The Secret Life of My Teenage Daughter

I don’t talk about my daughter much around here.  Partly for her privacy I think, and partly because she is the most innocent participant in our trauma, and we haven’t figured out exactly how this is changing her.  Our house has been in such an uproar, she keeps her head down and flies under the radar.  She’ll be fifteen soon.  I can’t imagine what that means for her.  For me it means equal amounts anxiety and wonder, very much like when she was a toddler.

During the kids early years I worked at their Montessori preschool.  It wasn’t a writing job, per se, but I turned it into a mostly writing job, because that’s what I have done with almost every job or task I’ve ever had.  Most of the writing I was doing during those years was about her in some way.  True it was mostly marketing and parent communications for our school, but she was my touchstone for everything I knew about how Montessori education works.  She was always in the back of my mind whenever I wrote for the school.  I remember writing a marketing piece that claimed “all young children have a rich inner life that adults are rarely privileged to share.”   I still believe that, but not because toddlers keep them hidden, but because as parents we aren’t very good at observing our children.  We have preconceived notions or insider information of how they should grow, when they should reach certain milestones, what is “age appropriate”.  However, we rarely have or take the time to really watch them.  We don’t take the time to discover how she should grow, or when she should reach certain milestones, or what is age appropriate for her.  The simple process of observation opens a window into your young child’s inner life and brings you unexpected insights and delights.

I feel the same way about the teenage years.  Teenagers also have a hidden inner life.  It is hidden from us not because they haven’t honed their expressive language skills like our toddlers, but because they are so busy figuring out their place in the world, their role, that they don’t often articulate their experiences or feelings.  And we are often not in the right place at the right time in the right frame of mind when they do. I’m interested in their secret life.  Not their secrets, but the internal work they are doing to create the adult that they will become.  Toddlers are easy, they are open and transparent, just non-verbal.  Teenagers are a bigger puzzle, but I believe the same lessons apply.  If you want to see their inner world you have to observe them.  You have to take a step back from telling them and teaching them and showing them to just watch them.  It is much more difficult to do this with teens than with our 18 month olds, but still just as important.

Toes on the nose

I feel lucky that one of the ways I can do that with my daughter is through her dance.  She selected Irish dance when she was almost 10 and she loved it from the moment she put on her first pair of ghillies.  At the time I was just happy that she had found a place to focus her abundance of kinetic energy, but I also saw that it sparked her soul.  Like most dance studios, parents are not allowed to watch practices.  This is a standard rule that helps students focus on their teacher and avoids inserting the parent/child relationship into the class.  For me it was hard.  I loved to see what she was doing, what she was learning.  Really, I loved to see the joy on her face when she danced.  She didn’t have an exceptional gift or talent for it, but she had a dancer’s heart and was happiest when she was practicing or performing.  I remember her 1st recital just 5 months after she started, she hadn’t even earned her hard shoes yet, but there she was on stage bursting with joy, enthusiasm, dance. I had never seen her perform an entire dance before that night and it was ethereal.

Irish dancers have a lot of opportunity to dance in their communities, especially in March.  Over the years she has gone to preschools, museums, elementary schools, nursing homes and retirement communities to share her love of dance.  She has danced with her friends on the local news and at weddings.  In fifth grade she gave a solo performance to her entire grade level. And I was privileged to watch all these performances.  Oh, the things I discovered by watching her dance.  She was fearless.  She was poised.  She was nervous, but it never showed.  She always radiated when she danced, glowed.  These were the pre-teen years, but as she stuck with it and got better, I realized that watching her dance was a window into that secret place of her teenage years as well.

I saw her confidence bloom then shrink at school, but on the dance floor she knew where she stood.  She judged herself honestly against others and those internal rankings were born out by competition dancing.  I finally saw that her girly side was real, a part of her not an act she felt she had to put on, and she loved the costumes and the makeup and the sparkles.  But not as much as she loved the dance.  She loved competing, she loved winning, she loved questioning the judges’ decisions and trying to figure out why they placed one dancer above another clearly better dancer.  She loved complaining about a bad score, both hers and others, and she delighted in celebrating her friend’s triumphs.  She looked at herself fairly, she learned from her mistakes, she corrected, corrected, corrected until she got to where she wanted to be.  And through it all the one unifying thread was it was hers.

When she entered middle school, she lost a little of her confidence, a little of her bubbliness.  This new harsh world was harder to navigCRate and she retreated into herself to a great degree.  This showed up in her dance as well.  Whereas in 5th grade if she and her dance friends finished a performance and the children who watched tried to imitate the steps, the dancers would all encourage and work with these children, joining them and showing them.  By 8th grade she and her friends were just watching them, afraid to be the first one to do anything different from the rest.  After a while our 8th grade dancers would make their way over to where the 2nd graders were trying to dance and show them the steps.  After just a little reluctance, there were smiles, laughs and high fives all around.  She was back to who she was.  Who knows what high school will bring.  But I will be there again on St. Patrick ’s Day watching her.

The teen years are hard, the vulnerability is excruciating, but I find if I watch her dance, I can see who she is deep down inside, who she is struggling to bring to the surface.  I see the hyper girly, hyper kinetic girl who is determined to get better and better.  I see the uncertain almost woman who is determined to reach that last highest level in her chosen activity.  She struggles to take off her masks and shed her fears on the dance floor.  She works to find the confidence to believe that who she is will be good enough.  I see her struggles and determination and I am in awe.  And the anxiety lightens ever so slightly.

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(c) 2016 Gigi Quinn

Hang on, I think there’ll be waves

I heard the sound of a surfboard being waxed today.  It’s been a while since the low pitched rumble of wax over sand has been heard echoing from our garage.  I was surprised how comforted I was by the sound, by the idea that there are still ordinary rhythms to our life of chaos.  Surprised at how a simple sound could bring me promise on an otherwise tough day.  I stopped briefly to figure out why this was, why I was surprised, why I was comforted.  But I don’t think it can be understood outside of the context of the shifting sand beneath our feet—our own personal traumas both little and big.

I know part of it was the security in the knowledge if he was waxing his board it meant he had found hope, at least a bit of it, at least for the moment.  When hope is as thin and tenuous as it has been in our house for the last few years, I find I can cling to even the tiniest glimmer of it with a tenacity of a two year old.  Perhaps another part of my comfort was knowing he would find respite, the happiness of doing what he loves if only for an hour or two.  After almost 25 years of marriage I am unaccountably pleased I can still find peace and sustenance in the simple joy of my husband content.  Despite all the work and drudgery that comes from building a marriage, a family, a life together, I am still profoundly touched by the prospect of his happiness.  It strengthens my sense of hope and purpose, it has meaning even when it is hidden beneath the mounds of laundry, therapist bills, and relentless worry.

My husband is a committed pessimist, there is no situation so bleak it can’t get bleaker and no glass full enough it isn’t half empty.  The whys and hows of his perspective are as hard as they are fascinating.  But it is enough I understand and can help balance that particular quirk.  So if my relentless pessimist has found hope, something simple to help him cope, I can’t help but apply that to myself.  If he can do it, so can I.  I am so optimistic that my rare flights into despair leave me reeling, grasping for any hold to bring me back to solid ground, to the place where I know who I am and what I have built.  I have given up needing to control the future to have it planned or figured out, but I have an intense need to be in the present and to know that I am not wasting this moment, secure that it will morph into another and another.  For me this is hope, it’s all I have sometimes.

I like this idea of an interdependent hope cycle.  The cycle through which if I can find hope it helps you find it, the one where if I’m lacking one day, you will help pick up the slack with yours.  That this has come to me seemingly out of nowhere just a product of love, respect and honor, out of listening and building, and hearing with no real skills, is a cause of wonder and comfort.  It helps me get through the everyday.  I know that if I am doing the dishes it means I think someone will need clean ones in the morning.  That is hope I can grasp.  Another load of laundry signals another day with clean clothes, another day with meaning.  I can bury myself in the ordinary of my day, knowing that it contains all I need to see the promise in tomorrow.

I remember a family therapy session when my son said he was so angry at people who had hope, angry because he was jealous, angry because there must be something wrong with him that he couldn’t find it.  It was one of my saddest moments as a parent.  What a dark, painful place he had to be stuck in at that moment, and there was nothing I could say or do to lift him out.  It was a place he had to find the way out of himself.  He has to an extent, but it has changed him.  Not changed the intensely sensitive compassionate, magical soul of who he is, but changed how he is able to interact with the world.  It took his confidence, his self-worth, his devil may care I’m-all-in way of facing the world.  It stole his trust.  I see him building it back in fits and starts, refining it as he goes.  I see such hope for him in this life he is creating.  So perhaps I can bring him into my hope cycle.  Perhaps he is already absorbing it, little by little.  Perhaps if he sees hope in each small step, in every ordinary task of life it can sustain him.  Just enough to hang on.

sunset surf

(c) 2016 Gigi Quinn

Life is a roller coaster, buy the trip insurance

A few years ago my husband and I took our 2 children to Turkey.  We couldn’t afford it.  After a couple of layoffs and a few cross country moves we were still in recovery mode, financial and otherwise. But my friend had been inviting us to spend the summer there with her family every year since our son was in 3rd grade.  Of course, each year there was always a really good reason not to go and “maybe next year” became my constant refrain.  But for some reason when she asked that 7th time I paused, and thought, he’s is in high school–if not now, when?  So after minimal reflection and some emotion based rationalization we blithely tossed our “financial plan” aside and bought four tickets to Turkey.

The trip itself was sublime, truly a trip of a lifetime.  The history, culture, food, geography, art and people, especially the people, were a revelation to us all.  It was a stopped moment of time for our family when everything was good and whole- not perfect but whole.  And now, years later it has become a delineating moment as well.  My life now is separated into “before Turkey” and “after Turkey” for reasons that have nothing to do with the trip itself.

Shortly after that idyllic summer our lives unraveled.  My son emerged with an anxiety disorder that became complicated with depression that morphed into bi-polar.  While we were scrambling to keep up with the changing diagnosis and initiating treatment and protecting/supporting/informing our middle school daughter, our son was falling into the abyss of self-medication, self-harm, and disordered eating.  The prognosis was horrible, we were devastated, life was over.  Except it wasn’t.  We are over a year into recovery now. He has his own recovery, of course, but we, as a family, are in recovery as well.  It’s been a bumpy ride with lots of highs and lows along the way, ditches and tar pits along with a fair amount of beautiful vistas and peaceful overlooks.

Recently during a Giginon meeting I talked about buying trip insurance and bemoaned that life in general and parenting in particular doesn’t come with trip insurance (whining is generally encouraged in these meetings). And then, the more I thought about it, I realized that it does, kinda.    Turkey was our trip insurance.  It was capturing a moment of joy in an uncertain world and being able to look back on it with gratitude and hope.  Saying yes to creating joy even in chaos and pain makes me resilient, more secure in my journey, able to breathe. When a recent trip to Ireland was cancelled because our son hit a bump in his recovery, it was sustaining to look back on Turkey and realize that we had that moment and can create more.

Choosing to capture joy and live in this moment is trip insurance for life. But it’s not easy and it’s not cheap–emotionally or financially you have to pay for it (although it doesn’t have to be four tickets to Turkey expensive). Whether it’s a decision to put anger aside, admit you’re wrong, ask for a hug, or throw caution to the wind and say yes, trip insurance is choosing to live now even when we don’t know where we will come up with the resources, external or internal, to survive.  For me it’s equal parts saying yes to good things and working really hard to find peace and gratitude while in the emergency room with my son. It is laughing with my daughter even though we are both beaten down and tired.  Sometimes I manage it pretty well, sometimes not at all.  And I’m good with that.  Recovery is as banal as it is agonizing, it’s a long term, lifetime of work and I won’t always, or even often, get it right. But there are things I can learn, and stuff I can share that makes it worth it– you know, kind of like life in general.

In the end, we shouldn’t have canceled our trip to Ireland.  By the time the date of our cancelled trip came around my son was in a good place and stable for the moment.  Recovery being what it is we should have just trusted we would do our best to make the trip, but if the time came and we couldn’t get on the plane that would be okay too. But just like parenting, there is no manual on how to negotiate a trauma like ours, or yours, or anybody else’s.  You’re just expected to pick it up on the fly, learn as you go.  So now I know, and only a little late.  On the bright side, we just bought tickets to Mexico and the trip insurance for them was only 40 bucks!libray of celsus

(c) 2016 Gigi Quinn