31 days of gratitude, grumpy edition (day 9)

This evening I was chatting with my friend Pseudonymous Bob (PB) about why we do the things we do.  He pointed out  that most people tend not to care about a thing until it touches their own lives.  People who never donated a penny to breast cancer research suddenly become hardcore fundraisers after a family member gets diagnosed. People who never cared about disability rights suddenly become hardcore advocates for systems and legislative change after they have their own child with a disability.

My eyes narrowed slightly, as I knew PB was probably talking about me.  I’ve jumped full-throttle into the wheelhouse of disability and mental health advocacy, and there’s no doubt I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my own daughter’s profound challenges.

If PB did have me in mind as he spoke, I’m not in the least offended. There’s a deep truth to his cynical view, and I will admit that the same thought has crossed my mind many times over the years. I’ve often wondered if my commitment to disability advocacy  is fundamentally selfish, not altruistic.  But as I’ve aged and softened — and after 8 transformative days of gratituding, honestly it’s like I don’t even know myself anymore — I can look at this phenomenon through a different, gentler lens.

Here, I’m going to make a Venn diagram to help explain my theory. Give me second.

Ooooooh did you know there are free Venn diagram generators all over the internet??  You just plug in data here and there and PRESTO there appears a bunch of overlapping circles and labels.  See you in a couple hours; if you need me right away, you can find me at this free site making Venn diagrams.

* * * * *

Here we go:

PEOPLE WHO DO ADVOCACY STUFF

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 8.10.34 AM.png

Maybe my ratios are off.  Let me try that again.

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 8.13.46 AM.png

Better.

Hold on, I just figured out my Venn diagram doesn’t work.  It doesn’t work at all, except to point out what I now see is obvious:  that little dark triangle in the middle of all three circles, that should bear the label “Most Annoying People on Earth.”

Good lord, do I live in the bulging triangle?  Aw shit. Much self reflection is required, but I don’t have time for it today.

Let me try that again:

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 8.40.09 AM.png

That is one ugly Venn diagram. It’s just awful. And now I’m sitting here wondering where all the other annoying advocates in the blue circle come from.

Is this better?

Screen Shot 2019-12-10 at 8.52.37 AM.png

Nope, it’s not better. Venn diagrams and social theory clearly are not my skill sets.

* * * * *

Never mind the Venn diagram.  I just figure, most people, no matter what happens in their lives, go along with those lives without ever stepping into the public service ring. But among those of us exposed to a particular challenge — say, cancer — there are some collection of people who are prone to take up a cause, any cause.  Social justice warriors do it because something demands action, and they’re altruistic that way (or at least they think they are).  Empaths do it because they don’t want others to suffer the way they’ve suffered.  Egomaniacs do it for the likes. (I feel so post-modern to have said it that way.)

But regardless of our personalities and needs, maybe it isn’t as selfish as it appears, to drop into the advocacy bucket of what touches our lives most deeply.  Those are the subjects we know the most about, after all, and so it makes good sense to spend our energy there. Maybe I don’t have to feel so cynical about myself. I can catalog the ways I cared, before I even became a parent — as a lawyer, as a devotee of pro bono work, as a donor to various causes.  It’s just that now, I know a whole lot about this one thing, youth mental health, and I’d sure like to make the world better on this front.  Is that so wrong?

[end of blog]

Oh! Wait. I forgot to do the gratituding.  Fine:  grateful for Venn diagram generators, grateful for my friendship with PB, grateful that I don’t have to work in a job where I have to make Venn diagrams.  Good?

#GrumpyGratitude

 

 

31 days of gratitude, grumpy edition (days 6 through 8)

HUMBUG.  I didn’t even make it a fifth of the way before I failed.  Two days without a written gratitude.  I should have gratituded someone or something.  I will make up for it today, now:

Day 6, back-dated:

I’m preemptively grateful for the grammar Nazis who will bite their wicked tongues about my turning gratitude into a verb.  Go on then, feel the hate inside your hearts, pour it in absentia all over my soul.  As long as you don’t bother me in my real life with it, I’m good.

Day 7, back-dated:  

Yesterday I’m grateful for — stop it, grammar Nazi, just stop and take a deep, slow breath; and remind yourself that time, in particular past-present-and-future, is a fluid concept and requires fluid use of language tenses. Right.  Yesterday I’m grateful for… Well there’s the rub.  I wasn’t feeling very grateful yesterday for anything.

I was feeling weary and sad, and sick of the way humans make up pretextual reasons for the cruel and thoughtless ways we hurt each other out of fear.

I was feeling angry about how people who talk about community and the village are often the same people who put their own tiny cohort ahead of anyone else, and reject the concept of a village when they’re afraid, proving that Darwin was right, the biological imperative to give our own tiny pool of genes the best chance of carrying on overrides altruism and generosity.

I was feeling used up by the mental health complex, which generally refuses to see a human as a whole, compartmentalizing her challenges and abandoning her when their “expertise” in a tiny niche is exceeded, rather than digging into the creative process of connection and understanding and healing.

I was feeling enraged by the mental health stigma that has recently reared its head in our community, masquerading as a whole lot of things, but still nothing more than a small-hearted, feral beast of ignorance and avoidance, lashing out at a child in public forums, a child whose authentic story we don’t know.

I was feeling disheartened by the abject failure of my work of the last few years, wondering what more I should have done, what more I could have said, to help move us further past this ugly space my community apparently still resides in. And then I was feeling really angry at myself for harboring the arrogant thought that I’m so important I could make any real difference.

So all I can say is… Yesterday I’m grateful I was able to handle these feelings and still get out of bed;  still cry and rage senselessly at the injustice of it all, because that means I haven’t yet despaired of hope; still think tactically about what to do, and how to garner support for compassion and kindness; still accept the loving hug a friend offered me when I dropped my son off at a birthday party; still wonder and hunt for compassion for people who appear to have lost their own; and still look in the mirror and know that I’m as flawed and pathetic and ugly as the next person.  Because nothing is worse than smug self-righteousness.  Dear reader, just slap me hard upside the head if you see me going there, and yell at me as loud as you can: SNAP OUT OF IT.

Day 8, real time:

Today I will engage in exactly the hubris I just asked you to save me from.  Today I’m grateful for my big, fearless mouth; my blunt, opinionated ways; and my black-and-white sense of justice.  I mean what the hell, I’m only going to live in this body and in this time once.  I might as well just go for it and speak for what I care about.  What I care about is inclusion, acceptance, tolerance, kindness, empathy, compassion, the true village — wherever it’s needed, whoever needs it, when they need it, even if it demands courage of us.  Because a world without those things isn’t a world worth sending my children into.

#GrumpyGratitude

 

31 days of gratitude, grumpy edition (day 5)

Today I am grateful for the school lunch Nick asks me to pack.

1. Naked smoothie, flavor Mighty Mango. This and only this passes muster. Anything else comes home untouched.

2. Canned mandarin oranges. Used to be I could at least give him fresh fruit. No. Canned mandarins. Drained. If not drained, not eaten.

3. Sandwich. White bread. Not homemade, not artisan, not whole wheat or multigrain. White. Thin slice. Preferably with preservatives. Colby Jack, 1 slice. Small amount of mayo. 1 slice ham. 4 slices pepperoni. Crust off. Any mistakes? Uneaten.

Every single day, for more than two years now, this is what Nick eats for lunch at school.

I can make his lunch with my eyes closed, with one hand behind my back, drunk, sleepwalking, doing headstands. Not a single thing in it is unprocessed.

I make puff pastry from scratch. He won’t touch it. I make pies, cookies, cakes, crumbles, puddings, and donuts that others rave about. He hates them all.

I make fresh tortillas, pico de Gallo, and guacamole from scratch. He tolerates the tortillas for dinner, as long as he can have processed cheese with them, the gross kind that comes pre-grated in a plastic bag. But no tortillas in his school lunch.

I can make so many delicious foods. All Nick wants is microwave breakfast sausages and pirates booty and goldfish.

I am mortified by Nick’s food choices. Except at 6:30 am on Monday through Friday, when I make his school lunch, and I whisper my thanks to his culinary palette for letting me make a lunch that takes less than 5 minutes and no imagination, and requires nothing fresh.

#GrumpyGratitude

31 days of gratitude, grumpy edition (day 4)

Ssshhh! Whisper this paragraph: My whole family fell asleep at bed-time, including Anthony and the dogs.  I’m in the basement on the computer.  By myself. This is a rare wonder and enough of an event to constitute the basis for today’s tiny gratitude.   DON’T DO ANYTHING TO WAKE THEM UP.

The reason I’m desperate to be alone is that I spent a couple hours at a school board meeting where a bunch of parents talked about a business that is sad and divisive and not to be discussed in this space, because to do so could potentially hurt more than one child.  It was a lot of humanity and and a lot of emotions and some hypocrisy and some dishonesty; and dear reader, you know I don’t recover well from that.

I spoke too, because I’m a broken record with an agenda.  I’ve been attending every school board meeting this year to natter at them about getting more mental health supports into our schools.  I want them to arrange for school-based mental health services, which is a fancy way to say: give a therapist office space for a day every week, so he or she can see students on campus. I want them to hire social workers at each school, so that families can have guidance in navigating needs and services and insurance and all that jazz.  I want them to fund educational programming for parents and teachers, to build wisdom about mental health and stigma and resilience and the importance of community and healthy relationships and on and on and on.

Why do I care? Because Jesse told me to care.  She insists that it’s not fair that she has access to therapists and meds and psychiatrists; that her parents care about her so much and get her help, even when she doesn’t want it; that we’re not ashamed of her and insist on school supports that she needs.  It’s not fair because she has classmates who don’t have the same resources, and they deserve all of this as much as she does.

She’s right. So I’m on it.

The school board is generally good natured toward me, but I’m not sure what to make of them.  They make eye contact with me when I speak, but sometimes I get the feeling they think I’m cringey.  Maybe next time I’ll ask them if they remember anything I say, if they care about anything I say, and if they are being impacted in any way by anything I say.  If their answer is a resounding “NO” to all of the above… then clearly I will have to attend more meetings. For the sake of Jesse’s profound sense of social justice, I will carry on with the lobbying and advocating and wheedling.

And then, when I’m done with that public business, I will always need to curl into a figurative fetal ball somewhere.  Tonight, I’m thankful to my family, dogs and all, for passing out and letting me curl up in peace.

#GrumpyGratitude

 

 

31 days of gratitude, grumpy edition (day 3)

Today I am grateful for modern medicine and technology.  All of it.

I had my annual mammogram this morning.  I was easily distracted from my half-nude state and the repeated handling and smashing of my boobs by the elegant and mobile tomography machine that photographed my tissues.

As I walked out of the radiology area, I peeked into as many rooms as I could to see all the cool stuff– X-RAY, MRI, CT, PET, TOM, JANE machines.  Donuts, plates, platters, sliding beds, swinging arms.  They are pure magic, looking inside our bodies without so much as a poke.  Modern scan machines are beautiful, mostly with soft edges and mild colors.  The industrial engineers must watch Star Trek episodes when they design this stuff.

Just a few hours after the boob-smashing, I received an e-mail message through the on-line information system my clinic uses. It informed me that my mammo was fine, no malignancies detected.  Ta-da.

A couple weeks ago, I had a CT scan of my heart.  For 50 bucks, 1 or 2 minutes inside the CT donut, and a couple hours’ wait, I learned that I don’t have any calcium in my arteries.  This is relieving news, given my family’s history of keeling over from heart and arterial disease.  The respite from worrying is probably good for my health.

I also did some bloodwork, which is itself something of a miracle.  With one little stick and the offering of a little blood, we can learn so much.  I learned that my potassium and iron are low-normal, as usual, and that my hormone levels mean I’m in post-menopause.  Yay! My genetic purpose has officially ended and I can die without further affecting human evolution!

Many years ago, I learned that I had bladder cancer.  The doc found it by shoving a long hollow metal rod — the scope — up my urethra and staring around inside my bladder with the help of a camera and a wee lightbulb.  A week or two later, he shoved another scope up there and used tiny robot hands to clip out the tumor and scoop it out through the rod.  My bladder remained intact, and I didn’t have to be cut open. I would no doubt be dead or bladderless by now (quite possibly both), if not for modern surgical methods.

And meds, all the meds. Without my BP meds I would have stroked out several years ago.  Anthony’s gout maintenance meds have made life livable again.  Jesse’s anti-anxiety med makes a functional life a little more possible for her.  Antibiotics, antihistamines, asthma inhalers, epi-pens, advil, flu shots, vaccines, melatonin in pill form.  What would my family’s life be without all these things?

Because I hate people, I often find myself ruminating on the origins of all this wonder. So much of our understanding of the human body arises from cruelty – human experimentation, animal testing – and from the work of bigoted, misogynistic scientists. Pharmaceutical companies are motivated more by profit than by altruism, and have messed with costs and supplies in so many ugly ways.

And yet here I am, alive because of the good we’re able to make out of humanity’s inherent evil.

#GrumpyGratitude

 

 

 

 

31 days of gratitude, grumpy edition (day 2)

I’m on day two of my month of gratitudes, and already I got nothin’.

Give me a second, it can’t be that hard.

[Stares into space glumly.  Plays with annoying label on neckband of t-shirt.  Puffs out cheeks and makes squirting sounds with pursed lips. Sighs noisily.]

Fine, I’ll just make something up:

Today I am grateful for this lovely fire I’ve got burning in the grate.

Around this time of year I typically order a face cord of mixed hardwood – I think I have that right, but I’m not sure. Face cord? Half face? Whatever – it’s a mix of oak and birch, so the birch bark makes our fires go like we’ve hit them with napalm.

I love a real fire, whether it’s in a fireplace or at a campsite. There’s nothing quite so toasty.

But these days it’s hard for me to feel good about burning wood. It makes me think of Brazil, and Australia, and California.  I recently heard a report that 80% of wild koala habitat has gone up in smoke in Australia, with burns reaching something like 2.8 million acres.  I struggled with that number. I had to google it to make sure it was real.  It was.  Scientists think koalas may be facing practical extinction because of lost habitat from the wildfires.

I read a thing today about the ice sheet in Greenland weeping waterfalls as it cracks apart, with worries about accelerated rising seas.  I think it was in Greenland.  But does it really matter? Does it matter that our world is burning and preparing to drown from rising seas all at the same time? Does it matter if we’re not going to do anything about it? All the religious nuts think this is a sign of the second coming, and not a sign that humans are selfish, greedy creatures destroying everything we touch.  Does it count as a “sign” of an apocalyptic religious event, if you make the sign happen yourself?  Not in my book, but surely in a charlatan’s.

Jesse and I chatted as we drove  home from school a few days ago, about the situation with the koalas.  She was thoughtful as she stared out the window. “It just makes me feel so hopeless,” she said quietly.

I was struck by the strange sadness of a 14 year old girl speaking like this about the world. She sees that our president and one of our two major political parties doesn’t believe in climate change and isn’t going to support any effort to respond to it.  She sees that adults aren’t changing.  She’s not alone.

But we chattered away.  I had no choice but to say what I said to her, as a parent who bothered to bring children into this world, knowing what they may face in the years ahead.  I said it’s never hopeless.  Humans are adaptable.  We suck, but we’re also capable of great things. Humans cared enough to bring species back from the brink of extinction, like the peregrine and the bald eagle.

She interrupted me.  “Yeah, that was a long time ago. It’s not like that anymore.  No one cares.”

I argued on.  It will take courage, I insisted.  Your generation will have to find courage and strength. Dad and I are raising you to be anti-authoritarian for a reason – so you can think, and dream, and act for yourself, guided by your own moral compass, without reference to what the people with all the power insist you must do.  You might be the very person who saves the world.

Jesse rolled her eyes at me. Maybe I deserved it.

* * * * *

And well, with all that dreaming set aside, here I sit in front of a fire, spewing greenhouse gases out the bunghole of our chimney for the mere pleasure of my warmed feet; stewing in my hypocrisy and indolence; and wondering if I’ll live long enough to really despair for my children as it all falls apart.

Okay then, I’ve done it.  Day 2 of gratitude.  I think I nailed it.

#GrumpyGratitude

 

 

 

31 days of gratitude, grumpy edition (day 1)

I’ve decided to make a run at a December 2019 full of gratitudes.  Everyone is doing gratitude and has been for years, so I need to make a real commitment to it.  Why? Because I want to fit in and follow social rules.  That’s what we teach our kids — fit in, go with the flow, follow social rules — so I need to model it myself.  I think I’ve said something like this several times on my blog, but maybe this time I can really do it.

This is a challenge, but I will rise to it.  Day 1.  Here we go.

Today, with her express permission, I am grateful for my friend Patti and her son Benji.  Last weekend, Benji came over for a while.  When I dropped him off, my kids started snickering as I pulled into his driveway. I eventually saw why, as I walked up to the front door:

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Yes, that is her door cover for the holidays.

(**No I don’t have express permission to reprint this image here, but it was on Patti’s door.  I’ve never bothered to understand the vagaries of copyright law.  I hope I don’t get sued.  In the meantime here’s a link so you can purchase this door cover on amazon if you want.)

When Patti opened the door, I sighed deeply and gave her a big hug.  I told her, in so many words: any time I observe an adult other than me being entertained by poop humor, I am thankful — because in that moment I know I’m not alone.

But Poopy Santa isn’t my only reason for being thankful for Patti and Benji.  Dare I say it (at risk of provoking argument): I’m not that shallow.

Last winter, when Jesse began weekly therapy in earnest for anorexia, the regular time slot her therapist was able to give us was on Saturday mornings.  For a few sessions, we brought Nick along.

It was not ideal.  Both Anthony and I needed to be with Jesse at the sessions, but it was really hard for Nick to sit in session, and even harder for him to sit alone out in the waiting room playing on his iPad and wallowing in stranger anxiety.  There was much fidgeting and much disruption, along with the occasional erudite interjection that stopped all the adults in our tracks.  Nick has a way of cutting to the heart of important things, when he isn’t bouncing off  the walls.

I don’t remember how it happened, but soon after we began this schedule, Patti offered to let us drop Nick off at her home every Saturday morning. It was hard to say yes.  I felt like we were imposing mightily, and I felt terrible for abandoning Nick.  Patti is a single mom and a high school teacher and a doting mom, which means that during the school year her life is insane! But she insisted that Saturday mornings were fine.

I stepped back and reminded myself that Nick loves a playdate with Benji; that I would offer the same; that there’s no shame in needing my village; and that the gift of being needed is almost as important as the gift of having a need met.  So I said yes.

Nearly a year later, Nick and Benji continue to have as many Saturday morning playdates as we can manage.  Jesse’s sessions have moved to every other week, so on off weeks we try to have Benji over to our house.  There are many thank you’s going on in all directions.

I am grateful for so many things about Patti and Benji.  They accept my family with all its foibles and quirks. Patti has a belly laugh that fills my cup every time I hear it.  Benji has a silly imagination that sits just right with Nick and me. Patti and Benji are both generous and funny, and they’ve given us a steady trickle of love and acceptance in a year when we really needed it.

But I’ll be honest, Patti:  you had me forever at poopy Santa.

#GrumpyGratitude

Shiny happy people all day long

My therapist says I can be less depressed by acting less depressed. I know this is a fairly common idea in cognitive behavior therapy, what with the CBT triangle and all that, but it still tickles me.

The CBT triangle is not something I am very good at, and I think I’ve talked about it in this forum before because it confuses me no end. Thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, in a vicious cycle that you can make or break by changing one of those things. As the folks at the mental institution that failed Jesse pointed out, it’s hardest to change feelings, less hard but still hard to change thoughts, easiest to change behaviors. So, they like to work on behaviors. It’s like the opposite of how I imagined therapy would be.  Instead of, “tell me about your dreams,” it’s all practical. Do this, do that.  Bossy Pants Therapists.  Who knew?

The classic CBT triangle, I was taught by the Institutional Fails, involves hypothetical dogs.  You get bit when you’re a kid, so you decide dogs are dangerous. So every time you see a dog, you feel scared, and then you have an associated behavior, like screaming and running.

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So someone stuck in a dysfunctional cycle like this, to the point where, say, a chihuahua is making them scream and run, might try something. Instead of talking about whether 2-pound dogs are actually dangerous, or about your feelings, the institutional fails will place you in the presence of a dog and ask you to stay there.  It’s called an exposure.  Stay there, and don’t scream and run. Theoretically, you realize in a few moments that the chihuahua is not in fact dangerous, and that in turn starts to change your feeling of fear.

Unless the chihuahua bites you and sepsis sets in and next thing you know, you’re in the ER. Then what?

(By the way ooooh lookie I made a thing in powerpoint!!)

When I draw CBT triangles, I think they come out wrong.  Granted, I haven’t done this specifically with my expert therapist, because we’re still in the “getting to know you and build trust” phase I think, but I like to forge ahead so I’ve been thinking about these triangles. Here’s my basic run at myself, big picture:

Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 7.53.37 PM.png

I don’t know.  But yeah, that’s about right. So now I’m supposed to act less depressed by replacing the wall-staring and poor-hygiene behaviors with something else.

I think I’ve tried that a bit already, like this:

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Still not right.  Definitely not right.

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THAT’S IT.  I just need to stop walking around muttering about everyone sucking, and then I will be cured.

The thing is, the alternatives to depressive behaviors and hating people are all exposures, and I do it all the time.  I really do. I may not shower as regularly as I should, or brush my hair in the morning, but I do lots of things to try to convince myself that people — including me — don’t suck.  I volunteer for things and help people and show up and try to do stuff, and I smile and shake people’s hands, but it doesn’t really make me less depressed.  It triggers my social anxiety, it gives me the occasional full-on stomach-gurgling panic attack, but it doesn’t get to the meat of my down-ness. I also have dear friends, new and old, wonderful people who somehow understand that when I say things like “I hate people” and “people suck,” I don’t actually include them.  These people actually tolerate me.  Why?  Why?

I mean, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that people don’t suck, there’s always the news.  Look at the politicians we elect. Look at our stinking president.  Look at global climate change and the global indifference to it.  Look at how hard it is for women and people of color to get a fair hand, still, even now in the 21st century. Look at how we’re treating children at the Texas border.  Look at the way the rich oligarchs are running our world into the ground — look at how much wealth a few people have amassed, while millions and millions of really desperate people could live for years just on the value of the diamonds and trinkets they own.  And it’s STILL not enough to assuage their greed.  They want more and more and more.

I’ve been having recent conversations with my kids about wealth.  What does it take to amass, say, 8 BILLION dollars in wealth?  It’s not just hard work. Let’s face it, most of the richest people are folks who got rich investing other people’s money in someone else’s ventures.  Is it hard work to sit at a desk and roll dice?  Plus it takes a hoarding mentality to keep that kind of wealth. You have to be unwilling to give it away.  How much of that money can one person — or even one extended family — spend in a lifetime?

* * * * *

I think I lost track of myself here.  Right. I was talking about acting less depressed.  Clearly, I can’t just stop thinking people suck.  I also can’t just stop thinking I suck; that’s a big ask.

I can, however, make a birthday cake for Nick.  He’s having a little birthday party tomorrow, and (as is typical of Nick) he made a verrrrry specific cake request.  Flat cake, a little bit of frosting, lots of marshmallow fondant.  Decorated in 2D: castle, moat filled with sea creatures, draw bridge, dragon peering on from the side but not burning the castle down.  I wanted the dragon to be attacking the castle, but Nick says absolutely not. I’m not allowed to add flames. Check.

But I think making and decorating this cake for Nick will make me happy and, for a time, less depressed.

There, so I think I can draft a proposed replacement CBT triangle.

Screen Shot 2019-07-12 at 8.12.04 PM.png

This is an exposure therapy I can make a run at.  Wish me luck.

 

 

 

You say anorexia, I say anaconda

Nature metaphors are over-rated, especially when they ask us to model ourselves after  feral, instinct-driven animals.

My racing thoughts on this topic began after a friend sent me this tweet, which looks like it’s from @JenAshleyWright (careful attribution is essential in this day and age):

People talk about caterpillars becoming a butterflies [sic] as though they just go into a cocoon, slap on wings, and are good to go.  Caterpillars have to dissolve into a disgusting pile of goo to become butterflies. So if you’re a mess wrapped up in blankets right now, keep going.”

That’s innocent enough on the surface, and I get the sentiment (though I personally haven’t encountered folks who think caterpillars just slap on wings).  However, when one (hypothetically a reference to me, as I hold up my index finger didactically) gives too much thought to these things, the whole “be like a caterpillar” thing falls apart.

Scientific American describes what happens in the chrysalis as a process in which “the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues.”

Oh dear.

This starts to feel like a serious existential exploration. Is the eventual butterfly the same being as the caterpillar? Is the caterpillar actually transformed into something else, or does something more sinister and miserable happen — less becoming beautiful and more becoming, say… dead?  Does the caterpillar really want to turn to goo so that its DNA can be recombined to become a butterfly? Can you imagine feeling a compulsion to EAT YOURSELF AND DISSOLVE YOUR TISSUES? Is this a good go-to analogy as you lay wrapped up in your blanket feeling bad about things?

* * * * *

My kids went to a nature preschool at an Audubon center, where they discovered many dead things.  One year a coyote died near a little pond on the grounds, and there its body lay rotting for many months, and then the bones lay there for some more years.  The kids visited the site often and observed the progression.  I loved the teachers because they didn’t make any moral statements about it; rather, they taught observational facts. The coyote died. Its body fed many other things that are essential to the food chain.  The bones slowly disappeared.

There were enormous dead trees that went the same course, named things like Grandpa Tree and Grandma Tree.  They lived and then they eventually died.  As they lived and died, birds and other creatures fed on them, lived on them, raised families in them.  Eventually everything crumbled to fine bits of organic matter and fed the earth.

The kids would hunt and find death everywhere on their hikes.  Parts of animals — entrails, brains, piles feathers, bits of bone, owl pellets — and occasionally the real treasure, an entire dead animal.  There was mostly curiosity on the trail, not a lot of dread.  The teachers would get sticks and let the kids poke, teach gentle informational lessons. Is there evidence that tells us how this animal died? What does the pellet say the owl ate? What type of bird do these feathers belong to, and what type of creature ate the bird?

There was life too, of course — lessons on transformation and birth, the 2-year life cycle of dragonflies, the patterns of leaves on different types of trees, when and where different wildflowers bloom, how to spot poison ivy, the connections between bees and butterflies and everything else, the role of prairies, finding edible plants, and on and on. But underneath the beauty, the truth is that feral nature is an absolutely brutal place; a bitter and painful battle for life awaits most wild creatures, followed by a bitter and painful death.

D.H. Lawrence wrote this haunting little poem called Self-Pity:

I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

How does D.H. know it didn’t feel sorry for itself?  Maybe, right up to its death, it was afraid and filled with impotent rage — wondering in its little tweety bird brain why it had to be so f*&#ing cold this winter.

  * * * * *

But everyone loves an animal metaphor, and since I’m working very hard on being popular these days, because I like people so much and I want to spend lots of time with lots of them, I will now use an animal metaphor.  I will make it plain and simple, because I am not sophisticated.

Anacondas are these mostly large, scary constrictor snakes. They are non-venomous, but they are still bad news.  They lurk, camouflaged, in the murky waters of steamy jungle rivers, waiting for hapless prey to stop by.  An anaconda will wrap its muscle-bound length around its meal and squeeze the living hell out of it, either suffocating or drowning it, or stopping blood to the brain and causing ischemia.  Once the prey is dead (so kind of Mr. Snake to wait), the anaconda swallows that meal whole.

This, as far as I can tell, is anorexia in a nutshell.

When Jesse was first diagnosed, the kids couldn’t remember the label.

“Anna-what, mom?”

“I have an eating disorder.  Something called, um, Anna-rook-sa.”

“Jesse has a thing, I think it’s called ano, ano, anna… um, I don’t know. Mommy, what’s it called?”

I should have told them to call it anaconda, they would have remembered that.

Like an anaconda, anorexia lurks in the brain, hidden behind other labels and tucked carefully in the armpit of low self-esteem.  It sits camouflaged behind all the dumb-ass cultural norms that objectify the human form, especially the female one, and ask girls to build their self-esteem out of how they look instead of who they are and what they do.

For Jesse, it slithered up behind the weight gain and then the weight loss she experienced from trying a medication for her mental health.  It masqueraded as her body’s adjustment to med changes until it started crushing the life out of her, denying her brain and muscles the energy and mass they need to grow and thrive.

That’s a pretty good metaphor.

Onward:  One of the only animals that can take out an anaconda is the mighty and beautiful jaguar.

I am a jaguar, mighty and beautiful. (Intone it with a proud stance and a fist in the air, for full effect.)

Like the jaguar, I have stealth, speed, claws like ginsu knives, and a bite that can crush bone.  This is how I will take out the anaconda, aka, Jesse’s anorexia.

GRRRRWOOOOOOOOWR.

No no no no no.  And this is why animal metaphors are of limited use in real human life.  I am not a jaguar.  I am not stealthy, speedy, or bone-crushing.  I am just a human mom, and Jesse is just a human girl, each of us trying to make it to the next day without squeezing the joy out of each other.

* * * * *

I will say this though.  Life with a child who is anorexic feels very wild and feral.  My world is a brutal place: a bitter and painful battle for Jesse’s life awaits me each day, as I try to protect and extract her from the anaconda inside her.

I wake up slightly terrified and already exhausted most mornings, wondering if today is a day when Jesse eats enough. Is today the day I take her to the ER? Is today the day her weight finally goes so low that her body starts attacking her heart?

I know each morning she looks in the mirror and sees her distorted self, fat and hideous in her eyes — but in reality, hungry and hollow.  Still so beautiful.  But I can’t fix that for her.  I can only feed her, hoping that her brain someday has enough energy to sensibly process fact and fiction, emotion and reality.  I slouch downstairs and plan her day’s meals in my mind. I eventually make breakfast and call to her.

Many days — though not always anymore — she comes down yelling, sometimes with a charge and a few slaps thrown in for good measure.  WHY DO YOU MAKE ME EAT?? WHY???  WHY CAN’T YOU STOP CARING ABOUT ME, LIKE OTHER PARENTS DO?  YOU WON’T BE SATISFIED UNTIL I’M FAT!

Onward ho, with moments of misery and yelling scattered through the day.  Many days, I fail to keep my cool and yell back. Some days, I do better.  I know — somewhere deep down that I can’t reach in the moment — that I’m yelling at the anaconda, not my daughter.  I want to kill it so bad.  I want it to stop squeezing the life out her.  I would do anything to make it stop.

But how is she to know that?  She only knows that my yelling is directed at her. So we battle all day long about food and about her body checking, and she grows more and more sure that I hate her.  In my world, that’s what love looks like when an anaconda attacks your child.

 * * * * *

On a day when we’re trying to have fun — it’s summer after all — we hit the pool at the gym.  We walk in the main doors and Jesse is all over me, loud and proud with her anger and distortions.  I CAN’T PUT MY SWIMSUIT ON, I’M TOO FAT. WHY DIDN’T YOU BRING [whatever item she refused to wear last time] SO I COULD WEAR THAT?? WHY ARE YOU LOOKING AT ME THAT WAY?? WHY ARE YOU ALWAYS SO ANGRY!!

She chases me down the hall, hitting my back with her fists.

I try to calm the anaconda, try desperately to hold onto my equanimity as people stare and my discomfort grows.  We make it to the family lockers and Jesse goes into a dressing room alone.  We can all hear her yelling at her image in the mirror, random animal noises of misery.  I walk in to try to move her forward, and I fail.  Instead I end up lecturing her about how embarrassed I am by how she treats me in public, and as I grab her wrist to stop her from flailing she screams out, STOP HURTING ME, YOU’RE HURTING ME!! I step out of the room into a central area, where two parents and four kids are staring at me, unblinking.  My son Nick has already escaped to the pool.

I ignore the strangers.  I gaze down in utter humiliation and fuss with our pool gear.

Next time, I’ll shrug, look them in the eye and say, “There’s a large constrictor snake in there. I was just trying to get it off my daughter, but she doesn’t want my help.”

 * * * * *

It’s been nearly a year since the anaconda joined us in the kitchen and in Jesse’s body.  It is a relentless predator, but I hope that I’m more relentless.  I go through so many emotions.  Fear, anger, desperation, humiliation, confusion, contrition, frustration. I weep every day at least once, often after walking into a closet so my kids won’t see me. I wish I could find acceptance and peace, but this is a hard ask in the wilderness.

When Jesse’s tics are coming on, sometimes I say a thing to her. It’s the same thing I say to myself when I feel the rage coming on — if I’m able to slow down and find the space to say it.  This feeling, this need inside you, it’s just one piece of you.  You can send the rest of your mind to the little space inside you where that feeling is.  You can observe it there, accept it without judgment.  You can look at it from any angle you want. Then you can say no to it.  You can put it in the parking lot.  You can tell it to wait.  It’s not all of you.

Some days I succeed, some days I fail.  As for Jesse’s anaconda, it’s still wrapped tightly around her after a year.

But it hasn’t killed her yet. The battle is still on.

 

 

 

I’m baaaaack. Still grumpy

It has been roughly a year and eight months since I quit writing in this space. It’s been so long that the entire WordPress interface has changed, so it took me five minutes just to navigate to the + sign that allowed me to start this post.

You are so lucky that I was successful, because I know you’ve been missing me, dear reader.  Or maybe you have no idea who I am.  It doesn’t matter.  Either way, I am still serious about my grumpy.

A lot has happened since October 2017.  Back then, in the dark ages, Jesse had built up to a cocktail of 4 or 5 meds to manage her behavioral and emotional needs.  I had also started taking citalopram, the SSRI that helped me pull out of a deep depressive funk.  Citalopram-Uh-Whamma!

It feels like a million years ago; we’ve come a long, hard distance since then.  here’s what’s been happening, condensed highlights edition.

One, I’m still really grumpy. I abandoned this blog but I didn’t abandon my shitty attitude. I’m trying to spruce it up by showing grumpy gratitude, which is my new thing, but deep down, I still hate people and I’m just totally dismayed by humanity.  Which may help explain why I’m in therapy in earnest, to help me cope with all the shit that’s going on in our family’s life and the world, and also to address some deeper long-term issues between my ears.  Illustrative of the process is this recent exchange:

Me: I feel like when I learn to cope positively with some aspect of my life, my brain hunts down something else to feel overwhelmed about. There’s always something I can despair about even when things are going well at home, like the kids in the border concentration camps.

Therapist: Maybe it’s not despair. Maybe you just care. Maybe you’re just a kind person.

Me:  <silent WTF>

Also about a month ago I weaned myself from citalopram.  I was noticing a total lack of energy that didn’t make sense.  At first citalopram had given me energy back, because it helped me overcome a significant bout of depression.  But after a couple years it was time to get off it.  So here I am, in therapy, without meds, getting by.  Every two weeks I go to therapy with lots of problems, and about 55 minutes later I come out cured.  Fantastic.

Two, Jesse is fighting anorexia.  Add it to the hopper for this poor kid.  The list of labels just keeps growing.  A few months ago she participated in a youth panel on mental health issues, in front of an audience of hundreds.  You could have knocked me over with a feather as she went through her list in her sweet, quiet voice.  OCD, Tourette’s, depression, anxiety, anorexia.  She hadn’t been sure she wanted to admit that last bit, the new bit, but in the end she did.  So that’s been our Mt. Everest for the last year or so, you know, trying to keep her from collapsing or damaging her heart for life or dying, working hard to keep her from hospitalization and spare her the bitter, icy, indifferent grip of institutional treatment options and a feeding tube.

Three, anxiety hit Nick like a freight train this year, and no wonder.  He has a compassionate soul and is just an amazing little person, and his fears for his sister have spilled out into the rest of his life.  So he has his own therapist too, and she is the wife of my therapist.  It’s all in the family here.

Four, speaking of Mt. Everest, we have another dog. Her name is Everest and she is a full-throttle beast of a poodle.  Here, lemme find a few pics.  Because dog pics make everything better, and I am completely and utterly in love with her.

This is how she treats the kids.  She thinks they’re comfie seats.

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Good girl, Everest!  Good job suppressing Jesse!

She twerks.

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What a beauty, my good girl! Such a good dancy-dancy poodle girl! Such beautiful dingleberries!

And of course she does much worse than twerk.  Everest is a bounding maniac.  She blocks and tackles us on the stairs. She’ll drop a tennis ball at my feet as I sit, put her face one inch from my nose, and bark wildly at me until I play with her.  She attacks all guests — lovingly, but it’s awfully intense.  Also she pees on them if she gets too excited.  She likes to sleep porn-doggy style, flat on her back with her rear legs splayed out, her ass placed exactly on the pillow where my head is supposed to be. One day when I took her for a walk, she literally pulled me over when she started running, and she dragged me down the street a few yards before I could bring her to a halt and get back on my feet. Totally humiliating, but also, you go girl, you are a powerful beast of a dog despite your shee-shee looks and boujee breed reputation!

Everest is a poodle, and hence the second smartest breed of dog by most reckonings, and hence she enjoys working on a Rubik’s cube:

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Who’s my good girl, who’s my big smarty pants doggy?

Also she knows what to do with a Donald Trump Dammit Doll (bite, death shake, pull out stuffing, deliver to mommy).

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Good girl. Good dog! Such a smart dog, you even get politics, whoo-shjoo-boo-shjoo!

She is so smart that she thinks she can sit like a human.  IMG_1985

Good effort, my big beauty!

Everest weighs well over 60 pounds, so she is more than ten times as big as our original poodle, little Madeline. Here is how Madeline feels about having boisterous Everest join our family — grim, barely tolerable, horrifying state of affairs.

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There’s a strange love-hate kinda thing going on between these dogs, in which I think Madeline perceives herself — sadly, pathetically, erroneously — as the victorious dominatrix.  But Everest is wise and big and tolerant, and no amount of tiny-dog-snarling keeps her down.

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     * * * * * * * *

Enough about the dogs.  Let’s end with thoughts on what matters most here:  Me.  My therapist says that I have compassion fatigue, caregiver fatigue.  He says that I should work on self-identity and self-care, that I should find things to do for myself, things that take my mind off the worries and responsibilities.  He says that I should help my kids be more independent like an American mom, instead of weaning them late to responsibility like a Korean mom.

He’s right on all these fronts. I guess. Yesterday he suggested again, for the third or fourth time, that I would benefit from working on a sense of self-identity, apart from service to others.  I threw up my hands, literally. I don’t know what that means, I blurted.  I don’t even know where to begin that journey. I don’t have an identity apart from what I do for others, do I?  What’s the point of existence if it’s just to satisfy my own needs?  How can that be a life of meaning?

He stared at me for a moment and did The Therapy Thing.  “Why do you think you feel that way?”

Uuuuuuuugh.  Aaaaaaaagh.  PSPSHHHSPSPHSHPHHHH. (is that how you spell a raspberry?)

Well and so I had a big cry and talked about deep memories and I don’t know if it’ll help, but I was exhausted when I walked out of his office.  It’s all good. I’m cured until I see him again in two weeks.

But… this is why I’m going to try to write again.  This blog was one of the few things I did just for me, until I quit a year or two ago to make space for all the needs of my family and all the volunteer commitments I made to school organizations and other stuff.  I’m going to discover my own, independent me, my big beautiful grumpy me, not Me-Too but just ME!  Me me me me.

I bet you’re really looking forward to it.