clarity?

I don’t know where my daughter’s unique type of empathy will take her. I don’t always know where mine will take me. In the past I have misused it at times when hurt by someone; it was easier to overempathize than to face my own anger and my fear of confrontation. Today I have a more honest relationship with my anger, but the tendency to identify with the unlikely remains. Maybe I can learn to use it to help others again, knowing that someone who feels themselves irretrievably condemned by all is unlikely to change. Or maybe I’ll start a flea survivors’ guilt therapy group.