Last week I was all cheerful and upbeat. Not to worry. I’m back to grumpy and bleak. Jesse gave herself a hack-up haircut yesterday. It’s probably the 4th or 5th time since the first occasion when she was four.
We were having a boring Sunday. I woke up under the weather and with another bad rash from the swimming pool, so I was lazing about on the sofa feeling like crap and indulging my own needs. As a result, the children circled me like starving sharks coming in for a clean kill, needy emotional teeth bared. Then Jesse coughed on my face.
The face-cough is on my least-favorite-tics list. Jesse suddenly puts her face right next to mine and issues a bark-like cough right on my face. Often there’s spittle. Bonus! There’s no real explaining when or why, though no doubt it’s about stress and anxiety, and possibly hostility toward mama. Words can’t capture the feeling of invasion and insult her face-cough tic creates.
The tic thing seems to be an awful lot like OCD, which Jesse also struggles with. I could give her meds for these disorders, but I don’t want Jesse to explore that option until she’s an adult, if she still needs it. The best long-term “cure”, if there is one, is to exercise self control. That’s much harder than the words suggest, especially when you’re little and feeling a burning, burning, desperate need to do your tic and you don’t yet understand fully what the hell is going wrong in your brain. It probably feels just like sick diarrhea about to rip out of your feverish viral ass, or vomit you’re fighting to keep down, and the only way you’re going to be able to move on is to let it rip.
But if you want to win the tic battle, you have to face the fire and walk through it, eyes wide open. You have to say no to yourself, over and over again. You have to keep the shit and vomit in, until the wave passes. When you’re little, like Jesse, you also get to have mom and dad tell you not to do it, over and over again. Correcting and disciplining Jesse for her tics sucks. She’s working hard on this stuff, and I don’t expect her to be perfect. But I can’t let her get away with a tic, not once. I have to call her on it, every time, and ask her to muster the strength to keep beating this demon back. That’s her best chance for long-term success, and it’s a lot of pressure for a little girl.
So I sent her to her room when she coughed on me. Before she ran upstairs she crushed some play-do eggs in frustration, and as an added irritant Nick started bawling about it. He was being a jackass, fight-picking and overreacting, but Jesse takes that stuff to heart and gets down on herself. She slammed her door and I heard a variety of complaining and mewling sounds for a while. This was normal. Then silence, also normal. Eventually she crept out of her room and I heard her little pixie voice speaking quietly on the stairs. “Oh nooo. I cut my hair. Mommy?”
That was unexpected, but not novel. I’d been down this road before.
“Good for you,” I said. “Do you like how it turned out?”
I heard mewling whiny noises as a little blur sped down the stairs and across the room, landing under the dining room table in a fetal ball. She wouldn’t show me her face, so I went into the kitchen to chop up an apple. She finally agreed to join me for a snack, and her chair was perfectly placed for viewing. I eyed the blank spot around her left ear where hair used to be, thinking to myself, it’s only a couple inches. I can fix this without channeling Flock of Seagulls, and Jesse won’t have to wait 6 months to stop being lop-sided (that was her Kindergarten cut).
She started. “I’m sorry I cut my hair without your permission, mommy.”
I didn’t expect that. We’ve never talked about “permission” for that. So I replied, “you don’t need my permission. It’s your hair. You can do what you want with it, even cut it.” Then I asked the Big Question. “Why did you cut your hair, Jesse?”
I can imagine a lot of mundane answers that would be irritating but also funny. Jesse’s answer wasn’t one of those. She looked down; she sounded ashamed but firm. “I was punishing myself. I deserved it because I coughed on you and made Nick cry.”
Sometimes I think there’s no path to Jesse’s adulthood that won’t break me. Self-destructive behavior is a birthright for my lot, coupled with a good measure of self-loathing and addiction. We’ve gotten Jesse to stop hitting herself for now, but she’s always ready to beat herself up in some way or another. When I look in the crystal ball, I feel like I have only a few years left before more serious problems start appearing. Drugs, alcohol, self-abuse, sex, who knows. I know she’ll surprise me.
Dr. Abrams thinks I should be more optimistic. After all, Jesse’s family is walking through the fire with her, and we’re facing our collective demons together. But I’m decidedly NOT feeling good about it all tonight. I have the passion and commitment, but I’m not sure I have the stamina or the skill set Jesse needs to make it through her life whole.
It’s human nature to give it a go anyway, right? So we sat over the apple and talked about it, going through the motions of parent and child. We chatted about not hurting ourselves, about forgiveness and imperfection, about discipline versus “punishment.” We talked about love and self-love. We planned how I’d fix the cut, and then we went about the business of doing that.
Jesse has a very short and sassy bob now. I’ll try to add a picture here soon. She has silky straight hair that flounces about beautifully when it’s short, so this new do helps her look more cheerful and light-hearted. Here’s wishing it sinks in.
I so admire how clear eyed you are about the many complexities swirling through Jesse’s brain. Your creative description/analogy of what a tic may feel like is really the definition of compassion — your ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Jesse is so lucky to have you as a Mom, and that is the reason to be optomistic about her future. (But I can understand why thinking about it can be terrifying.)