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!
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.
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.
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 navigate 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.