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.
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.
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.
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.
There are a lot of people in my life. I like it that way, I like the connection. Some people like less, but I like having a wide net to increase the diversity of opinions crossing my path. To help keep me from stagnating. That being said, my close circle is relatively small. When my son got sick it got smaller. Not only because instead of having time for coffee I was usually taking someone to a doctor or therapist appointment, but also because I didn’t have the emotional strength to answer the question “how are you” over and over and over. Living in the tumult was so exhausting, I needed just a few of my closest friends. The ones who could listen non-judgmentally, and with compassion, and with humor, and with just the right amount of knowing when I needed a hug versus when I needed to escape, and could put up with my incessant whining, and who could tell me nicely when to stop without hurting my raw feelings, and who didn’t need to talk about themselves unless I needed distraction, and, above all else, the ones who did not tell me what to do or how I should feel or how I should process this. That’s kinda a big ask so it’s not surprising that my close circle, the circle that knows all the gory details, is rather small. It’s a miracle, frankly, that it isn’t non-existent.
I didn’t really know that was what I needed until I looked back on it and tried to articulate what kept me sane for the first six months and continues to be a touchstone almost two years into the journey. I also didn’t think about it much until I began sort of picking my life back up and returning to the social engagements that had fallen off the calendar for a couple of years because I just didn’t have the band width to deal. I mean, how can all of these people just be sitting here having fun while my child is so sick? I guess that’s one of the differences between being in crisis and being in recovery. I like recovery better. Crisis sucks.
Now I am reaching out to people I lost along the way and finding myself in the company of those people in the not quite inner circle. You know the ones, the close acquaintances who you truly like and enjoy, but you couldn’t quite keep up with during the crisis, the ones who care, but don’t need the play by play. And when I run into one of them, the first question is always some variation of how are you and how is the boy. This happened last night, it happens almost daily, certainly weekly if I happen to go to church (which frankly is why my church attendance has decreased instead of increased). I’m not talking about the busy bodies and gossips who are just dying to get the inside scoop to share at their next book club, I mean the real honest to God friends and family who weren’t with you daily for the crisis, but want everything to be okay, ’cause, you know, they love you.
For me, how are you is the hardest question to answer. Being raised in the south, I know deep down in my soul that there is only one correct answer, “Oh, just lovely, thank you. How about you?” After I moved out of the south I decided to give authenticity a try, but I still know it’s never appropriate to say, “Oh, just horrible, my son is in a treatment center for anorexia.” Social conventions are important, although it’s okay to be flexible as long as you know that you are doing so and accept the consequences of your actions. Finding the middle ground is hard, and it’s important, because these people care about you and want to support you, and you care about them and don’t want to burden, bore, or shock them.
I think that the reason this question is particularly hard for me is because I never know how things are. I would like to say it’s because of my extensive mindfulness practice and my highly developed DBT skills of looking at things non-judgmentally and being in this moment, but really it’s that I just don’t know. For example, one may go on an exhausting 4 day journey with one’s child, come home changed and write a glowing blog post about it, only to wake up the next day with someone who doesn’t remotely resemble the child one wrote about with such genuineness less than 24 hours before. I hit publish anyway, because that was the truth at the time. Currently the truth is closer to: did my 17 year old really just say you’re not the boss of me-land. And in 24 hours it will be somewhere else again. Because that’s what it’s like to have a 17 year old. Adding in our particular issues just muddies the waters a bit more.
Currently the polite conversation amongst my peers revolves around our child’s accomplishments, where he applied for college, where she was accepted, where they are still waiting to hear and where they are planning to go. And I’m not going to tell you what my son’s recent accomplishments have been. I’m not going to tell you what colleges he is applying to—he didn’t decide until September that he was going to apply anywhere, are you interested in the 30 minute discussion of how far he came to be able to apply and be accepted in those 4 months? I’m not going to tell you any of these things because they have nothing to do with the reality of “how are you” at the moment. They are window dressing made to pretty up the reality, ease the anxiety, dull the ache. Even if I told you everything and it was true, it would be so very far from the truth. I’m certainly not going to tell you about scholarships he may or may not have received, because, who even does that? But I digress.
The reason Facebook has a relationship status “it’s complicated” is because sometimes things are complicated and can’t be answered in one sentence social niceties outside the sushi bar as you are going in and I’m coming out. Sometimes things are so good I can’t help but smile, sometimes things are so bad, I want to believe they can’t get worse (don’t fool yourself, they can always get worse), but most of the time, I just don’t know. I have two teenagers in my house, one of them with serious health issues, it’s pretty much a roller coaster around here, and one without the safety restraints at that. I try to hang on, but sometimes I can’t and I have to pick myself back up and get back on the ride. Other times though, I’m killing it, and am amazed by my awesome parenting Kung-Fu (yeah, so those time are pretty rare). Sometimes recovery is going well, sometimes we hit bumps, sometimes we don’t even think about it at all. I like those times, the times we don’t even think about it at all. Sometimes it’s the girl child who needs some help, other times she is owning the dance floor and learning from mistakes. I just don’t know.
I know it doesn’t make sense that we can still be happy even though we are struggling so hard. I know it doesn’t make sense for me to expect you to share my joy without acknowledging the pain, but that is how it is right now. I don’t think you want to hear the latest report from the dietician, my current worry, or most pressing struggle. I’m fairly certain you don’t want the details on the latest fight I had with my insurance company. It’s complicated, and I don’t know. But I’m calling it good. I’m using all those horrible southern California cliches: It’s all good, It is what it is, No worries. I can’t stand them, but they are how I am right now. So when you see me, know that things are the way they are, and we are dealing with them the way we are dealing with them, which is all anyone can do.
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!