grumpy about the construction project (dreams)

I haven’t posted recently about the construction project, or about anything for that matter. I haven’t had a day off in weeks and my body is weary, but my hands have taken the worst beating. My fingers are arthritic from all the manual labors, and the skin on my fingertips is flayed and cracked from tiling (mark my words, cutting and laying glass mosaics is bitter work). So typing literally hurts.

In addition to random tasks like trimming kitchen cabinets and cleaning up debris and feeding my children (most of the time), I’ve been doing a lot of tiling recently. If I ever tell you I plan to lay 200 square feet of two-by-six-inch subway tile on walls, in a brick pattern, slap me silly and then institutionalize me, because I’ve done it twice now and it’s as endless and insane a task as knitting a sweater for the Statue of Liberty.  If I ever tell you I want to lay glass mosaics that are “paper fronted” instead of “mesh backed,” go on and slap me silly again. I have been tormented by our beautiful, miserable tile choices.

Here’s the good news. We have a kitchen again. Our plumbing and electrical work is almost done. I have pictures. But I’ll tell you about all that later. Right now I need to tell you about the dream I had last night:

I live in a cave system, along with other people who appear to be part of my village. Heavy rains are falling. I peer out a hole in the cave in which I’m sheltering, and I watch the torrential waters fall. Suddenly I know a giant tidal wave is coming! It races at me and breaks through the hole in the cave! But it isn’t water. It’s a mass of tiny green mosaic tiles cresting in a wave over me. It crashes down and crushes me. I wonder if I’ll die from the weight of it, if I’ll suffocate under it. But I manage to push my way up through it and catch air.

I wake up in a cold sweat.

And that’s how the construction project is going.


It’s okay to talk about mental illness

I wish it was as okay to talk about Jesse’s OCD as it is to talk about someone else’s autism or ADHD or Down Syndrome or physical disability. I wish teachers didn’t look at me like I’m CRAZY when I broach the idea of speaking with students about OCD and how it affects Jesse. The strangeness of true OCD is still too much for people. It speaks to stigma.

Jesse stood up suddenly in the middle of a silent math class last month and screamed out that she wanted to have sex with all the boys in there. Then she singled out two boys and invited them to have sex with her. She couldn’t stop herself. The teacher sent her to the principal’s office and she was promptly suspended for a day. They made Jesse sit alone in the principal’s office for two hours, her heart filled with humiliation and anxiety and the continuing obsessive thoughts. Then the principal called me and pleasantly informed me of what happened and of the suspension, about five minutes before I picked Jesse up at the end of the day.

I had just met with the principal, the school psychologist, the school counselor and Jesse’s teacher four days earlier, because Jesse had been blurting penis talk. We discussed OCD. We discussed the lack of volition behind these behaviors. Everyone nodded and said yes, yes, let’s try this and let’s try that. And then they did none of it and then they suspended her. During the pleasant call regarding the suspension, the principal informed me that they would never expel Jesse. No no no. They would use progressive discipline and eventually, if things didn’t improve, they would “suspend her in place.” That means Jesse would spend her school days in a room by herself, learning alone.

I remember laughing when the principal told me that, but not in a happy way. I remarked, “If you do that, why would I send Jesse to school?”

Because it is definitional stigma — the total shunning of an individual.

Well, let’s be more specific. Of a small child suffering from a severe bout of mental illness.

I don’t think for a moment that the principal was being thoughtless, intentionally unkind, or a strict disciplinarian. She’s actually a delightful, warm, caring person who seems to want to do right by Jesse. After the suspension, I sent quite a long letter to her and other people at the school, laying out some ideas for how to modify Jesse’s school day and give her some therapeutic tools to help her cope. The principal has been responsive and accommodating, open-heartedly embracing all of my suggestions. So I conclude that silence in our culture has left her ignorant — as I have been — about what OCD does to a person, and how utterly useless the usual disciplinary tool bag is.

Of course Jesse shouldn’t be saying sexually provocative things in fourth grade classrooms — or anywhere for that matter. Although here’s an aside. How exactly can we judge her when our world is overflowing with sexually promiscuous images and porn? And let’s stop blaming the internet. A simple trip to the grocery store can fill a kid’s head with hyper-sexualized images as she waits in line staring at magazine covers. And why should we judge Jesse more harshly than the fourth grader who comes to school flipping her hips in a short skirt, making goo-goo eyes at boys, wearing make-up, and being an excluding mean girl on the playground? They’re both thinking about sex — Jesse’s just being more direct about it.

Okay… way, way more direct.

But those are just a couple of the endless hypocrisies Jesse is grappling with as she takes in the world through her anxiety-addled eyes.

Last year a person I know vented to me about a girl in her kids’ school with Down Syndrome who had a habit of going around and touching other kids’ butts. This person felt that the girl didn’t belong in the classroom with other kids because of that one behavior. She was really upset that the girl’s parents had lobbied for accommodations and even sued the school to ensure that their daughter would be integrated into regular classrooms with assistance, instead of being shunted into a special ed room.

I was more upset by the speaker’s attitude than by the story. I didn’t understand her vitriol over this situation. I was with the parents. I approved of their advocacy and I think they were right. (I’m glad I felt that way, because now it’s my own Jesse engaging in disruptive, inappropriate behaviors.)

Lost my train of thought there… Right, so that’s what I was getting at: of course Jesse shouldn’t be asking boys to have sex or talking about penises at all odd hours at school. But disappearing her isn’t the answer. Understanding and helping her is.

And that’s why I want to talk about OCD, openly and without shame. I want to wear a giant poster board shirt and stand around on street corners. “MY CHILD IS AWESOME AND SHE HAS OCD.” Or maybe… “MY DAUGHTER HAS OCD. IT SUCKS. SHE DOESN’T.” I want Jesse to talk about it. I want her to own it and be grumpy about it and laugh at it. I never, ever want her to be ashamed of it, and I will disappear anything and anyone in her life who asks her to feel that way.

How could I possibly feel ashamed of Jesse for suffering from a mental illness? It’s not like it’s her fault. The only shame I feel is that, before I understood what was going on with her, I felt ashamed — because I thought she was just being a volitional jackass. I was wrong.

Instead of shame, these days I feel a profound compassion for my little girl, whose brain is full of horrifying, anxiety-driven images of misunderstood sexuality and violence, against her will and despite her best efforts. I wish you could see her at the end of most school days — the sunken and exhausted dark circles under her green eyes, her head hanging in shame, a feeling of failure leaking from her pores like an oozing pus. I wish you could hear her when she tells me that she doesn’t want other kids to laugh at her anymore. I wish you could see her deep, blank sadness over missing school activity after school activity because she can’t manage it.

And I wish you could see how much courage it takes for her to drag herself out of bed every weekday morning and prepare herself for five hours of Herculean struggles to achieve self-control. She rarely balks. She is an extraordinary child who is persevering through some truly horrible shit.

So I wish you wouldn’t shun her, dear world. I wish you would give her a break, and maybe even a hand.

I wish it was as okay for her to have OCD as it is for kids to have learning disabilities these days.

where my head is today

I’m taking a short break from tiling, which is kind of back-breaking work and painfully messy. I’ll tell you about that another day. Today, I just left Facebook after watching this 55-second video of two turtles, one of whom turns the other one back over onto her feet:

I know I should just be thinking things like “awwww” and “that’s so sweet!” and “wow, altruism is the coolest thing ever.”

Instead, these are the thoughts that went through my head as the film rolled. This is what happens when you suffer from racing thoughts.

(5 seconds in)

That’s really flat-looking terrain. What a stupid turtle to somehow manage to get overturned right there… Unless some nasty human being did it. I bet that’s exactly what happened. What is this, footage of circus turtles? Wouldn’t that be the most numbing circus experience ever? Tortoises and sloths. What would PETA say and do?

(9 seconds)

I start imagining a conversation between the two turtles, now named (by me) OT (overturned turtle) and BBT (busy body turtle).

OT: Dude, go away.

BBT: It’s okay, girl, I’ll get you turned the right way. It’s not safe to be on your back when you’re a turtle.

OT: Listen “friend,” we’re in a circus. Or a zoo. Can’t you hear the kids and see the iPhones? We’re not in danger. We’re just trapped in a living hell. They do this to me every fucking day, and you turn me over every fucking day. Today, I want to stay on my back and enjoy some peace.

BBT: Okay, okay, I know you’re a little stressed out, but I got it. Here we go.

OT: Are you simple? Get away from me. I want to be on my back. Stop walking over here. Get away!

(I’ve made it to 22 seconds, where BBT starts to butt OT to turn her back over.)

BBT: It’s okay, I’ll get you fixed up right quick.

OT: GET AWAY! Don’t make me the freak show for all those stupid kids!

BBT: Just another couple pushes here, ugggh. Uggggh.


BBT: What are you doing?? Why are you fighting me? Turtles don’t belong on their backs! Stop fighting me! You’re making this really hard!!


(42 seconds, where BBT turns OT back onto her feet)

BBT: There you go, friend. All better.

(44 seconds)

OT: Fuck you.

BBT: Well now that you mention it… I was thinking we should fertilize some eggs soon.

OT: No, fuck you in the hostile, get-away-from-me way. Get lost. You are such a dumbass.

BBT: You’ll thank me soon.

OT: No, I won’t. Stop following me.

BBT: Come on girl, give me some action.

* * * * * *

Turtles. I better get back to tiling.

vignettes from a grumpy day

Bob the Plumber and his side-kick Dylan arrive early today to do as much work as they can for our renovation. They can’t install the sink or dishwasher, because the counters aren’t in yet (why? why??). But there’s plenty else to do, and Bob swears that the horrendous nerve pain in his cracked molar isn’t going to stop him.

Nick, who hasn’t left for school yet, greets Bob cheerfully. As Bob gives our dog Madeline a scratch on the ear, Nick announces loudly and helpfully, “SHE’S A GIRL.” Thanks to Nick’s cute underdeveloped palate, it actually sounds like “she’s a go-wool.”

Bob takes note of this news politely. “Oh, is she?”

“Yeah,” answers Nick. He starts up a game on his iPad and his thumbs get busy as he stares unblinking at the screen. “Mommy doesn’t like to have boy dogs because you can always see their penises.”

I try not to be too embarrassed by this disclosure. Bob handles it diplomatically.

(It’s not the visual, by the way. It’s the dry humping I can’t tolerate.)

* * * * * *

I was planning to install the last sheets of a waterproof membrane in the future parents’ bathroom while the kids are at school, but Bob has to turn the water off for a while. What a shame that I can’t do this particularly grueling task today. The blisters and scrapes on my hands will have to wait a day.

All I can do is sit and plan the tile layout in said bathroom. This is brutal and brain-twisting work, I tell you. Bob pops down an hour into my mental contortions, looking somewhat happy. He talks with his jaw clenched, like he’s Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter. “Ah j’st hud the t’uth pulled.”

Unbeknownst to me, for the past half hour Bob’s been at the dentist having his tooth pulled out. He’s back to work now, numb jaw and all. Meanwhile, I’ve accomplished nothing. I feel terribly inadequate.

* * * * * *

I drive over to Glen Hills middle school to pick Jesse up. She’s currently on a shortened schedule to help manage her anxiety and OCD. She can’t make it through a full day yet without unraveling. No no no, that’s not the right metaphor. Not yarn. That’s too soft. She’s more of a shrapnel bomb. She can’t make it through full school days without shrapneling.

Most days when I get Jesse, we head straight home and she finishes her schoolwork here. We cover whatever material she’s missing in the afternoon, she does her reading and math and homework. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s bitter. But before we get started, Jesse usually comes in for a long embrace. Sometimes it’s before we even make it out of the school house. She sits on my lap or stands next to me as I kneel or sit. She wraps her scrawny and strong arms around my neck and leans in. We hold each other tight for long minutes. She’s still so little that when my arms wrap her body, my hands reach around as far as my opposite shoulders. I could just as well be hugging myself. I don’t know what Jesse’s thinking, and I don’t ask. I know she’s still and silent; this is a rare and precious state for her, so I don’t like to interrupt it. I don’t know what I’m thinking either, as I bury my face in her hair and kiss her. Sometimes I’m filled with simple love (whatever that four-letter word means to me today), and sometimes with a longing for an easier path through life for her, and sometimes with a simple sadness that her school hours are so hard for her.

Anyway, I pick her up today as usual. I beat Jesse to the exit area, so I slump in a chair and wait. My eyes happen to land on a large sign welcoming visitors to the middle school. But my sight is blurry and tired, and my contact lenses are dirty, and what I read is “WELCOME TO GENITALS!”

Ew. Jesse’s penis obsession is definitely rubbing off on me. The good news is, I read the sign wrong.

* * * * * *

I take Jesse to Starbucks for a vanilla bean cream frappucino, her favorite treat obsession these days. I’ve tasted it and I’m totally repelled. It’s sugar, with sugar added, and then topped with sugar and whipped cream.

But it’s what she loves, and she came out of school with a smile and a pretty good attitude, so I think she deserves it on a Monday. She settles down into a bar chair and slurps away. I stand next to her leaning on the bar, waiting patiently for her to enjoy her treat. I realize suddenly that her face is weirdly close to mine and she’s inspecting the bottom half of my face.

“Why are you looking at me like that? Are you looking at the scratch?” (Jesse gave me a wicked scratch on my jaw a couple days ago while she was jumping on me from behind.)

“No. I’m looking at your face. You look like a nice grandma.”

Nice. “Why? Because I’m old?”

“No!” Jesse exclaims cheerfully. She pulls her chin back to make a double chin and talks with narrow pursed lips in a low tone, as if she’s imitating… me. “It’s because you’re all blubby.”

I hug Jesse from behind and squeeze, and also I burp directly in her ear. “Do I burp like a grandma?”

“Yes, like a strong grandma!”

At least I have that.

* * * * * *

Jesse and I head over to pick up Nick from elementary school. He comes out smothered in his own cheerful smile. You would never, ever guess that at last week’s school conference, his teacher told me he cries a lot in class. He seems to have a lot of anxiety and has very little self-confidence, especially about learning letters and sounds. He gets hung up and really worried about tests. He gets down on himself about doing badly. He’s being placed in a reading intervention group.

Nick is in kindergarten so I’m not too worried about the reading thing yet. I’m more worried about his mood, given our family histories. I need to get on that and pay some serious attention to him, help him get over his fear of learning to read, do some extra tutoring with him. But with what spare time?? I’m spending every free moment trying to finish up my part on this fucking renovation. In 4 to 6 weeks, I keep telling myself, in 4 to 6 weeks.

Until then, I keep mulling over a sweet moment Nick and I shared a couple days ago, as we sat on the stairs to the basement. He straddled my lap and held my cheeks gently with his not-tiny-for-much-longer hands. I said I was sorry for being so busy and not being able to do as much stuff with him as I should. He replied, “You’re right mommy. You do a lot, but you don’t do enough for me lately.”

But those worries are blown straight out of my mind when Nick walks out of school. He is pure sunshine. He loudly and methodically hands me all his crap the second he steps out the school doors. “THIS is my school work. You have to bring it back tomorrow. THIS is something else I have to bring back. THIS is my lunch box.” He smiles at me disarmingly and decides to keep his backpack on. I don’t even get a hug as he races off to the playground.

A good-sized handful of kids and their parents, a combination of moms and dads, tend to stay after school to play on good-weather days. The kids get along well, and it’s an easy chance to socialize and get some fresh air after being cooped up in classrooms all day. Nick has so much fun. He makes friends easily; he’s kind and inclusive. He’s just a cool little guy. Jesse struggles this year with playground time. She’s either going hog-wild OCD on penis talk or sitting somewhere by herself being morose. Today, she sees a classmate from middle school who’s come with an older family member to shoot hoops. They greet each other shyly, and then Jesse promptly starts to lift her shirt in one of her OCD maneuvers. At least she doesn’t ask to have sex with him. But other than this blip, she seems to have fun. She plays with several kids and runs around. She’s pretty normal today. It’s kind of weird, I think to myself.

* * * * * *

After dinner, Nick fires up a Power Rangers episode on his iPad mini. I hate all 400 Power Ranger series equally. They are the stupidest shows ever made. They suck so bad, and the plots are even worse than the acting.

But I don’t do anything about it. I should be playing alphabet games with Nick. I should be playing board games with Jesse. We should be doing jumping jacks and interactive play, followed by sun salutations and meditation moments, and then gratitude sharing. Instead my kids are watching Power-Bad TV on the iPad and sharing rainbow sherbet straight out of the tub.

At least they’re using spoons. And they’re getting along in close quarters. Nick isn’t screaming at Jesse, and Jesse isn’t kicking, clawing, or choking Nick. No one is putting anyone down. In fact, they’re being downright delightful together.  I’ve been waiting for days like these for a long time.

Jesse strolls over to me. She sits in my lap and I hold her like a toddler I’m nursing to sleep, her legs slung to one side of me and her neck in the crook of my arm. I love these sweet moments with my children. She leans in and looks lovingly into my eyes as she squeezes my meaty upper arm. “I need your warm blub to warm me up.”

* * * * * *

After warming up on my blub, Jesse segues smoothly into the title of her new “personal narrative,” which is a thing they do at school. Her latest is called “The One and Only Free Heart,” she tells me.

“That sounds really neat. What’s it about?”

Jesse giggles. “I don’t know yet. I only wrote the title.” I can practically see her brain whirring as she spins out a tale between her ears. I realize suddenly that I haven’t heard Jesse mention penises but twice this entire afternoon. Penises are nowhere to be seen as she dreams about the story she’ll tell.

I think that’s worth being grateful for, even if I am a sorry, disgruntled excuse for a mom these days.