The stones and shell already crowded my pocket by the time I saw the sign forbidding it.
But it didn’t matter. This was my renegade week. There were 13 women back at the cabin to prove it. All of us had wandered away from life to wonder a while with words. And each other.
I hadn’t really wandered. I had flown away to be with them. In community. But here I stood, alone on the beach, with purloined rocks and one shell.
I was a mere shadow of myself, wondering where I had disappeared to.
I wasn’t surprised. His disease had been erasing me slowly for years. Yet, it was a shock to see the process almost complete. I had thought there was more of me left.
I put the stones in my pocket to weigh me down. To keep me from floating away on the wind. I would take the small stone and shell home with me in a few days, one for each child.
The other stone was for Shanna. Because I had her truck and thought she needed a tangible reminder that this week was ours. A smooth polished black pebble, with a thin white vein, to remind us that the hard is necessary to see the light.
As if we needed reminding. I should have grabbed a pebble for everyone in the cabin. We had all lived that lesson in some form, it’s part of what connected us. But I couldn’t leave with thirteen illegal pebbles. I’m not that much of a renegade.
I wanted to bring one for Sarah. Since, when the numbness finally wore off, she hugged me and made me cry on purpose, and she poured me a shot instead of hitting me, and because she listened to Graceland in the kitchen while cooking. But, I didn’t want to trivialize this with a thing. Instead, I stacked a cairn for her and added the weight of the view to the stones already in my pocket.
I felt myself fill.
And when I got back to the cabin, I grew fuller. Not because I wrote- I didn’t- but because I read these women’s words. And laughed at their jokes, and cried at their losses, and railed against their pain. I breathed in the glee of their delight as if we had all just received word of a newborn nephew. And I meditated with their voice until I could feel every disparate part of my body connect, and I was substantial again.
Until intimacy and inside jokes overfilled my pockets and gold filled the cracks in my chest.
Do-overs, respites, reprieves, escapes, resets. I’ve been hoping for one or more of these to fall from the sky and hit me over the head (gently) for a few months now.
Q: What do you get when you take a child in the middle of a mental health crisis to Ireland?
A: You get to hang out in Ireland with a child in the middle of a mental health crisis.
That’s it. No escape, no reset, no reprieve, no respite, certainly no do-over.
It was an insane, wonderful, excruciating, beautiful, tragic, sublime mess. When I described it that way to my aunt, she said, “Oh, so you got family.”
What I really needed, what my husband really needed, was about a week to sleep and do nothing—think about nothing, worry about nothing. What we got was anxiety troubles on one side and addict misadventure on the other. And sandwiched in between were some profound moments of beauty, joy, and simple fun.
I guess we just got life, but we got life in Ireland.
The boys got to surf. While they did, I got to have a cuppa with a salty Irish pensioner, her dog and her sheep sitting at her tiny table in her home overlooking the beach.
I listened to her rail against American golf course developers ruining the beauty and environment of her community. I heard about the relative merits of surfers over golfers, the importance of protecting the soil, the surf, the fish, the hares. We were totally simpatico. I got to see beautiful pictures of her house, the beach, the waves. I saw her life displayed on her walls and was overwhelmed by the generosity of this woman who took a stranger into her home. She fed me tea and cake while she shared her heart with me. I felt my anxiety melt away as she treated this stranger like a friend.
We got to meet new surf friends at a local pub. Then I saw the boy walk out of the pub and talk to our new friend about her son who is fighting his own teenage fight. I saw her return and look a little less alone. I felt the world shrink as I connected in the delight and fear of that moment.
My son and I got to walk around the top of a ring fort in a mist that was turning to rain, feeling as free and wild as the iron age individuals who called it home 1700 years ago. Then we took a selfie.
I got to stay up with my son almost all night as he suffered. Watching him impotently, as his body refused to be comfortable, as he paced unrelieved then switched to sitting unrelieved. Watching his weariness, his exhaustion, his fear that this was forever.
We saw sheep. Spray painted sheep. Tagged sheep. Lots of sheep.
And green. Enough green to quench our desert-living souls.
We got to pay extortion prices to hike up to “the best views in Kerry” and found the best views in Kerry. Rugged, beautiful, drenched in deep color. Some of the most beautiful landscape I have ever seen.
We got to see a donkey there too. Just a little bonus.
The seas were too rough for the boat to Skellig Michael to run, the one thing that I had really wanted to do on this trip. And yet I wasn’t disappointed at all with our visit to Kerry.
I got to hear from my daughter that she had just seen the professional Riverdance production at the Gaity theater in Dublin. She told me it was surreal. I think it may have been her best use of that word to date. She got to spend a week dancing with some of those professionals and capped the week off by performing with them on stage at the Gaity herself. When I read her Instagram post afterward, I got to learn it was “one of the best weeks” of her life and she was overwhelmed with gratitude toward the @riverdance professionals who made it possible. She wants to do it again next year, and next time there will be no audition required.
I got to fall on some steps in an Irish downpour and ended up with a hematoma on my ass the size of a papaya. My son couldn’t find ice so he brought me frozen brussels sprouts to help with the pain. It slowed me down. I needed to be slowed down. We played cards and drank whiskey until the three of them left me to my pain and frozen sprouts to find dinner in Dublin. They brought me back Chinese.
We explored art, literature, the Easter uprising, Cromwell, and Wilde. Some of us enjoyed it more than others and then others got their turn to enjoy. It wasn’t perfect but it was right. The boy and I stumbled upon a Vermeer exhibit at the national gallery. We got to spend a little bit of time in heaven while the girl and her father did a walking tour of the uprising.
We drank tea with sugar and milk. We got to drink lots of tea.
We realized we should have allowed ourselves an entire day for Glendolough. We got to see a rainbow on our way to Meath. When we got to the end of the rainbow, we realized we should have allowed ourselves 4 days at our fairytale cottage in Slane.
I got to watch the girl light up when she saw the romantic cottage on the river. I saw the boy relax when the cottage cat adopted him and followed him to his room, where they stayed and played until dinner. I laughed on the second morning when I knew the cottage cats had accepted us by the dead mouse offerings on the path to the cottage.
We were all melancholy as we said goodbye to our fairytale cottage. When we got to London in a torrential downpour and found our raincoats leaked, and we only had one umbrella, and the rain hitting our phones screwed up our navigation, and we didn’t have a paper map, and the queue at the British Museum was 2 hours long; we did the only reasonable thing we could and ducked into the first restaurant with an open table and ordered Irish coffees.
I have a feeling that everyone else in the family would describe our arrival in London very differently. Grumpy doesn’t begin to describe the mood of the table that afternoon at the Savoir Faire in Bloomsbury. But to me it was how we dealt with it that was important, not what actually happened. We got to deal with it by eating sticky toffee pudding.
We got to see London improve in the sunshine, as London does. We got to introduce our children to our friends who had never met them. We met and spent time with our friends’ children. We celebrated our 26th wedding anniversary (both ours and theirs) with champagne in the garden. We got to remember why we love spending time with them.
We got to hang out with our child in the middle of a mental health crisis. We got our wonderful, tragic, woeful, beautiful family together. We got life. But we got life in Ireland.
I don’t have pictures from Mother’s Day last week. We didn’t have any special celebration.
We are fragile. We are feeling fragile. We are not up to noise, or cheer, or talking. We are over talking.
For the moment.
So we went to the mountain that is not really a mountain. And we held hands while we walked silently.
One step, two steps, breathe in. One step, two steps, three steps, breathe out.
Hand in hand with the two who define my motherhood. Left foot, right foot, left foot, right foot.
When I got distracted by my thoughts, I just went back to left foot, right foot. I realized I still mix up my right and my left. I laughed.
When our hands got sweaty we released and walked on our own. Left foot, right foot. Someone behind me was talking about cats. I got annoyed. The only directions we received: no talking. I needed to get back to walking. I had to let my annoyance float away. It was hard.
One step, two steps, breathe.
I missed the soft skin of their hands in my hands, I reached for one again. I felt love, and family, and peace. I remembered a book, Peace is Every Step. How long ago had I read it? Why wasn’t I reading it now? I let it go and went back to my walking.
One, two steps, breathe in.
My husband’s knee couldn’t make it up the hill so we were three, not four. There were over a hundred of us, but for me it was only us three. Warming up as the sun melted the mist, and breathing harder as we headed up a steeper hill. I got tired, but still I walked and counted and breathed. The road was rough and pocked with holes and ruts. The hand I held steadied me. A subtle role reversal, but I noticed.
One, two, three steps, breathe out.
I thought about the Dharma talk we had just heard. Imagined finding the baby Buddha inside me, waiting for me. Like honey inside a swarm of bees, he said. Isn’t that nice? Or the seed hidden in the very depths of the flower. Much nicer I thought.
We are all mothers of the baby Buddha inside us, he said. We just need to have a clear mind and access, and… And something else he said. I couldn’t remember. The talk was peppered with words in a different language, in an accent I couldn’t quite penetrate. Like looking through a dusty window and trying to comprehend the beauty of the meadow on the other side. I could make out the shape and color of the flower that was his talk, but couldn’t quite see its delicate structure or catch its scent.
Come back, breathe, walk.
A few people stopped walking and began staring at the bushes, pointing out something they had seen to others. I thought of the sign posted on the way in, “Be mindful of toxic snakes and insects” it said.
I love that sign. Every time I pass it I want to take a picture. But I never do.
Right foot, left foot. Be mindful of rattlesnakes.
Then we continued down, down, to harmony grove.
A small stand of trees beside a dry creek bed. Flowers were everywhere. A small statue waited to be washed with flowers and water. Everyone had the opportunity to pour the sweet water on the statue. The symbolic bathing of a child, the nurturing of the peace within us.
When we met back up with my husband, their father, we were indeed home. We had arrived. And, in that step, there was peace. And maybe we were a little less fragile.
1. No mascara. Unless it’s water proof. Then you’re good to go, but you won’t get to wash your face for about 48 hours so frankly waterproof mascara is really not your friend. I stick with my original advice. No mascara.
2. Just hang up. During a crisis, you will find yourself answering all phone calls even if you don’t recognize the number. This behavior itself is enough to throw your world totally off kilter. You will be getting calls from doctors, social workers, case managers, treatment centers etc. You won’t recognize any of these numbers so you will end up answering all calls just so you don’t have to continue to play phone tag with the social worker. Therefore, you will eventually pick up a call from a telemarketer.
It will be your first instinct to be polite. You may say something like “my son is in the hospital, and I am waiting for a call from the doctor so I can’t talk right now.” Don’t expect them to go away. They have a script, they make minimum wage, they will just reply, “it will only take a moment”. You may even find yourself saying, “my child is in the hospital because he attempted suicide and I can’t talk right now.” Then they will say something like, “I’m sorry, but we really want to make sure you have all the cable services you want and let you know about some great promotional offers that are available to you.”
If you had followed my advice you would have already hung up. If not you will kind of disassociate and see yourself actually saying, “did you understand that I just told you my son tried to kill himself?” Then you will see yourself react as the telemarketer replies, “my condolences, but this will just take a moment.” Just hang up and save yourself the futile exercise of trying to figure out if your cable company is run by the minions of hell.
3. Don’t answer your door. The same scenario as above will play out, but this time it will be a single mother trying to get back on her feet by selling magazines and you will have to go back to rule number one: no mascara.
4. Don’t post shit on social media. Just don’t. It’s not your friend right now. That being said, watching kitten videos, giraffe births, or panda babies can offer great relief. Otters too, don’t forget the otters.
5. One glass of wine during crisis = 10 normal glasses. Plan accordingly.
6. Ask your other child if they have perhaps agreed to take care of anybody’s pets. It may not help, but you will be prepared when the cats haven’t been fed in 2 days and they call you.
7. Get horizontal. No matter how strong you have been in each crisis leading up to this (and you know there have been a lot), your body may yell “Enough!” You will feel a little dizzy and then you will see a long black tunnel. This is a vagal faint. It’s not a big deal unless you refuse to get horizontal on your own. Because your body will absolutely insist. The floor is a pretty hard landing surface.
8. Apologize when lack of sleep, overwhelming anxiety, and constant nausea lead you release your inner bitch.
9. Listen, and don’t take it personally when lack of sleep, overwhelming anxiety, and constant nausea lead your loved ones to release their inner bitches.
10. Be gentle with yourself and your family. Hug as much as you are able.
I try to be mindful as I drive, let thoughts come and go as they please, but I’m not always successful. So tears tend to hit while I’m driving. When I am alone with my thoughts the reality of what is ahead grabs me and yanks until the knot pulls so tight it can never be undone. And that reality is the fact that this is my new normal. One moment walking happily along feeling like all is on the right track, the next being smacked in the face with the fact that things are very, very not okay. Suicide, overdose, death from anorexia—these all are not unreasonable ends to our story.
But so is recovery.
Recovery is not an unreasonable end to our story.
And that is my new normal. The fact that one is just as likely as the other. Or if not just as likely, they are all as much out of my control.
So, I really try to hold onto the hope of recovery, especially in the midst of relapse. But I am not sure that there is anything I can do to influence the outcome. I used to think there was, but I’m beginning to think that there is nothing I can do to make it better, the only real influence I have is to make it worse.
And that, more than anything, terrifies me. How am I making it worse? How am I coddling? How am I enabling? How am I helicoptering?
What is the line between any of those and compassion when faced with your child in agony?
My child, a heartbreakingly depressed young man trying to hold on. And trying to move forward.
Yesterday I came home from one of these driving episodes crying. Distraught over this relapse, this new normal of ours. I collapsed on my husband’s chest and sobbed, “I can’t do this.”
He looked at me and said “Yes. You can.”
My initial response was a snort acknowledging the cold comfort of the truth. Then I let my thoughts wander for a minute and remembered a recent phone call with a friend.
Of course, we can do this, we are already doing it, she reminded me. And we have been doing it for some time now.
This is our new normal. This working and fighting for recovery. For wellness. For peace.
And she is right. We are doing this. We have been doing this for almost 4 years. And we can keep on doing this.
I can do this with my friends who are in the same boat (or at least a similar one) with me. I can do this with my friends who have been there all along. I can do this with my new friends who have come my way because of this journey. I can do this with my husband of over 25 years. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t on the same page. Sometimes just reading the same book is enough.
I looked at my husband again and said, “I don’t want to do this.” And this is true as well. I don’t want this to be my reality. I want a different normal back. Of course, this is where the friction lies. This is where I get caught up over and over again. This is what saps my energy.
Instead of fighting for recovery I am fighting against what is.
Intellectually, I know this is senseless, but my emotions won’t be won over by petty things like facts.
So, I go back to my DBT workbook again. I review, redo, reevaluate the handouts on radical acceptance, and say to myself, “our son has a serious mental health disorder that could lead to his death.”
Take a breath. Figure out what to do with that.
And I remind myself again that this acceptance doesn’t mean I am okay with it. Doesn’t mean I am happy about it. It just means that this is what my life is at the moment. This is part of what my life is. This is the reality that I have to work with.
It doesn’t mean anything, it is just my current reality. So, I start again. I start again reviewing my skills, my supports. I start again practicing skills that build my resilience. I start again practicing skills to take care of myself, to keep myself well. I start again learning boundaries, and emotional regulation, and effectiveness. I start again researching ways forward that we haven’t thought of before.
I start again.
I can do this. I am doing this. I will continue to do this. As messy and inelegant and as hard as it is.
I can do it because my child is worth the fight. Because my family is worth the fight. Because I am fightworthy, even when I can’t do this.
My daughter’s away. Off on an east coast adventure with her cousins. Her aunt keeps sending me pictures of her hiking in the woods, swinging on swings, playing with bugs. Doing all sorts of things that my almost grown daughter would never do around home.
I miss her.
I mean, I miss her physical presence, but I know that she will be back in a few weeks.
But what I really miss is the old her.
I miss her uninhibited spirit that is becoming more and more hidden as she grows up. She went from the girl who skipped everywhere to the girl who points out how silly it is that a little girl is skipping on her way to school. She went from the girl who is happy in her own skin to the one worried about what strangers will think.
From the girl who never minded making a ruckus to the one that shushes me.
She shushes me.
I never thought I would be the one getting shushed.
I miss that she is showing a little, tiny bit of that spirit again, and I am not around to see it. To breath it in and capture it in the way I was too careless to do when she was four.
Back then, I told her I was going to write down all of the wonderful words she made up and call it her Fantabulous Fictionary. But I got busy and I knew I would remember them because they were all so wonderful.
We all know what happened.
I only remember a few now. Beesgusting: means even worse than disgusting, Gianormous: a little mixture of giant and enormous for extra emphasis, and Tinky: same as stinky.
Ok, the last one wasn’t really a made up word, she had a speech impediment and couldn’t say the ST sound. She also couldn’t say the TH sound so she pronounced it as S.
And that is how she came up with my favorite noun:
Me: Please don’t blow dandelions all over the lawn, daddy works hard to keep our lawn dandelion free without chemicals.
Her: But mommy, these aren’t dandelions, they are wishing sings.
Wishing sings, wishing things, dandelions. I’ve never looked at a lawn full of them the same way since.
And when I see one now there is always a little girl in it.
With a halo of blonde curls. In a pink seersucker dress and grey eyes busy, busy, busy taking in her world.
This vision is as clear as a photograph. Seared in my mind along with the words of the conversation. Because it was one of those events that hurled me right into the moment. Like a cable was hooked to me and I was physically dragged to another place.
The right place.
I can’t imagine what my state of mind was when I told my 4 year old not to blow a dandelion. But I know that after that moment I looked at the things she did through a different lens.
It was one of those clear moments of parenting when you realize what you are doing and what you should be doing.
But I’m a slow learner it seems and I wasn’t always able to recognize those moments when they came.
Yet, now I see this girl in the middle of a field of flowers and I know it will be gone soon as well. I want more dandelion moments, but it’s too late.
She is only 15, but she has flown away. I have to focus on the moments now, knowing they are what I have.
So the boy turned 18 and the earth didn’t end. Or shake. Or change at all really. It just went on spinning, taking several more turns around the sun, and the son seemed to take it all in stride.
A few weeks later he graduated.
It seems a milestone has been reached. I’ve technically lived up to my parental responsibilities. Although practically, I’m fairly certain you are never done as a mother.
I think he may have been expecting something more definitive. Myself, I was just sort of relieved.
So he is an adult now. But there wasn’t some magical switch thrown that will allow him to make “adult” decisions. It didn’t come with an extra tool box filled with “adult” tools. He still has what he had, still is what he was the day before, and yet he is different.
The perspective is different.
The expectations are different; the social contract has totally changed.
He has rights that he can exercise if he chooses. He has responsibilities that he must take on now, and some he can let slide until he is in college. The Selective Service reminded him of one of these with a letter that arrived on his birthday. The county registrar of voters reminded him of another when his first official election ballot arrived in the mail.
I see him picking up those responsibilities, and more, in fits and starts. I’m hoping that he takes them a little more seriously than he takes his responsibility to clean is room.
Currently, it appears that he does.
When he was signing the consent forms at a post birthday doctor appointment, I could see him come to the realization that he is now in control of his health decisions and his information. He had a detailed discussion with the doctor about what would be disclosed to me if he chose to sign the consent and what would be the practical implications if he didn’t.
He joked about sending me out of the room.
He really meant it though.
I’m glad he resisted. He is an adult, but we are still on this journey together.
He has a new lens for viewing his decisions, and I can see it is empowering to him. It’s exciting to see him finish one journey and prepare for another with this new view, and watch him adjust to what he expected and what actually is. I can also see the Pandora’s box aspect of it, but that is something that I gave up thinking about a while ago.
We have never tried to protect him from the real world and real world consequences, figuring that learning from them is the easiest way to go about learning to adult. Although, we have tried to incorporate mercy into the process as well.
His journey has been more fraught with danger and more torturous than we would have ever wished for. But he has risen to the occasion that no child should have to (and yet so many must) with more resilience and fortitude than I could have imagined.
My sister is in the same temporal place with her son, but she told me she has been crying lately. I understand that, but I’m not there. It is an amazing thing about trauma, it drags you into reality—ready or not. It challenges ingrained behaviors and pushes you to see other perspectives.
I guess I would have preferred the slow, dawning realization. Perhaps I would have found myself crying gently at the thought of his next adventure and tiptoeing cautiously between his 18th birthday and his graduation date.
Melancholy and excitement sharing the same space.
But that was not to be. I’ve already had to say good bye to so much during this recovery process, I feel like I have already done a large portion of the work of leaving the boy he was behind.
And at the same time I am able to hold on to that boy and realize, he is who he has always been. His diagnosis doesn’t change who he is, it doesn’t define him.
Like all of us, only this moment defines him. And in a second, it will be a different moment. His actions will demonstrate his heart, his inner light, his joy. As he has done in the past, he will make mistakes and, hopefully, he will not let them define him anymore than he allows the labels people try to attach to him.
And although his childhood has come to an end, I find myself hoping that he won’t totally lose the childhood perspective on life.
The possibility, hope and anticipation of his four-year-old self. I want that to stay with him, to be in a place where he can find it when he needs it most. I know he is going to need it.
A few years ago he asked me what I wanted him to be when he grew up. “I want you to be happy” I replied. “I may have some ideas about what will make you happy, but in the end, you don’t have to do them, you just have to find your own way to happy.”
I probably could have given more specific hopes and goals but I couldn’t have given more honest ones. I truly don’t care what he does with his life as long as he finds fulfillment and meaning. As long as he creates joy and lives happy. Accepting that sometimes you have to slog through the hard to just even taste the good. As long as he makes his journey count.
Although I know those are all subjective and judgy, I’m pretty sure I will know
them when I see them.
He has the advantage (or perhaps disadvantage) of knowing that life is not always easy, things are not always fair, sometimes you get dealt a bad hand, and you just have to go with it and make the best of it. He is farther along the road to happiness than many adults I know just having that simple building block.
My aspirations for him seem to be crystalizing. Not so much because of his birthday, but because of the journey he has selected. And because I have let go of what I wanted or thought I wanted. I have followed his lead and am just taking in the moment.
When I talk to people about my story, I am surprised by how many have similar stories, or at least have close friends or family who have them.
When I talk to people who have children going through similar struggles, I am often taken aback by the desperation in the questions they ask me. It’s usually quiet and controlled, but ever present, as if they are looking for a lifeline of any kind that can save them.
I’m surprised, not that people are desperate, God knows I have spent considerable time trying to turn anything floating by into a life preserver. I am surprised because they are looking to me as if I may have answers. All I can think is although I may be floating here on this apparently sturdy kayak, I’m also out in the deep ocean with a mess of hungry sharks circling me.
The thought that I have any practical information that may be of real assistance is quite strange to me. And it makes me reflect on where I was 2 years ago and where I am now, how far I have come and how far I still have to go. It brings me face to face with the mother that I was when my son came home from residential treatment, the tentative, scared, scarred women who just needed to know how this was going to end—to know that it was going to end.
The first morning after my son was discharged from his residential program he cut himself. Badly and on purpose.
We knew that 8 weeks of re-feeding and therapy and stable medication wasn’t going to “cure” him, but we were hoping that his discharge was more or less the end of the hardest part. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time musing on how things might have been different if I knew some things then that I know now. There was so much I didn’t know, about what to expect and what to look for. I was just treading water and trying to stay ahead of my emotions. I didn’t have the energy and space to look at any of the lessons that were coming from these types of experiences.
Of course, just because I wasn’t ready for the lessons didn’t mean I didn’t have to learn them, it just made things a bit harder.
And there were a lot of lessons learned in hindsight from this specific incident. The most practical and glaring was that he wasn’t ready to be sent home, and I should have fought harder. I see now it was more of a business decision on the treatment center’s part. There were easier kids on the waiting list who the insurance companies would pay for with less effort on their part. At the time, though, I thought it was something my son had done or not done, or something I had done or not done. But I still wish I had known in that moment. I feel like it would have given me some stability. But maybe not.
I sometimes write a list in my head of these things, the stuff I wish I had known then. It seems this list would have been very useful to me at the time. I often think about taking pen to paper and writing it all down now, just to have it, kind of a talisman or even tangible evidence of progress. I’m not sure which one, it’s hard sometimes to separate hard work from dumb luck in the recovery process; I guess I should just embrace both. Yet every time I set about writing this list, it feels wrong. Like if I had known it then I wouldn’t have been able to apply it anyway or would have applied it incorrectly.
If I had known that my child’s treatment was a business decision would I have been able to handle that? Would I have been able to move forward and get the benefit we did out of it, or would I have waited and held out for perfect? Would the wait have cost my child his life?
No amount of catastrophizing is too much when I reach this point. These are the questions that spin out of control in my mind when I indulge in what-ifs. If I let them, the what-ifs will consume me, and I risk not being able to see some of the other lessons that were available to me at the time, ones I can apply in the future.
Yet I still feel the desperation of needing something to hold onto in the uncertainty. I think, and think, and think about how to distill this journey into the one lesson of value beyond my immediate situation, something I can tuck into my kayak and use when the sharks feel closer than they are. My mind will wander around the twists and turns of this thought process for a while before it hits me that I have put this journey in the wrong frame.
I am thinking about it all wrong, I’m using the wrong metaphor.
Because the lesson always come down to one thing: There are no ends in this process, there are only beginnings. Finishing a residential program, a meditation retreat, a skills workshop is not an end. Finishing is not a rescue, I am not being pulled out of the deep. It’s just another beginning, it’s when the real work starts and the work is not your child’s alone. No one will “fix” your child, no one can “repair” your family. You, your family and your child have to do the work. It’s all a beginning.
The cure, if you can call it that, comes over time, by all of you working and working and never giving up. It comes from accepting what is and working toward what is better.
When you know you can’t handle it anymore, you still get up and do the work. Just like you did when he was an infant and needed to eat every 3 hours, just like when he was a toddler and had nightmares at 1 am, just like when he was 6 and his pet died, and again when he was 10 and 15 and 16, and on and on. Every day is a beginning. Every day you feel like you’re starting over. You’re not, it’s what it feels like, but you’re not.
It’s just the beginning. His recovery, and yours, is a series of little steps into the unknown, small yet important course corrections as the path becomes a little clearer to you.
As the fog begins to lift, you can see the trail a little better. The fog will come again and trip you up, so you can’t race blindly ahead with the false confidence that if you can just get to the end it will be okay. You just keep going and listening for clues to where you are and where you are going. Sometimes, when there is no path, you have to cut one out for yourself, hacking away with the tools you have until you get to another moment of clarity.
Those moments of clarity aren’t the end either. They are more beginnings. Hopefully they will lead you to a path that is a bit easier than the one you were on, but they may not, and you have to keep going anyway. And you can, even when you think you can’t, you can.
If you can picture it as a journey to accomplish instead of a place to escape, if you can see your child as he is, broken and bewildered just like you are, you may be able to find the peace and space to step back and create something good and whole that you can use as a foothold.
It’s easy to fall into cynicism and doubt, and hard to let go of anger and blame. But as comforting as those tools can sometimes feel, they rarely shine any light on the path ahead and they never help you clear it. You have to hold on to hope, even when it isn’t reasonable, and you have to question your route even as it is clear that you are on the right track. It’s a tricky and convoluted path, you are going to need all your wits about you. As Robertson Davies once wrote: “These matters require what I think of as the Shakespearean cast of thought. That is to say, a fine credulity about everything, kept in check by a lively skepticism about everything…. It keeps you constantly alert to every possibility.”
So stay alert, search for your next foothold, and breathe.
And know. Know that this journey, as grueling as it may be sometimes, is just another opportunity to create. You can choose the frame, pick your own metaphor.
It’s not what you know going in, but how you use what you know to create your path and open up vistas. It’s okay to rest for a while, you have no end you have to reach. It’s okay to enjoy the view.
Even in the clamor, you can stop for a moment and look at how beautiful what you have created is. It will give you sustenance for the next hill, courage for the next trial, and hope for the beginnings ahead.
About 18 and a half years ago I found out I was pregnant and immediately went to the book store.
Because there is no event in life so sacred that you don’t need a book to tell you how to get through it, or at least give you a little advice for the trip.
What I found was “What to Expect When You’re Expecting.” It was the go to book in 1997 and I dutifully bought my copy and began my investigation into the weirdness that was pregnancy. I made it all the way to the nutrition section which told me while eggs are not a problem for pregnant women or their babies, we should probably not eat them because, you know, you don’t want to make your spouse and other people in the family jealous.
To be honest, I was never in love with being pregnant, but having some nutrition Nazi tell me, even though my body was on its way to being purloined by a tiny dictator with no appreciation of personal space or the proper placement of feet around a bladder, that I should have any concern whatsoever for a person who is not being assimilated into the pregnancy borg, was more than I could take. In the trash it went, and I relied on mostly firsthand accounts and a beautifully photographed booklet my sister-in-law sent me that showed in utero pictures of each month of pregnancy.
By the time I was pregnant the second time the “Girlfriend’s Guide” had been written and a friend passed it to me in a plain paper bag like it was some sort of NSFW book or film. It was funny, irreverent, more honest than WTE, and even though it was filled with some stuff that was just not right for me, it was the right book at the right time.
I find myself thinking about that today because my son hit another rough spot in his recovery and despite my brave face of “two steps forward, one step back is still forward progress,” I’m really not so cool with it.
I feel like I need a book, a book about what to expect when your child is in recovery or better yet a girlfriend’s guide.
I require the nitty gritty of what is going to happen and how I may feel about it. I need to know if after 6 month of good progress a stumble is the end of the world or just par for the course. I want to know if my incredibly intelligent child is playing us. I have to know if I am enabling or being compassionate.
I would like to hear if my husband and I will ever find our way back to the same page again.
I need a girlfriend’s guide to your child’s addiction/eating disorder/mental health issue. Something written and concrete that I can go back and reference when my emotions flare. I want to read about someone else who has been through it and come out on the other side.
This assumption that there is “the other side” is the part that is throwing a wrench in the works. It is comforting to think that this is something that can be overcome, vanquished, at the very least resolved. But I have a sneaking suspicion that this is just another stop on the continuum, that mental health is only a journey and not a destination.
And I am so pissed off by that. So incredibly angry, even as I am spouting my positive bullshit.
I just want it to be okay, as my husband said just one week without drama. But life is never okay. It just is. No judgement, no regret, it just is. And the powerlessness that this engenders pisses me off to no end. The what-ifs and no-fairs and all the other judgments race through my head like mini neuron tornadoes, throwing shit around, flattening hopes, razing dreams, and occasionally revealing some far off pinpoints of light.
I am worn down by the journey, by the process, by the fuckupedness of watching my child suffer these slings and arrows. At the same time, I’m grateful that it is these trials and not others that have been put before us. If there is one thing I’ve learned it’s that it can always be worse. I want to know what others have done, what their journey looked like, it’s killing me to not know if my response is “normal” or at the very least appropriate.
My husband and I are never farther apart than when we are processing our feelings around this issue. Not because we don’t both feel as intensely or care as much, but because the differences in temperament and perspective that are usually a refreshing breeze in our marriage become obstacles to consensus. The intensity of the situation inhibits rational thought and positive communication. These differences in temperament come to the forefront and flash like blinking neon signs in front of us. Daring us to believe that we are right and they are wrong. It takes so much energy to put priority on the marriage, but if we don’t we know we won’t have the framework or the energy to support the children.
It’s a huge game of whack a mole. It’s all fucking smoke and mirrors and I’m having a hard time rising above the futility of it all. Finding or creating meaning seems impossible. Touching the hope that was just there yesterday feels like a labor of Sisyphus. Who can do this, who can bear this burden, who can watch their child bear this burden?
I know I have to. I know I will; I know I am. But surely someone has been this way before and has left a description, a road map. Hell, at this point I would take bread crumbs.
That’s the book I want. But it hasn’t been written. There is a lot that has been written about situations like mine, but not that book. I’m skeptical that it can be written, although I am positive that it is a big gaping hole in the cannon of self-help.
There are no pat or comforting answers for this journey. There is only the less than helpful assurance that it is just another kind of work we do, and we may all come out better for it, or maybe not.
So I guess it means I will have to continue to write my story, even while I’m feeling pissy because I can’t skip to the end or just put it away for a few moments. I’m going to keep slogging through and doing it. And when I write my book I will add a baby elephant video that I can watch with my daughter (I guess it will be an e-book). I will include a conversation with my son about nothing important. I will make sure I write in a respite or two for my husband and myself. Then I will turn the page and see what happens next.
I always envisioned Giginon as a snapshot of reality, a place where I can stop for a moment and see where I am, one where others who are walking similar journeys can stop and see, somewhere my friends and family can pause and really look.
But in the process of creating it, I find it is becoming a benchmark of sorts, a way to see if I am being consistent and check if I am truly internalizing the progress, or lack thereof, that I’m writing about. What I write is honest, it’s true, but of course it is filtered.
Every communication to the world is filtered to some extent whether it is written, spoken, or just a shrug. There is almost always that nanosecond that your brain checks in with your better judgment to make sure you don’t say something you are going to regret. Or at least, that’s how my brain works.
I think this is one of the reasons I love to see uninhibited joy on my children’s faces. I love the moments when they are so excited that they forget to worry about what someone else might think or say.
I, myself, am reticent. I have to work on bringing down some of my walls to get even close to uninhibited. I have filters that keep me paralyzed, analyzing all the different ways something I say or do can be interpreted. I’m getting better at it, breaking down the walls. Writing helps. It’s so easy to go back and read what you’ve written and see if it is real.
So it was when I went back recently and looked at my first post here that I realized that I may not be as cool with the trip insurance idea as I was when I first wrote it. I know I believe it, I know I try to act that way. But I’m not sure I’m always as successful as I would like to be or appear to be at walking that particular walk. It was making plans to take another trip that made me look at it again.
We have an opportunity to take an arctic adventure this summer to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. 25 years. I need to let that sink in a little. My grandparents made it 70, my parents made it 20. This summer, we will mark 25. That’s almost half of my life being married, not just knowing him, but married to him.
It seems an occasion worth celebrating, leaving the work and day to day of relationship maintenance behind and just reveling in the magic of it.
But our life is tumultuous and not only because our son is in active recovery. The plan at the moment is to take him to college at the end of August then leave on our trip a few days later. His school is about 13-14 hours away depending on traffic and the closest airport is about 6 hours away. To say it is inaccessible is an understatement. If something untoward happens when he’s at school, the absolute fastest that we would be able to make it there would be 13 hours.
From closer to the arctic circle we are looking at more like 24 hours. That would give me pause even if we hadn’t entered the world of eating disorders and substance use a few years ago. I sort of have to remind myself to breathe. We would also be leaving my daughter here near our home with a totally trustworthy so-close-she’s-family friend, and yet we would still be 24 hours away.
My brain starts all this serial, rapid fire risk assessment and what ifs and spinning, spinning. I need it to stop, and I think that if I really believed all that twaddle I wrote about trip insurance I would just say fuck it and buy the tickets. Choose joy, even in the tumult, to make me resilient. But this is hard, so very hard.
And I’m not quite sure if it’s the planning to take our son to school or if it’s planning the trip that seems the biggest risk. I don’t know if I’m more conflicted about the idea of him off at school than I thought. It’s exciting and terrifying. I am so certain it is the right thing, I am overwhelmed at the thought I might be wrong, and resigned to the fact that it is all out of my control. I need to breathe. I need to think. Think about whether or not it is feasible for me, emotionally, to be out of the country at the same time he is beginning his college career. I also need to think about if it is feasible for me, emotionally, to have him away at school.
I fall back on the familiar. Transitions have always been hard for him, even when he was tiny. Major transitions cause major anxiety, major anxiety can cause relapse.
But that’s not good enough.
Anything he does after June is a transition. Everything he is doing now that he wasn’t doing a moment ago is a transition. We have come to a point where I have to believe that he has this (I really do), and I have to put my money where my mouth is both literally and metaphorically. I realize that it’s not so much the idea of trip insurance that I am uncomfortable with, it’s the discomfort inherent in choosing the now. It’s the giving up control, or at least my illusion of it, that makes me pause.
That brings me up short and sends me back to memories of my father-in-law. He was a lovely, thoughtful, intelligent, irreverent man. Very much like his son. I remember our conversations when I was first getting to know him and talking to him about my relationship with my father. At one point I said, perhaps disingenuously, my father has some control issues. And he looked me straight in the eye and said,
“Gigi, isn’t everything a control issue?”
Boy how I miss that man, his warmth and trust along with intelligence and insight were something out of my experience at the time. Of course, he was right. We spend our entire lives working out our control issues. I may come to a place where I think I have it, dare I say under control, but I will spend many more days and nights struggling to maintain and then hopefully give up the control. I wish he was here now, my father-in-law. I often think about what he would say about our current predicament. Though, really, he probably wouldn’t say much, he would probably just listen deeply, and ask me again, isn’t everything a control issue?
So, I’m going to continue to think about things from his perspective. But I’m also going to trust that the boy’s got this. I’m going to believe whatever happens my husband and I are equal to it as long as we tackle it together. I’m going to buy my version of trip insurance and throw caution to the wind. I’m saying yes to my arctic adventure and yes to my son’s college adventure.
I’m going to practice some Giginon preaching and know that while things may not always be good they will at the very least be. Oh, and I’m going to breathe too, cuz I am absolutely terrified!