Tag Archives: Parenting

Lighthouse

There are many reasons I wish I didn’t have bipolar disorder. There are many reasons I wish I weren’t an addict. None of them compare to the gut-wrenching regret about how these conditions affect my legacy to my daughter.

No matter how hard I tried to minimize the effects back when I was using painkillers, no matter how hard I tried to keep my mental issues from overcoming the good things in our relationship, it all had an impact. Today, there have been many improvements and I’m able to do a lot for her that wasn’t possible before.

However, some things don’t change. This incredible young woman still got issued a breathtakingly imperfect mother, and that’s not going to change. She sees me struggle with the large problems and the trivial ones. She sees me be inconsistent with self-care and the tasks of daily life; she sees me go through times of being weepy or rocking back and forth with anxiety or staring at the wall with a flat affect.

I try, as always, to strike a balance between honesty and appropriateness. I have enough observing ego to know when I’m in an episode, and we are matter-of-fact about them and the truth that they will pass.

I do not make a habit of beating myself up about these things, and I know I am passing on some important good messages to her. She sees me fail–but she always sees me try again. She sees me struggle with the impulses of my addictions–but she always sees me work humbly on my recovery. She sees me be sad–but she always, in an hour or day or week, witnesses me hauling myself up with the sheer power of imagination and metaphor. She sees me be down on myself–but she always sees me come back to a place of love and acceptance.

I’m teaching her that we fail, and the world doesn’t come to an end. I’m teaching her that there’s a way back from the dark places. I’m modeling humility, and perseverance, and the willingness to keep trying. I know this–but, like any parent, I want to be better. As a mother, as an addict in recovery, as a person who lives with mental health issues, I want to be a message of hope strong enough to accompany her through anything. I want her to see me fucking win.

I want to be an ever-present, shining beacon. I’m not.

I am a lighthouse.

I shine, and sometimes go dark, and shine again.

Do you know why lighthouses shine intermittently? It’s to help them stand out from stars, or airplanes, or lights from the shore. They catch the eye because of their changes.

I have no intention of taking this metaphor to the point of concluding that my daughter has a special snowflake of a mother whose light is actually better or more guiding than the steadier ones. I’m simply using this image to comfort myself, because it’s what I do.

Perhaps I can use the image to help me accept the truth more, and give myself permission to shine brightly when I shine. Does the lighthouse apologize for the dark period each time its light returns? What a waste of time and brilliance that would be!

More Than You Can Handle

People I care about are going through the terminal illness of a family member. As we all tend to do, I grope for the right words of comfort and support, and don’t want to accept that there are no “right” words.

There may not be any words that are the right ones, but there are some I try to avoid. There are phrases that, when uttered by another person, make me wince. So, because of my personal bias, I don’t like to say them to anyone else.

High on my list of these is: “God never gives you more than you can handle.”

I understand the spirit and intention behind these words. I understand they’re meant to imply that a loving God can and will support us even through times we don’t think we can take. I don’t even have a problem with the word God, although I might use a different word for the “thing bigger than myself” I believe in.

My problem with this phrase has to do with my opinion that it’s just not true.

God/life/the universe does sometimes throw things our way that we cannot handle. Some things, or combinations of things, do break us. Don’t believe me? Walk through your jail or local psych ward. Hell, walk down some city streets. We do get broken.

Maybe I’m just quibbling over semantics. Maybe it’s the word “handle” that I just don’t like. I don’t know. I just imagine someone sitting in the psych ward, or rehab, or in a cubicle in the ER getting cuts stitched up, and thinking they’ve failed. Someone told them God would never give them anything they couldn’t handle, and they failed to handle it, so they have done something wrong. They must be worse than other people. They’ve let God down.

Some things are not handle-able. They cross a line. The location of that line is different for everyone. Outer and inner circumstances cross the line and become forces of nature, and we do not cope with them. They handle us, and when it’s over we are not the same person.

Does this mean some source of strength and love from the universe is not there for us? I’m not saying that. I’m just saying that this mysterious source won’t necessarily keep us from breaking–even if it’s right there to love us through it when we do.

So I don’t like to tell people their God won’t let them break. I don’t know if what they are currently experiencing will break them or not. I don’t know how many pieces they will shatter into if they do, or what shape those shards will have, or what type of form the bits might create when they get put together again.

When I gave birth to my daughter, I processed the pain of the first hours using breathing and moving and vocalizing. I rocked, growled and moaned, but always with some feeling of control and power. I felt proud of myself; I was being like the empowered birthing women I had read about.

Then something happened; the pain got a lot worse and I started to lose it. I began to panic. I tried every technique I had been doing, and some others. The people around me encouraged me and told me I could do it. It did not help.

Then the midwife said something that made the difference. She said “You need to stop trying to manage the pain. Let go.” I clutched her hand, afraid, but her words resonated with me. She was acknowledging that this was bigger than me. It was unmanageable, and she didn’t expect me to manage it.

For the next half an hour, I stopped coping. Technique went out the window; I writhed and flopped like a fish, as my body tried to escape the pain. I moaned and cried, no longer trying to keep my voice low and fierce. The pain managed me, and as I became its bitch I told myself that if it got any worse I would demand an epidural. Or a C-section.

My daughter was born quickly, amid much screaming, after this change in my demeanor. Later, I learned about some factors that had made my labor unusually intense. Though the experience was empowering in the end, I did not come from it unscathed. I had flashbacks, and the physical changes of pregnancy and birth altered my brain forever. I’ll always be grateful to that midwife for encouraging me to let go. By acknowledging the sheer power of what was happening to me, she helped me be at peace with having been changed by it.

I’ll continue to grope for words to comfort those who suffer–words that give some kind of support without ever implying that I, or some divine, have any expectations about the exact course and consequences of their pain.

School Days

The new school year has begun.

My schedule will be similar to last year’s: my daughter, now in tenth grade, will have two classes on the high school campus and I will be teaching the other four at home. It worked very well for her last year, and I hope this year will go well for her too.

For me, it can be a rollercoaster of doubt: when should I push her to work during a bad headache day and when should I encourage her to relax? What do I do when I feel we are not accomplishing enough in the home subjects? How do I squelch my defensiveness and stress when dealing with the district, as she continues to fall through the cracks at times?

I’ve written before about how it feels to be a parent who is identified as a dually diagnosed person. In a society where mothers are already blamed for many things, I often feel that I have a target painted on my chest: anything imperfect in her life, her performance or her well-being means I have done something wrong. At best, it means that I’m on the right track but just not working hard enough.

As I write this, I’m in the library while she’s in class. These gaps in my day, absent during summer, will be a welcome opportunity to write more. It’s important that I do this; I need to remember who I am and what my duty is.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in the school stuff and forget that my deepest duty is to remain present in my life, and therefore in hers. Everything else follows from this. Keeping my recovery strong–and keeping my creativity exercised so the dark stuff doesn’t build up and seep out in a destructive way.

Instead of running from stress, resentment and fear, I need to seek their opposites in an active way. Fighting them only exhausts me more; I have learned this by now. Fighting them and trying to force myself to be “good” will back me into a corner eventually, from which the addict I am will lash out with sick behavior.

Instead of fighting, I need to seek the opposites of whatever resentment, fear, or stress I feel. Doing whatever I must do to give myself exposure to faith, acceptance, and love makes the difference between seeing my daily life as a sentence of exhausting stress and deprivation and seeing it as–well, life.

Acceptance also means trying to stay clear about what’s within my power and what is not. My daughter is fifteen now, and in the past year alone her consciousness is expanding in a way that awes me. She is beginning to go where I cannot follow, as children do when they grow up. I can’t forget this.

As usual, I need balance. A balance that lets me do what she needs, in a spirit of love and willing service, but keep in close touch with my own inner world. My inner world of darkness, and light, and words that form my true home. During the summer my creativity fell to the siren call of what-does-it-matter; everything I wanted to write seemed trite to me. I can’t tell you how many poem scraps and essays in the making I have sitting around.

If I’m going to make this school year a good one, I (weirdly enough) need regular access to a version of myself very different from the good school mom. I need the writer who, laughing with abandon, slashes open her skin and lets a poem bleed out. Who paints designs on her face with the blood and dances around the fire as the debris of not-good-enough burns.

I will remember: I am myself. I am a woman, a mother, a poet, an addict, a human. I am a consciousness, existing because I exist. I am enough, my daughter is enough, and anyone who thinks we’re not is cordially invited to go fuck themselves.

Cephalopod Mother’s Day

I am not an octopus.

I’ve heard of “tiger moms” and “helicopter moms.” Today I want to talk about “octopus moms” and why I’m not one–and why this sometimes makes me feel guilty. For on this Mother’s Day, as many mothers do, I find myself thinking about what kind of mother I am.

The female octopus, after her eggs are fertilized by a mate, finds a cave or other sheltered place to lay them. For the months of their gestation, she guards them constantly. At last, they hatch and release the tiny baby octopi into the sea. The mother remains behind in the cave–and promptly dies, because she hasn’t eaten anything during the entire process.

No, I don’t have what it takes to be an octopus. It’s not that I wouldn’t cheerfully step in front of a bullet for my child–I would, as would most of us. It’s not that I wouldn’t go hungry if my child needed food; of course I would.

But the octopus style of parenting–pouring all of oneself into raising a child, putting one’s own needs aside for a couple of decades–isn’t suited to me. In past decades it was the norm; today things are a bit looser, but being a mother is still about sacrifice.

I don’t think I’m alone (I write that often, but that’s part of what Not This Song is about) in the humbling knowledge that I can only go so far along the path of devoted self-sacrifice. Where doing things for oneself is a healthful and good choice for some mothers, for us it’s a necessity. As are medical care, times for healing, and other help that might interfere with the uninterrupted pursuit of what’s best for the children we love.

If I were actually an octopus, do you know what would happen? There, in that cave, I would try to guard my eggs until they hatch. I would do my very best. But I’d die too early. I wouldn’t have the strength to last until the end without nourishment. My decaying body would lie in the cave, attracting scavengers, and my half-developed offspring would be–well, lunch.

Octopi have no choice; their instincts drive them to act as they do, just as ours drive us to try. But I have choices, and I make them constantly. I look for balance. Sometimes I have to seek it because I’m an imperfect person and have fallen prey to selfishness or laziness; other times I must seek it because it truly will make me a better mother and the alternative will make me a worse one.

I went back to school when my daughter was two, because I needed “food.” I go to meetings, and conventions, and write, and read, and play mindless games, because I need “food” and rest. I do lots of things when I could be focusing on her schooling, or her physical needs, or just generally living in the I Am a Mother reality full-time.

Last year on Mother’s Day, in Calla Lilies, I wrote about mothers who are in rehab, or hospitals, or prison on Mother’s Day. I wrote about the pain of being in that situation, and the privilege of having it be different now. Of the mothers still there, I wrote “I know better than to judge your love for your children based on where you are.”

I do know. I believe we are all doing our best–even those who have done things that, objectively, mean their best kind of sucks right now. Perhaps they’re the metaphorical octopi who lacked the strength to make it, and didn’t know where to seek food. Their spirit died in that cave, or they fled the cave in terror of death. But that doesn’t mean they never tried.

I want to believe that, if my daughter is ever a mother herself, reading this will help her forgive herself for any imperfections and give herself permission to nourish herself as much as she needs, without comparing herself to others. This, like everything I write, is a love letter to her. Today, it’s also for all mothers and future mothers everywhere.

Happy Mother’s Day to all of us–and to the cephalopod mothers, I wish you some kind of joy or pleasure borne on the ocean currents.

Discount Psych Ward

I’m not afraid of going to a psych ward for help. I’ve been there before, and I know it’s thoroughly undramatic compared with the way it’s portrayed in the media. The downside to going there is the same for me as the downside to going anywhere else: it’s expensive, and I wouldn’t be around to help my family. Especially my daughter.

It’s the money first, really, since stays in the ward tend to be pretty short these days. You need to be an immediate danger to yourself or others to go in for any length of time. I could qualify, if I shared some of my inner landscape with admissions people–but I know myself, and I know I don’t really qualify. Not yet.

I’m in the gray area–messed up enough to be potentially at risk but not messed up enough to be in immediate danger. The gray area’s an uncomfortable place to be, and a hard place to explain to those around me. But the gray area’s also a place of opportunity–if I take it seriously, and get others to do the same, I have a chance to stay out of the hospital.

I call my attempts the Discount Psych Ward. And I’m not trying to make
Iight of treatment–if you have to go, you have to! But for me, arranging a DPW can sometimes work long enough to get me through the worst part of an episode.

I knew I needed one when I saw my therapist last week. I talked with him about some of what I’d been doing or thinking, and one thing I confessed to him was how much I’ve been thinking of cutting myself. I have a weird thing about cutting–you see, I’ve never actually done it. I just think about it. But not being able to stop hurting myself with food has me so frustrated that I’ve been wondering if cutting could be a viable, noncaloric way of acting out.

So I told him about how I’d been contemplating what sites on my body would be best, and whether razor blades are the best or should I try to get a scalpel, and do drugstores even sell plain razor blades any more. And because he knows me well, he didn’t freak out (very much.) He just wanted to know if I’ve been in touch with the psychiatrist lately and what my plan was for taking care of myself in the short term. So we agreed that I’d carry out this DPW scheme I’ve used a few times before.

The DPW requires the help of my family, and that’s the tough part. Each member of my family has a tough and stressful life lately, and asking them to put all that aside and focus on me feels so selfish. I have to keep remembering that it’s in their best interests as well to keep me out of the hospital.

So I asked my husband to stay home all weekend, and I explained to my daughter about what was going on. I’m always worried about asking things of her–during my psychology education I heard the term “parentified child” so often I hated the idea that my conditions affected her. But there are times, especially now that she is a teenager, when honesty is the best policy.

The rules: my food needed to be controlled, because the inconsistent/destructive behaviors I’ve been doing were definitely making my symptoms worse. All attempts to return to healthy status quo had failed within a couple of days lately, so being in the DPW was also meant to help me through the difficult first few days of that. Other than not eating anything off my plan and not doing anything harmful to myself, I was to have no responsibilities. I was to spend little or no time alone, even during the times when I would normally retreat to my room to be anxious by myself.

It went pretty well. We played a lot of video games. I hyperventilated a lot. My daughter did her schoolwork without much help or drama, a much appreciated contribution. I prowled through the house, hungry, and complained at great length about how hungry I was. I did not try to be mature. When my husband and I were alone, I talked more frankly than usual about my dark thoughts.

He went back to work on Monday, but I can tell that both of them are still making an effort to check in with me and not stress me out too much. I’m doing better than last week, and still sticking to the food plan. I’m grateful to have a family to help me combat my isolation, and I’m aware that not everyone like me has this. I would be foolish–and ungrateful–if I let my pride keep me from using it.

I don’t know how the coming days or weeks will go. I may end up needing a higher level of care, a level I haven’t needed since before Not This Song began. I hope not, but if it does happen it won’t be a failure, nor will it negate everything good I have written and experienced.

Guilting the Lily

When is it okay to be happy?
When is it allowed to put aside every regret, every unpaid bill, and every worry about a loved one and enjoy a moment?
When is it all right to have a good day even when my partner, child, mother, or another close to me is miserable?

Call it codependency, call it oversensitivity, call it enmeshment or any other psychological term–by any name, it’s operating for me and I need to be aware of it. I’m acting on a core belief that it is not okay for me to be feeling good in the presence of a loved one who is not.

The level of depression I’m dealing with lately makes it quite vital that I find moments of pleasure and joy where I can. I’ve often written about the importance of this for all of us, and the importance of being willing to think and act outside of the box to do so. But as soon as I become aware that a family member has a headache, or is dealing with hyperanxiety, or had a rotten commute, I stop practicing what I preach.

I feel guilty if I want to play music while I do the dishes. I feel guilty when I take time to sit down and write. I feel guilty when I savor the relatively new sensation of climbing stairs with ease, and then remember that someone I love can’t do that so well.

Intellectually, I know that taking good care of myself will let me be more effective in helping others. Intellectually, I know that joining someone in the emotional pit won’t help them get out. I know it’s better to visit on the edge, offering them support and company if they want it, but still experiencing the air and sun. But my deeper complexes are responding to very old programming, and when these situations happen I feel the energy just drain out of me. It happens so fast I don’t have a chance to question it; the energy has gone and I am stuck with trying to get it back.

On some level, I seem to believe that the best way to show that I care about someone is to refrain from displaying any state that is in contrast–to refrain from being energetic if someone is tired, or from being happy if someone feels down. Do I think they would feel insulted, or feel that I don’t care? Do I think I need permission from a committee to feel good?

My spouse and I have some worries right now; the kind that aren’t quickly resolvable and are a constant presence. I realize that I’ve been operating on this idea that if, at any time, I act happy or joyful, it means I am not taking our situation seriously. That I’m being childish and irresponsible. It pushes many of my emotional buttons about having a disability and about being unable to contribute to our finances for several years.

These kind of thought paths are more dangerous for me than I might assume at first. When I get this feeling of guilt/energy drain, it triggers a kind of cascade: every worry I have kind of falls on my head. What about this? What about that? You haven’t thought about this problem in several days. How could you be so self-centered? Oh, God, remember this problem? You are so screwed.

There’s a set of techniques called cognitive-behavioral therapy that specialize in naming and questioning the inaccurate beliefs we operate on. They’re not a cure-all, but they are useful for some things. My main issue with them has usually been that they take discipline and consistent work to have their best effect. (One basic source to learn more is the book Feeling Good by David Burns.)

What I have done today in writing this is name some core beliefs. There are several techniques I might use to start questioning these, and I need to have the humility to try some of them. One of my favorites is called the downward-arrow technique, or the “What Would That Mean”? It works with if-then statements, like this:

If I act happy around my family when they’re not, they’ll think I don’t care enough.
What would that mean?
They will think I’m a bad mother/wife/whatever.
What would that mean?
That would mean I’m a bad mother/wife/whatever. (aha! I’ve identified a part of me that assumes that a judgment like this made by them must be true.)
Anyway, suppose I am a “bad” mother/wife/whatever. What would that mean? That I’m a bad person.
What would that mean?
Umm…well, that I’m bad. That I shouldn’t be the way I am. That I deserve bad things, not good things.

And it could go on and on. It always ends up at a very fundamental place of feeling unworthy, or catastrophic thinking. “If I don’t get an A on the test” ends up at “Life is not worth living.” Then we can look at that deep belief and ask where it came from and how it’s influencing us.

This kind of thought questioning doesn’t fix us. If it did, I’d be good to go by now. But, as I said, it can be useful for me to do when I see myself responding this way. I need to question the voice that tell me to censor, drain or stifle myself. Especially when I’m already depressed. A black hole gets bigger when it consumes nearby material–why throw anything its way when I don’t have to?

The questions about whether I, or any of us, deserve joy while coexisting with others in this world who suffer are bigger than today’s topic. The questions strike at our deepest feelings of despair and shame, and I know I am not the only one who wrestles with them. But right now, I think it’s best to table the question of worthiness and continue my campaign for survival.

To Be Loved By Me

When my daughter was three or four, she learned about death. She was a fortunate child–she learned about it when her goldfish died, and when we found a dead squirrel in the street. Things like that. I explained about what death was on a physical level, and shared my own beliefs as best I could.

I told her that when we die, our spirits leave our bodies, and those bodies are not us anymore. I told her that what happens to our spirits after death is a great mystery, and people have had many different ideas about it. I told her that I, personally, believe that our spirits do go to some destination after leaving this plane, but I don’t know exactly what it is like.

She chose to cope with this new existential knowledge by acting out skits involving death over and over. She’d be a little wolf or other wild animal and portray the entire life cycle, and I would have to be the third-person narrator or loved one. I’d have to welcome her when she was born and watch her grow, and eventually she’d say “And now pretend that it came my time to die,” and she’d curl up on the floor and close her eyes, and she’d say “Now pretend I’m dead,” and I’d have to say goodbye. “I’m sad and I’ll miss her being here, but I hope her spirit has fun on the next level.” Then she’d start over.

It wasn’t always easy, but it’s not as if pretending she was dead was a new thing for me. I don’t know how common this is for parents, but since she was born she’s met her end in countless ways inside my head. My imagination creates catastrophe as its default activity, running a loop of fear and paranoia just under the surface of my consciousness, breaking through at the edge of sleep or any other time my defenses get low. I wrote about this more fully in Phantasy.

To be loved by me is to die. Over and over, quickly or slowly, death upon death in a sheaf of universes created by this mind of mine. To be important to me is to be cruel, abandoning, deceitful or mocking in an eternal and multiplying series of imaginary dramas. To be a presence in my life is to be present in dangerous scenarios and epics spanning space and time, their only commonality being that I am somehow central.

How easy it would be to condemn my mind and imagination for this darkness and this inward focus. But I must not, for the same reasons I must not condemn anything else about myself–I can’t afford to. I have a commitment to life, and staying on the side of life means not allowing shame to push me too far toward the enemy.

I try to remember that being loved by me also means being seen with a gaze that looks beyond the obvious and an imagination that accesses beauty and depth in people. To be important to me is to be endowed with mystical, archetypal qualities and never ordinary. To be present in my life is to join me in exciting adventures, and to be my comrade in arms in a sheath of positive or transcendent experiences too.

As usual, I write this so that any who share some of these experiences know they are not alone. How many other people think the way I think, willingly or not? How many find it hard to let intimacy into their lives because of a constantly running broadcast of calamity within? Does anyone else have a mental landscape like mine? The more I study myself and my past, the more observing ego I have about this level of consciousness and what it’s up to. I learn more of the story of myself; not bad, not good; just a story.