and here we go

I haven’t posted anything since Christmas eve. Just a few days ago I started writing something about spring and plants and some stupid shit, but today I’ve set that vapid nonsense aside for real life. This morning, we finally took the leap and agreed to admit Jesse to an outpatient treatment program for OCD and anxiety, at a local hospital that specializes in treating mental health disorders and illnesses.

I started out wanting to find some sort of support group for kids with OCD and extreme anxiety, to supplement the weekly private therapy sessions we already go to. It turns out, such a support group doesn’t exist in this area. There is, however, a local hospital system, called Rogers, that treats OCD. I spied them out on the internet and learned they have some outpatient programs for kids, and it got me to wondering. It didn’t take long for Anthony and me to acknowledge that the past 12 months have been the worst year of Jesse’s still-short life and our much longer lives. Every day is a struggle, in one way or another. She remains largely friendless, alienated, miserable. Lately she has developed a physical affect, her behaviors increasingly erratic, her eyes dark with misery and fear, her mind distracted almost completely and almost always by whatever lurks inside her. Every single weekday I wonder if I should bother to send her to school. As parents, Anthony and I are emotionally exhausted.

I was shopping at Whole Foods when the Rogers intake person called me back for the initial screening interview, to collect information to determine whether Jesse was a good fit for their program. I tucked my half-full shopping cart near the checkout lanes and sat at the bar in the hip eating area, staring out the store’s front windows. I answered question after question, trying not to cry too obviously or talk too loudly. We went through the laundry list. Does she have issues with cleanliness? Does she have obsessive thoughts about sex? Violence? Religion? Harming people? Is she cruel to animals? What percentage of her time do you think she has obsessive thoughts? What percentage of her time does she engage in compulsive behaviors? Is she afraid of school? Does she have panic attacks? Does she have temper tantrums? Does she try to hurt herself? On a scale of 0 to 10, 0 being totally functional and 10 being non-functional, where would you put her?

Is she ever happy?

The answer to this last one was so simple, and it required no explanatory clauses. “No.”

Clarity shaped itself around my answers. My child isn’t falling apart anymore: she has already gone to pieces. She can’t pull herself back together. Neither can I.

I waited anxiously for several days to hear back from Rogers. The doctors apparently looked at the screening interview notes and made some decisions. I got the call from the admissions lady today, informing me that they thought Jesse would be a good fit and they could get her in right away.

I promptly fell to pieces. Heaving, bellowing sobs unexpectedly took me from toes to shoulders. The nice lady was still talking. I spoke as clearly as I could through the convulsions. “Can you just wait a second? I just started crying and I can’t make out what you’re saying. I’m gonna try to take some deep breaths, give me a second.”

It was pretty clear this wasn’t the first time she had a parent fall apart at this moment in the conversation.

And so off we go on a new path in the journey. Three days this week, Anthony and I will accompany Jesse to 3-hour sessions with hospital staff to go over her situation and make a plan. Starting next week, she goes 4 days a week for 3 hours a day to a small group of kids and adolescents, for probably 8 to 12 weeks. A parent always has to be present. The commute is 45 minutes each way. The telephone lady remarked that she knew what a hassle it would be for us. I replied that it couldn’t be any worse than what we already endure at home every day.

I’ll try not to think about all the ways Nick is going to be overlooked in this process.  He’s 6 years old and well-adjusted, and I think he’ll be glad to see some improvement in Jesse’s behaviors. We’ll make it up to him somehow.

When my call with the Rogers person ended today, the sobs came barreling back. I laid my head on the desk and wept, and wept, and wept. I almost vomited. I hyperventilated. I smeared blue ink all over my face as I wiped away my tears with my calloused fists, because the only pen I could find to write with when I was taking notes on the phone was one of the kids’ goddam washable crayola markers in baby blue, and that stuff just gets everywhere.

I eventually took a deep breath and called my dear friend Erin. I was supposed to help her with a  tile job in her house tomorrow. Erin has known Jesse since she was three. “Hey Erin. I can’t help you tomorrow, I have something better I have to do.” There was silence from the other end of the line. “I have to take Jesse to a mental institution instead.”

Erin broke into peals of affectionate laughter. It was exactly what I needed to hear. And then she talked me down as I continued to shed tears.

I know this isn’t my “fault.” I know, rationally, that I’m not to blame. But my emotions aren’t there yet. Not only do I feel guilty for letting Jesse down and waiting too long to go this route, but I also worry about being too much of a martyr about it. I find myself trying to put Jesse’s suffering into perspective. Mental illness looks like nothing, really. I can easily say to myself that she’s better off than this person or that person — she doesn’t have cystic fibrosis, cancer, epilepsy, MS, physical disabilities, deformities, muscle weaknesses, intellectual disabilities, or any missing parts anywhere on her body.

But I know that’s a lie. Mental illness looks like suffering. It looks like self-loathing, self-injury, suicide. It looks like life cut short and lived hollow and imprisoned. Untreated, I know that’s what it’ll be for Jesse.

So we’re in. I’ll continue to let you know how it’s going when I can.

grumpy about happify

It’s time once again to see if I can claw my way out of grumpy space and into someplace better. Recently I haven’t been successful pursuing happiness for no reason, despite best-selling author Marci Shimoff’s assurances that I should be able to do that. I’m still struggling with grumpy, and even depression and anxiety.

Maybe it’s because our house has been a shambles for 6 months as a result of our renovation project, and my body is starting to tire from all the manual labors and my fingers are bending sideways from arthritis and I’m sick of the filth. I don’t want the PODS unit in my front yard anymore. It feels exactly the same as having a wheel-less car up on blocks out there, and small rodents are making homes under it. Maybe it’s because we sent the dog to the babysitter for a month and my son cries every day for missing her, and I miss her too. Maybe it’s because my daughter is in a tailspin because of her anxiety disorder and flaring OCD. Maybe it’s because the intrusive, obsessive thoughts she can’t get out of her mind right now involve penises and sexuality and cutting her family up with knives, which is extremely disturbing and a terrible affliction for her. Maybe it’s because she got suspended from school for a day after standing up suddenly in a math class and screaming out compulsively that she wants to have sex with all the boys.

(Meditative pause)

Nah. That’s probably not it.

More likely it’s because I don’t work at one of the Fortune 500 companies where Marci the chicken soup lady does seminars and plies her trade, selling happiness for 20 bucks a pop, corporate discount included.

I know it’s my own fault, because I haven’t replaced my cup of morning coffee with a cup of connection. My chakras are obviously out of balance and in need of an adjustment. I’ve been in touch with my grumpy chakras, not my love chakras or my happiness chakras.

The all-knowing Universe has seen my need. The Big U secretly friended me on Facebook and presented me with a link to the website for HAPPIFY. Numerous times. I investigated (aka I mouse-clicked and random-googled), and I quickly learned from Happify that “worrying is a waste of [my] intelligence.”

Good advice. I’ll try not to worry about the fact that “happify” is annoyingly NOT A REAL WORD. It’s a noun that’s been gussied up to masquerade as a verb, along the lines of… liquify. Or stupefy.

Okay, okay, I can accept that. To happify: to make someone happy. To stupefy: to make someone stupid. Totally get it.

I suppose the next question is inevitable. Which will be done to me if I enter the world of Happify?

According to Happify, “It’s an exciting time for those who want to overcome negative thoughts, worries, and everyday stress. Happify has turned a decade’s worth of research into a series of activities and games that train your brain and build skills for lasting happiness. That’s our mission. Discover what our personalized tracks can do for you. They are effective and measurable.”

I mean, look at these numbers.

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Hold on a minute. I’m tucking my unmitigated cynicism away for a bit as I go on a hunt for my personalized happify track.

* * * * * * *

I believe the way it works is, you do stuff for free a little bit until you’re hooked, and then you can pay a monthly fee to have access to all new levels of happifying activities.

Isn’t it fascinating how “free” and “fee” are so similar when they roll off the tongue? Just throw in a little growl, and you can make such a big difference.

Here’s the important point: this shit is science-based and measurable. In case that isn’t enough to grab you, it is also important to the Happify people that you know that they’ve been featured in The New York Times, Forbes, Today, The New Yorker, AND World 3.0 with Katie Couric.  Whoa.

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Yes, yes! I’m ready to train for happiness! I’m so ready to elevate my optimism, be fearless, conquer negative thoughts, fix relationship friction and re-pattern stress!

Wow, that’s asking a lot. I gotta do all that to be happy? I definitely need help.

I’m joining Happify.

I have to do a starter questionnaire. The first question sets me off.

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“Everyone’s different.” That’s deep. NOT. I do feel that I’m female, and this is consistent with my current body parts. But let me explain the answer I selected. When I read “none of the above,” I look above. Because this shit is science based, so I expect the materials to be precise. But there is nothing there. There is no option above to select. And I am not nothing, nor do I have any of “the above” in my gender that I know of. So this seems like the correct answer. I think it’s a trick question.

Anyway, now that I’m IN, Happify says  I can WIN happiness!

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Happiness is winnable! I never knew! I didn’t know happiness came from a competition. I thought it was something more… cooperative and peaceable.

This is a whole new paradigm for me. No wonder I haven’t been finding happiness. Other people are winning it instead of me.

* * * * * *

I’ve finished my deeply insightful, 6-question, multiple-choice questionnaire, and so Happify has offered me a track.

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Happify nailed it. I’m starting my free track.

* * * * * *

Happify takes me to a menu of sorts and instructs me to “start depositing positive emotions in [my] bank.” I have just 10 days to earn gold. Damn. Performance pressure right up front.

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This money analogy is just as confusing to me as the winning thing. Happiness is about wealth? I should connect happiness in my life to images of money? I’ve been so off-base on this happiness thing, no wonder I’m grumpy all the time. Normally I would be skeptical and cynical about this, but since Happify is based on solid science, I’m going along with it. I sooo need to find some happy.

I start with the first option offered. “Uplift.” What might this be? I feel a sense of anticipation as I prepare to conquer my negative thoughts.

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I read the instructions. Aha. It’s a game. Pick out and focus on the positive words. Happy air balloons. Got it. I click start.

The game consists of air balloons floating about on the screen with ephemeral words appearing and disappearing on them. I have to click on the balloon before the positive word disappears, and then the balloon “launches” away and I get points. If I click on a balloon bearing a negative word, I get dinged and lose points.  I rub my hands together in anticipation and work on peppy thoughts. Sorry, happy thoughts, happify, not peppify. Happiness coming right at me. Soon. Getting rid of my negativity, right here right now. With the air balloons.

I start clicking away. “Cozy.” “Comfort.” “Love.” Gosh, those words don’t last for very long on the balloons before they disappear. GAH! I almost caught “success” but right when I was clicking it, the word disappeared and was replaced by “honk.” Minus 20 points for “Honk”? WTF?? F&*ing game, who comes up with this shit. I start noticing the negative words. “Hoax, clutter, mold.” I see “muddy” and click on it. Minus 20 points.

Wait just a honking minute! “Muddy” is a negative word? What the hell is wrong with mud? Mud is good! Mud, dirt, nature, gardening, lots of positive associations. Good, right??

Nooooo, science-based happy gaming says it’s bad, BAD. And there are balloons everywhere now! They’ve filled the screen in a giant balloon mess. I have to concentrate, but I can’t stop thinking about “muddy” and how off base that is, so I just click on every goddam balloon I can reach and “-20” keeps showing up all over the screen so I can’t read any of the F*$&ing words anyway.

Game over.

I suck, and now I’m all stressed out.

But Happify isn’t done with me yet. It gives me power ups to improve my performance. Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 9.18.58 PM Screen Shot 2015-10-09 at 9.18.25 PM

But you know what, that doesn’t make me any happier. Why do I need to UNLOCK power ups? Why couldn’t I chill out and have a best case beacon up front?

I take a deep breath and try again. It goes pretty much the same.

This game sucks. It has decidedly not reduced my negative thinking.

* * * * * *

I decide to try the next game. Maybe this is like exercise. The balloon game was a first round, and I feel shitty the way your body gets sore after you start a new exercise regime. But the next game will make me happier.

This one is called “negative knockout.” Awesome, because images of boxing, one of the most violent sports on earth, is super uplifting and happifying. I start with “the battle at stormy meadows.” More excellent, positive imagery: war. What better way to solve problems? I have to select 5 negative words from a sort of screen mess of negative words. Then when I start the game, the words are on signs being held by little monster-ish creatures. I lob happy things at them to knock them (and the negative words) out.

I apparently choose guilt, fear, unease, insult, and bitterness. After a round or two, I realize this game is a shameless knock-off of Angry Birds, only there’s less of a parabolic feel to the flight path. It’s frustrating.

When I win a round (I knock over all the negative ninnies), I get this happy shiny message.

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I knocked out my worries! Yay! I’m no longer filled with guilt, fear, unease, insult, and bitterness! But then I get to harder levels. Each time I fail to knock out the bad’ns, a moody grayness creeps westward over the screen.

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GAH!  I have to knock those fuckers out — SHIT SHIT SHIT I LOST THE ROUND!! I’m trapped in a dead, barren wasteland without meaning or color.

This is still not making me feel happier.

* * * * * *

I decide to give Happify’s opening track one last try. I click on a third option.

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Let me just say — though I know it’s not a happifying thought — that I think a fancy web page that’s trying to sell crap to me should be able to spell the word “Thanks” out correctly, with all the correct letters. What, their web creators were working on a smart phone and couldn’t be bothered to type the whole word?

But I digress. I need to focus on today’s victories. I try my best. Honest.

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And then I click “happify it!” I wait for something amazing to happen. Nothing happens. This is just a log entry. A chance for Happify to collect data about me.  Well now they’ve done it. They’ve collected data about the shit going on in my life.

* * * * * *

It’s good to know that someone’s out there, putting together a bunch of happiness games to help people feel better. We need more of that sort of altruism in this world. I’m obviously not the right market — my brain must not be wired up right for these games to be working in their intended way — but there must be really awesome people behind this quest to happify the world.

I decide to read about them.

The CEO and co-founder is a guy named Tomer Ben-Kiki. Seriously, with a name like that how can you not be a happy fellow? He likes to scuba-dive. He’s a start-up guy.

The president is Ofer Leidner.

Who named these people?

Ofer would like to help people “dance their faces off.”

That is kind of creepy.

The chief scientist is actually named “Acacia Parks.” Doesn’t that sound fake too?

After perusing the peeps running Happify, one thing becomes abundantly clear. These folks like to start tech companies and make money. They’ve done it in a variety of subject areas. They are in it for money. Happify may be selling happiness to you, but its motivation is profit. You figure the odds that it offers a true path to happiness.

* * * * * *

Is being grumpy the same as being negative and not happy? I have to think about this.

(20 seconds later)

No, grumpy isn’t the same as negative and unhappy, in my grumpy opinion. It’s rare that I get in a mood like this, but let me get on the grumpy soap box for a second and do some preaching, because I’ve been pretty depressed lately, and I know a lot of loving people are really worried about (and rooting for) me and mine.

I do think it’s possible to be in a depressive episode, or trapped in a terrible situation, and “happy” at the same time. Not singing-in-the-rain happy, but deeply contented at the core of things. Settled and satisfied — the sort of feeling that leads a person to say things like, “I’m pretty blessed.” That sort of happy can anchor you through the bad times and keep you from disappearing.

There’s my real conceit. Despite all my whining and bitching and moaning, despite my self-loathing and guilt, I actually feel really blessed. I am incredibly happy at the root of things. I was born into a loving (albeit insane) family. I lucked into love with an amazing man I can’t possibly deserve. My children are… well, they’re children. What can I say.

Okay, okay, I can say that they’re spectacular human beings. All our flaws together amount to nothing, next to the love we have for each other.

It really worries me that there are so many disembodied solutions being offered for personal happiness and emotional wellness. People who mass-market happiness don’t care about any particular individual buying their products; they don’t know any of us little people. They have their own best interests at heart — the almighty buckaroos they’re searching for or the massive infantile ego they need to feed — and they’re selling little more than a superficial, pretty package.

I say, if you want to find a happier you, look local. Find a friend, a therapist, a family member — someone who looks at you, sees you, hears your story — and have that person help you find a way forward. Or find something to do locally to enrich your life — charitable work, gardening, volunteer tutoring, exercise, anything that’s about you and your relationship with what’s nearby. Don’t waste your time on useless mantras written by people who’ve never met you, don’t know you, and don’t give a rat’s ass about you (with my apologies to the much-maligned-yet-highly-loving-and-intelligent rat).

And don’t believe it when they tell you you’re going to find happiness at the end of some journey.  If you’re waiting to find your way there, you’re fucked. You’ll never arrive. There’s no terminus. If we have to use this stupid travel metaphor, then let’s get it right at least. Happiness is the road, and it’s covered in potholes, bad drivers, and roadkill. Stay the course. Make fun of the things that piss you off, including yourself. Laugh and yell at the losers, including yourself. Cry if you have to. I know I have been a lot lately. And let yourself suck sometimes. Go on then. Just suck at everything. And when you’re done, pick up the pieces, wipe the bile off the front of your shirt, and get a move on. There are probably people depending on you, so get out there and take care of them instead of playing ridiculous games on sites like Happify.

depressed again, naturally.

Once in a while the threads that keep me airborne break and I crash into the muck of depression. It’s happening again, and I always spend way too much time in these episodes pondering whether it’s really situational or just me, because I know I could be handling it better.

* * * * *

Jesse has taken her version of Carlin’s seven-dirty-words routine to school. “FUCKSHITPENISASS!” Her classmates are startled and a little scared, her teacher reports. Jesse ends up in the counselor’s office alone to do her work most days.

The words sit inside Jesse like an ever-present, vomitous bile. She told her teacher, “I feel like I need to say the words, and if I don’t, it turns into a burning feeling in my throat that gets worse and worse, until I have to say them.”

We still don’t have an official diagnosis of anything except anxiety; but if that doesn’t sound like a plain case of Tourette’s syndrome, I don’t know what does. Maybe it’s time to push the shrink for a formal diagnosis, so we can get a game plan on with the school. People worry about the stigma of a diagnosis, but what could be more stigmatizing that being the classroom’s resident freak show, even if the syndrome remains unnamed?

The outbursts are confusing and humiliating for Jesse. I started telling the teacher about Jesse’s alienation and friendless state. I couldn’t get all the words out, because the tears would have come out too. I didn’t feel like crying. I’ve already been crying too much lately.

Jesse has barricaded herself behind a fortress of anger and hostility. She doesn’t cry for emotions anymore, just physical pain and rage. She’s mean to all of us, even the dog. We keep hunting for chinks; Citalopram is definitely opening some cracks, but it’s slow going. A couple days ago, Jesse told me, “I’m not easy to break on the outside, mommy. But inside, I’m real easy to break.” I stuck my finger in the chink as hard and fast as I could. I asked her to break easy on the outside, to let us see her hurting so we can help her.

Jesse thinks her creativity is linked to her rage. Anthony and I chided her. Creative people are vulnerable and open, not cruel and closed up. True human insight comes from that softness, buttressed by the courage to speak — not from anger and cruelty.

* * * * *

Jesse likes to threaten to kill us all these days. “I hate you. I’m gonna kill you! I hate you! I hate you! I wish you were dead!”

A few nights ago I couldn’t take it anymore, the incessant rant of threats, death wishes, weird cussing and sexual references. It was too much. I stood next to Jesse, who was holding a block of wood she took off the top of the newel post for our basement stairs. “Just do it, Jesse. End my misery. Kill me. You can use that block to do it. Just brain me. Hit me in the head, over and over again. I’m begging you.”

She stared at me in shock. “What??”

“You heard me,” I answered. “Do it. Stop making noise. If you want to kill me, do it. Me and daddy. Just get it over with. Stop being a bully and making threats. Just get on with it.”

Anthony stood next to me. Kill us. Then we’ll be dead like you want. You’ll have exactly what you want.

In that moment, I meant it. I felt peaceful about it. I was ready to take the blows. I was ready to make the final sacrifice. Maybe it would teach her a final lesson.

Jesse ran upstairs and sobbed on the sofa. I didn’t understand her reaction.

* * * * *

My heart breaks and breaks and breaks for Jesse, even as my own rage breaks the dam I build every morning as I plan out how I’ll survive another day of her verbal and physical abuse. I keep waiting for relief, and I weep every day as I wait. I try to do it in private places where no one will see me. No one likes a cry baby. But once in a while I can’t stop it. Nick thinks it’s all his fault, amplifying my guilt; his soft brown eyes brim with tears as he hugs me and asks me to stop. Jesse tells me coldly to stop being a cry baby, but she can’t hide the startled sadness that lurks behind her huge green eyes.

Last week Nick’s teacher, Mrs. R, told me an anecdote. The kids were supposed to be drawing something they think about a lot. Nick was having trouble getting started. Mrs. R asked him what he was thinking about. “I’m thinking about how my mommy cries a lot when she’s sad, and sometimes I cry too because she is crying.” Mrs. R answered Nick cheerfully, “Oh! How about trains! You like trains! Or dragons! Draw dragons!”

Mrs. R, whose own teenage son struggles with a mood disorder and behavioral challenges, wasn’t chastising me but just letting me know, keeping me in the loop. Still, it was a crushing moment.

* * * * *

There was no school yesterday. Our district doesn’t have school on Yom Kippur. They call it a “fall break day,” but everyone with half a brain knows it’s for the Jewish new year. I took the kids apple-picking. It was a disaster, of course, devolving into whining from Nick and abuse from Jesse. As we tried to drive away after filling two bags with apples, I had to pull over and kick Jesse out of the car. I called Anthony and ended up sobbing uncontrollably as Jesse sat on the grass next to the road. Unexpected words flowed out of my baby-bawling mouth, giving shape to how low I’ve come.

I can’t remember the last time I had real fun with my kids. I can’t remember the last time I was happy. I have no hope that anything will change. I haven’t had a break from on-site parenthood in TEN YEARS. I live in this filthy shithole of a house, working seven days a week on this and that, waiting and waiting for our renovation project to push forward more quickly, but it’s only going to go slower and slower because I have to do more work myself to make up for budget overruns.

Snot ran out of my nose and tears poured onto the steering wheel as I blathered at Anthony. He was silent on the other end until I dried up. “I’m sorry, Carla,” he answered simply and quietly. “I know it’s been hard for you. Jesse is impossible.” I could hear his heart breaking for me, and it made me feel selfish and self-absorbed.

I think we have to give the dog away so she can be in a place where she’s not afraid of the kids. I love her and will miss her so much. I hate it.

A person came to my house Tuesday, trapped me in a room where I was trying to avoid him, forced a conversation on me that I had told him several times I didn’t want to have, harangued me and yelled at me and insulted me. It was aggressive, bullying behavior. I reacted like a trapped mongoose, because what else could I do? It was truly the most awful human encounter I’ve had since I quit lawyering. I was only thankful that Anthony wasn’t here to witness it. He doesn’t like to see me feeling threatened and I’m not sure what he would have done.

Jesse was right when she said we were being greedy by doing this home improvement project. My misery is a simple karmic justice for my greed.

* * * * *

There have been moments of light, but right now they feel to me more like the trick your eyes play on you when you’re in pitch blackness. The light isn’t real. I can’t even fake up hope today.

But I like Yom Kippur. I like what it’s about; I like the idea that you can seek new beginnings, again and again. Christians like to think they own the market on principles of repentance and forgiveness, but they forget that those very ideals grew out of Jewish traditions. And it seems to me a lot of modern Christians leave out an important aspect of these ideas: you should seek forgiveness not only from God, but from the people you’ve wronged. You should atone not just in prayer and between you and God, but in life here on this earth.

I read a little Yom Kippur poem yesterday.

To those I may have wronged, I ask forgiveness.
To those I may have helped, I wish I had done more.
To those I neglected to help, I ask for understanding.
To those who helped me, I sincerely thank you.

Nice ideas. I read them and started crying as I thought about Jesse and Nick who have only me to be their mother, who deserve better than I’m giving them these days. I re-imagined the poem in my own image, as I prayed to my children.

For all the wrongs I’ve committed against you, I beg hopelessly for your forgiveness. Someday. When you’re older.
For the times I actually managed to help you, I wish I had done more. And better.
For the countless times I neglected to help, I ask for understanding. Someday. When you’re older.
For the times you helped me, lifted me up, and threw me a lifeline. I sincerely thank you. You shouldn’t have to do that for me. You’re children.

* * * * *

Will my children ever forgive me?

blips in a life of mental illness

Jesse has been on her meds for almost a month now. Earlier this week, after several weeks of a half-minimum-dose trial, we moved her to a full therapeutic minimum dose. 10 milligrams of Citalopram a day.

I’ve definitely seen a difference. I would describe Jesse as a little more upbeat the last few weeks, less down on herself… though not consistently. I hadn’t thought of her as a child suffering from depression, but I’m adjusting that lens, because she sure seems a lot less depressed now. Hindsight is a grumpy bitch.

Apparently it’s not called depression anymore, by the way. It’s a mood disorder now. A good friend and I were chatting about this and she pointed out that “mood disorder” sounds awful. I think she’s right. I guess I’d rather be just depressed than have a disorder, but there’s no explaining the DSM to a layperson like me.

Whether Jesse has a collection of disorders or not, I look at her in some moments now and I think, “Citalopram is turning her into a sociopath.” She can spend a whole day trying to kick Nick in the head; and then, when I finally run out of patience and say to her at dinnertime, “this has been a totally exhausting day because of your negative behaviors,” here’s what she’s apt to answer.

(Nooooo, she won’t say, “that’s too many commas for one sentence.” Stay on subject with me here, dear reader.)

“But mom. Remember when I woke and for, like, 10 minutes, I was awesome?”

I guess it’s a good thing Jesse can hang onto those positive moments. We’re all still hanging on from moment to moment, as we try to find her in the maze and pull her back to us.

* * * * * * *

Jesse gets really, really angry about her homework one night. She comes at me with a pencil, snarling like a cornered lion, and it’s clear she’s planning to stab me. Time speeds up. Before I rightly know what’s happened, I have Jesse on the floor. I’m down on one knee. One of my hands has her pencil hand pinned behind her back, my other hand is on her neck, and her face is firmly planted on the carpet. I snarl at her. “NEVER. ATTACK. ME. WITH. A. PENCIL.”

She lies limp until I let her go. She comes to me for a hug a few moments later. I don’t want to hug her. I don’t want to touch her. I don’t want to be attacked by her. I don’t want to defend myself against her. She leans on me anyway and I can’t find it in me to push her away again. “Hug me back, mommy. Hug me back. Hug me back.” I can’t stop myself.

* * * * * * *

Jesse has gotten in trouble at school for touching someone inappropriately. The guidance counselor has talked with her about progressive discipline, with the ultimate device being expulsion. I ask her later in the evening about it all. How much does she expect people to tolerate? What does she think will happen if she doesn’t change? She speaks as she lies peacefully on the sofa, her affect somewhere between blank and morose. Her voice is clear and mature, but still with the sing-song timbre of a little child. She sounds almost dreamy as she spins out her fate in her imagination. “Well… I think what’s going to happen is… I’m gonna get expelled. And then I’m gonna become a drug addict and a drug dealer. And then I’ll go to jail for, like, most of my life. Then when I get out of jail, I’ll die and go to hell.”

* * * * * * *

One morning I get fed up with Jesse. She’s been throwing magna tiles at all of us viciously for weeks. She’s hit Nick in the face several times, and those things hurt. Anthony saw her land a shot just near Nick’s eye; a half inch up and he could have been blinded. She hits Nick in the face again on this particular morning, and I lose it. I grab a pile of magna tiles and I start winging her with them. I’m throwing them at her like I might spin a rock to skip it, loosing them with my right hand from my right thigh, thumb up. I corner her as she cowers and cries, and I bellow, “HOW DOES IT FEEL??? HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BE TREATED LIKE YOU TREAT US EVERY SINGLE DAY??” I’m Joan Crawford with the coat hanger, only it’s magna tiles, and I don’t have any makeup and my wardrobe sucks.

I can sense Nick hovering nearby even as I rage; he’s standing right beside me. I hear his little voice almost whimpering. “Mommy, please stop. Mommy, don’t hurt Jesse.” Jesse eventually escapes me and runs outside, screaming as she slams the door. “YOU HATE ME!! YOU HATE ME!!! I’LL RUN AWAY AND NEVER COME BACK!!!”

Little Nick flutters about the room in a minor panic. “Mommy, what if someone steals her, if she runs away?” I assure him she won’t do that, but he stares out the window for a moment. Finally he relaxes. “Whew. She’s still there, mommy. She’s in the back yard. She didn’t run away.”

He’s satisfied now and walks over to me. “Mommy, please don’t hurt Jesse.”

I start to cry. Nick looks at my face and wonders aloud. “Why are you crying, mommy?”

I say what I feel. “You know how sometimes you tell me that you feel like you’re the most hateful child ever? Right now I feel like I’m the most hateful mommy ever.”

As I say the words, my dam breaks and I start bawling. Nick grabs me with all his might. My six-year-old finds me in the maze. He straddles my lap and wraps his arms around me. “You’re not! You’re not the most hateful mommy ever! You’re the most beautiful amazing mommy ever!”

Nick smothers my face in kisses and suddenly realizes he’s crying too. “Mommy look!” he says in wonder. “I’m crying too. Why am I crying too?”

 * * * * * * *

This morning, Nick sneaks Jesse’s Citalopram off her placemat at breakfast, unbeknownst to anyone. He comes up to me and whispers it in my ear, his voice oozing guilt. “Mommy, I ate Jesse’s candy medicine!” I’m stunned and I wonder if he’s making a bad joke. I look on the placemat. Jesse hasn’t come down yet but the medicine is gone.

I turn to Nick. “It’s not candy! It’s her medicine to help her! Are you serious that you ate it??”

Nick starts to cry. “Yeaaah, I weally weally did!” Waaaah. He finally fesses up that he wanted to see how good it tasted. “But it did not taste good at all, Mommy.”

I tell Nick’s kindergarten teacher when I drop him off. She keeps a watchful eye on him through the day and reports that he seems fine. When we snuggle up at bedtime, I ask him. “Did you feel any different today? Did anything seem different, or anything hurt, like your tummy?”

Nick thinks for a moment as he settles down to start drowsing, and then he answers calmly. “The only thing today that was not like aaaalll the other days is that my butt was more tickly.” There’s a perfectly timed pause before he starts giggling.

 * * * * * * *

One of Anthony’s colleagues has a sister who’s a fourth-degree black belt in tae kwon do and a therapist/counselor. She likens anti-anxiety meds to the padded armor we use when we spar in tae kwon do. It helps you fight off the fear, the anxiety, the depression. It makes you stronger and safer.  But it doesn’t take away your power, nor does it take away your responsibility to fight.

I love that analogy. This morning I remember it as I send Jesse off to school. We’ve been chatting a little bit about how Nick is Jesse’s greatest advocate — always on her side, always defending her. I point out that he didn’t just come out that way — he was taught that by Jesse. Before she was this angry little thing we’re living with right now, she was a brilliant big sister, a magical big sister — the one who takes the fall for her little brother so he won’t get in trouble, the one who puts her body between him and the on-coming car.

I remind Jesse that this is who she really is, that we’re waiting for her to come back, that she has the power to change her world and herself, to silence the voices inside her that tell her to be hurtful and unkind. She has to have courage and commitment. She has to be brave and strong. And she has some extra armor now; she has Citalopram. I hold my hands high, like they do at our tae kwon do classes. “PILSUNG!” I bark at her loudly. “YOU, CAN, DO IT!!”  She jumps up again and again to high-ten my hands, to the cadence of the chant. She marches off with Anthony to face her doom.

grumpy about mental health stigma (quasi-guest blog!)

I am always amazed by how much stigma is attached to mental illness. Behavioral disorders like ADHD and autism have gained more traction in mainstream thinking, or so it seems to me. If your kid is diagnosed with ADHD or autism, you get additional school resources, special ed help, and access to pretty well-developed resources and support mechanisms. And lots of social support these days. Still not hardly perfect, but better than it was.

But issues like tic disorders, anxiety, and depression are still more taboo, and our children who suffer from them have few rights in school systems, which are sort of bellwethers of social acceptance. Even if kids are diagnosed officially, they’re not entitled to any special assistance or resources in schools unless they completely fall apart and become non-functioning human beings. So parents like me are stuck sort of lobbying and begging teachers to go along with what we say our kids need, and hoping they do it without bringing their own not-expertise to bear (I’ve stopped counting the number of times teachers have known better than me how to handle Jesse’s anxiety issues), which just adds to the feeling of STIGMA.

And we all know stigmatized people don’t exist in a vacuum. Those of us who befriend them, or are born to them as family, suffer along with them.

It sucks, which is why I choose to be so naked about mental illness in my family. We are going to own our crazy, along with our grumpy. Jesse should never be ashamed of being born with a brain that leans the way it does, or of needing help to overcome the challenges her brain and body present to her — any more than a person should be ashamed of being born with a missing limb or green eyes or a defective heart or cystic fibrosis. What is, is. I should never feel ashamed of how difficult it is to be an effective parent for Jesse. But it is a hard, hard thing, overcoming stigmata.

* * * * * * * *

One of the most delightful aspects of my emotional nudity is the feedback I get from parents who are struggling with their own kids. Some like sharing, some like knowing they aren’t alone, some are relieved to have found a person who can offer a referral to a good shrink. Some just open up and tell me about their own childhood struggles with depression or anxiety. I know it sounds twisted, but I love hearing about it all. I love knowing that I’m not alone, that there’s a thriving cohort of pretty fucked up people out there, getting along just fine.

Just this week I received a very open-hearted private note from a mom Somewhere Else in America. She told me about her own struggles with a challenging, explosive child. It made me laugh a little and cry a little, for her and for myself, for our families and our children. it made me feel less alone, and less of a failure, and also it gave me some ideas to think about. In particular, this mom has used some energy recently to take care of herself and improve her own outlook, which is in turn helping her kids. It’s a trickle-down theory that doesn’t sound or feel like economic bullshit.

There are so many of us drowning in this crazy, crazy world. If only we could speak openly with each other about our challenges, it would all be so much easier. Along these lines, Somewhere Else mom gave me permission to reprint her note, so here it is (with identifying information changed), as a sort of guest blog post. If you’ve ever felt like your kid “takes a big shit on your day” more often than seems reasonable, maybe it’ll help you a little, as I hope my tales do too.

* * * * * * * *

I would like to tell you a little about myself. I’m a 45 year old housewife from —. I have been married for 17 years and have 3 kids. Eric is 14 and going into 9th grade. Straight A’s super athlete well liked. Harriet is 7. Cute and so sweet. And I have Hayden. He just turned 13 a few weeks ago. Going into 8th grade. He’s smart creative and very funny. He’s also a huge mystery to me. I swear he came out of my womb pissed off at the world and not much has changed. He has extreme anxiety which he tries to hide and has the ability to make our home life hell. He has very dark moods and can be very destructive. He doesn’t hurt others yet but breaks his favorite toys and destroys his room and doors and walls when he has one of his episodes. He usually saves these behaviors for home and especially me. He acts like he hates me often. Probably because I usually have to be the “enforcer”. Believe me I’m as sick of it as he is.

We went to a small elementary school. One teacher per grade. All was good until 4th grade and school life went to shit. He was in the office several days a week. I also volunteer several days a week and the behaviors he was in trouble for were mostly little boy BS. By sixth grade I had enough. Like you I’m not opposed to meds but resistant. My husband comes from a family that believes herbs and diet can cure anything. We tried everything. Nothing worked. They actually tried to cure a schizophrenic cousin with herbs and she ended up in a state hospital for 4 months. My husband was worried that if we got a diagnosis he would be “labeled”. We knew he had ADHD anxiety and was starting to show signs of OCD. I took him to his pediatrician and he diagnosed him with ADHD. Against everyone’s wishes I put him on a non amphetamine med. it was a few months till summer and we agreed we’d see how it worked and take him off for the summer. The changes were minor .

Then 7th grade which is jr high here. Things really took a nosedive. I mentioned his siblings because as a typical middle child he lives in the huge shadow of his super successful brother and became even more resentful of his sweet little sister. His anxiety and dark dangerous behaviors escalated. He made every morning trying to get to school hell. I used to think “he just took a big shit on my day once again”. I think he had a total of 42 absences in first period last year. Several F’s. He started cutting himself. I got the school psychologist involved so we could get a proper diagnosis and maybe get him into a study skills class to help with organization. Big fail. That teacher truly hated him. She would put his name on blank papers and turn them in so he would get zeros. After many tearful meetings nothing changed. At the end of the year we have equivalency exams. He got all A’s. During this time he started cutting himself. Lots of self hate talk but not suicide so no hospital would take him. OCD got worse. He flat refuses counseling. We tried “tapping”. For anxiety. A bust. Acupuncture, nope.

I feel like it’s my fault. If I was just a better mom this wouldn’t be happening. Did I do something when I was pregnant? What am I doing wrong? My patience with him was gone. I yelled at him constantly. I mention his siblings because they are so affected by this too. His brother wants to kick his ass for being so awful to me. My daughter is just scared and cries. My husband says if I were more positive he would be too. Maybe?

I was just feeling hopeless and helpless. I was drinking to cope and said mean awful things to Hayden I am not proud of. Then I got sick. Really sick. I knew something was wrong for the last couple of years but was scared to go to the dr. This summer it got really bad. I lost 20 lbs in 3 weeks and looked like a ghost. My parents made me go to their dr and it was the best decision I’ve made in a long time.

What I have is totally curable but this wonderful Dr recognized something else in me. I was so stressed out. My anxiety levels off the charts. I was having panic attacks. I suffered from these things many years ago but didn’t want to admit it was back. I thought it was just stress. He gave me a few different things but the meds I was so against taking have literally changed my life.

It’s only been a month but I feel like I’m free. My husband said he was so glad to have his wife back. I haven’t yelled at my kids. My patience is back. I feel so positive and motivated. Of all the things I could do to help Hayden I would never have imagined this would be it. I make a point to talk with him often. I’m trying to find ways to get in sync w him so maybe, just maybe we can work things out without fighting. Im still going to keep trying to get him to counseling. The Dr I saw said he would take him on and try to put counseling in a perspective he can understand and not fear. Regarding meds for Hayden my thoughts have changed a little. I wouldn’t love to do it but wow! I am amazed at what a help they’ve been to me in such a short period of time.

I don’t know what your daughter’s issues are and I hope I haven’t offended you in any way. I think as moms we put so much pressure on ourselves to have perfect kids. I just wanted to tell you what has helped me. I have No delusions that this is going to fix Hayden. But health issues and all I am so much happier. I think that’s a good start for my son myself and my family. Hang in there. Life is stressful so are kids and marriage. But we can do it. We have to, right?

* * * * * * * *

That’s right, Somewhere Else mom. We can do it because we have to. It sounds like you’re doing all the right things. Thanks for sharing your story and becoming part of my lifeline.

The meds are on

Anthony went to the psychiatrist with Jesse today and walked out with a prescription for Citalopram, one of those SSRIs (Selective Seretonin Reuptake Inhibitor, and yes, I have no idea what that means). It’s an anti-depressant, also used to treat anxiety and other behavior and mood disorders with kids. As far as I can tell, the research is still out. Giving kids meds like this is a bit like throwing shit at the wall. At least, that’s what I’ve decided today.

I am profoundly resistant to medications of this sort. I use the word “resistant” purposefully, in lieu of “opposed.” There is a small rational part of me that understands that, for some kids, meds like this are part of a healthy journey. I would never judge another parent for turning to meds. But my instincts are so vested in not doing this. It feels like the ultimate statement in parenting failure — because if only I were a better mother, then Jesse wouldn’t need drugs.

Jesse is also resistant to the meds. She thinks they’ll make her drool. I suggested that drooling might be an improvement over her crazy yawping and penis talk, and more important, maybe it would be good if the meds help her stop hating herself so much.

I asked Anthony to do some more research, and some more research, and then some more research before we start dosing her. I said SSRIs come with a lot of risks, and if it doesn’t go well then weaning Jesse will be hard too. I reminded him that, although I talked about meds as an option a couple weeks ago, I quickly backtracked and changed my mind. My man nodded and looked at me thoughtfully, and mostly said nothing. But then tonight at dinner time he quietly cut one of the pills in half and handed it to Jesse with a glass of water.

An old friend of mine whose opinion I respect suggested that I trust Anthony on this. It’s wise advice, since I can’t see very clearly right now. Jesse feels lost to me, and I’m in this sad, broken place where I assume ordinary parents like me go to when our children fall apart. I can’t think straight. I can’t parse through the data. I can’t make good decisions. I just feel emotionally flayed.

I’ve gone to therapy with Jesse almost every week for nearly five years now. I’ve done my best; but it hasn’t amounted to much. I’ve failed too often, broken promises to myself and my children, yelled too much, found patience and insight too infrequently. It must be my fault that we’re reduced to purchasing a medication — mass-produced by some indifferent pharmaceutical giant and hawked to our health insurer so effectively that we only pay 28 cents a month for it — to try to fill the gap left by my horrific parenting.

28 cents for a month. That’s all it takes.

Anthony argued gently with me this morning. “You’ve tried everything already, Carla.”

I answered in earnest. “Then I have to try harder.”

Anthony just looked at me sadly. I didn’t rightly know what he was thinking.

But he gave Jesse her first dose of Citalopram tonight. 5 milligrams, half of the recommended minimum dose. Just a baby step on the road to… Drug dependency? Emotional wellness?

I looked away, fussed about the room, disappeared myself as this abomination of a moment passed.

And then I wept. Several times. I’m still weeping, right now.

After the kids were asleep I asked Anthony for more details about their visit to the shrink. “Did you tell her how I’ve messed things up?” I asked.

“No. But I did tell her that you’re way too hard on yourself.” Or maybe he said too self-critical. i don’t remember exactly, because it broke me.

I buried my face on Anthony’s shoulder and wept. It’s all my fault, I told him.

“No. It’s not,” he answered gently as we held each other. I wept and wept and wept.

But it is all my fault. I’m too weak to even give Jesse the meds she probably needs to get her through this. I’m too weak and scared to support this decision.

Good thing Anthony’s on it. I think I’ll trust him on this one, for now.

I’d like my Jesse back, please.

grumpy about parenting (how to fail 101)

After a horrendous spring and summer, during which I’ve lost my voice several times from screaming so much at Jesse, and gained 10 stress pounds and 200 linear feet of stress wrinkles on my face, I have had an epiphany.

I know I know, I have a lot of stupid epiphanies. But this one is less stupid than usual.

I had been thinking that I’ve been on the edge of a parental nervous breakdown for several months. But I realized some time in the last 48 hours that I’m in the midst of a nervous breakdown. In fact, I’m thinking I achieved full breakdown some months ago. Instead of being on the edge of a nervous breakdown, I’ve been on the edge of reason.

The threat of putting Jesse on meds has moved me past insanity to reason. Anthony is taking her to see a psychiatrist next week. I’m not going. I realized after we started considering meds that I really, really, really don’t want Jesse on them, especially in these critical years when she heads into puberty and massive body and brain changes.  I understand the argument that anxiety-style meds may be positive – they may bring her down to a place where she can more effectively participate in behavior modification strategies and cognitive behavior therapy. But the same anxiety that makes her crazy also heightens her perceptiveness and imagination, and it lays some of the groundwork for her beautiful poetry, her insight into people, and her quirky humor. What would I feel like if meds take that away from her?

So the threat of it has made me come to my senses. I got down to practical business a couple days ago, which is to say I googled shit and bought some books. On the parenting front, I got “the opposite of worry,” by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D. It’s “The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears.”

I don’t know why the title uses no caps, but the sub-caption uses initial caps. Why? WHY?? You’d think that with a doctorate, Dr. Cohen could do something about that. Or at least afford a better editor. Who decided it would be cute to mix up upper and lower case like this? What, this guy is the ee cummings of child psychology?

What? Oh. It’s an okay book. I started reading it and it’s mostly about normal anxiety and fear, but stuff like this can be a refresher to help get my own parenting ideas flowing anew for Jesse’s more extreme needs.

I also ordered “The Explosive Child” by Ross Greene. No, rude reader, it’s not about poop and gas. It is, rather, “A New Approach for Understanding and Parenting Easily Frustrated, Chronically Inflexible Children.” Right up my need alley. I’m sure I’ll read several chapters.

I have a theory about how books like this work, at least for me. The fact that they’re in major paperback publication, and sold on Amazon, tells me that there are a significant number of people who believe they have kids just like mine. That’s what these books actually do for me — their mere existence is much more important than their content. No one wants to be alone; solidarity engenders relief. I’m relieved I’m not the only parent with a jackass child. In fact, the Explosive book’s cover declares that it is “The Classic Parenting Guide–More Than 500,000 Copies Sold.”

In the 21st century does “than” get capitalized in that phrase? What the fuck is happening to my world?

Shit shit shit. I’m engaging in classic avoidance, and my long-beaten inner grammar nazi is raising its ugly head from the P-trap of my brain’s toilet. Wait a second while I flush it back down.

Right, I’m back. So I’m going to read The Explosive Child, because I need something out of the norm. And also, Jesse is explosive. From both ends, frankly, especially since we allowed her to be poisoned by a giant chewy egg-bearing Sweet Tart on our drive home last week. Two weeks’ of safe vacation, and on the very last day she gets exposed to eggs. How did I let that happen?

Speaking of eggs, I had to go to Home Depot tonight. I still hate Home Depot. 40 Home Depot employees wandering around the aisles like lobotomized cast members in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and only ONE — EXACTLY ONE — checkout stand is open, with 12 people lined up and waiting to get out of that shit hole.

Hold on. I need to flush again.

I bought Jesse some books too. Best to flood her as much as me with too much information and no innate ability to organize it. I discovered a “What to Do When…” series, written for kids (but not by kids). Pictures, simple talk, ideas for practicing and helping your grown-ups do a better job of parenting you. These books do a better job with capitalization, sort of. I got Jesse What to Do When…

-Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough. The Real Deal on Perfectionism.
-Your Temper Flares. A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Problems with Anger.
-You Worry Too Much. A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Anxiety.
-You Grumble too Much. A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Negativity.
-Bad Habits Take Hold. A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming Nail Biting and More.
-Your Brain Gets Stuck. A Kid’s Guide to Overcoming OCD.

Do you think it’s too much?

I encouraged her to start with Grumbling. It’s actually really well done. It talks about being naturally pessimistic versus optimistic, and flexible versus inflexible. It describes pessimism as having a magnifying glass that makes bad things seem bigger, but a kid doesn’t know it’s the magnifying glass. The kid thinks it’s how the world actually is. And so on. There are exercises to help you be more flexible and optimistic. All good.

Jesse got through the first two chapters and started screaming.

Jesse is more interested in the OCD book. I don’t think she’s severely OCD, but she’s attracted to this book because the first exercise in it asks her to look in the garbage can and draw three things she sees in there. What kid could walk away from that? i may have to hide it. Avoidance seems to be a thing with Jesse too.

Anyway, bottom line, bottom line, here’s the thing. I’m fucking this parenting thing up big time. Right now, I’m getting the sense that this is the lineup of my major problems:

One. I have been yelling at Jesse too much when she’s really naughty, instead of properly separating and ignoring her.

Two. I have been shame-talking Jesse too much when she does really mean things, instead of properly separating and ignoring her.

Three. I have been nattering at and arguing with Jesse too much about stuff, instead of properly separating and ignoring her.

Four. I have been showing too much emotion, instead of properly separating and ignoring Jesse.

Five, I have been making idle threats. A lot of them. Instead of… you know.

ALTERNATIVELY, replace “properly… etc.” with “expressing understanding and compassion for Jesse’s feelings” in all of the above. But we’ve tried this model for many years, and it’s all used up.

So today I implemented drastic measures involving ignoring Jesse. A lot. I figure she got about two-plus hours of exclusion time today, based on 10-minutes-per-kick-or-hit and 5-minutes-per-threat and also 5-minutes-for-too-much-penis-talk. She had to sit on the stairs or go somewhere by herself, and she had to sit out a playground for 25 minutes while Nick and I played contentedly. Then she joined us and we had a great time.

It was exhausting and I felt awful. The hardest moment was when Jesse interrupted her “IGNORE JESSE” time by saying to me sweetly, “I love you, mommy.” And I had to wait 1 minutes 40 seconds before I could answer her. That sucked so bad.

But overall, at the end of the day Jesse and I agreed: today didn’t suck as bad as yesterday. So we may have to continue on this path for a while.

Until I discover that, instead of doing the right thing as a parent, I’ve been ignoring Jesse too much.


Now that we’re home, I feel clarity moving into my mind again, at least a little more than I’ve had for the past month. It’s time to start debriefing and detoxing from the vacation. The inevitable result of this process will be some guilty feelings and fresh grumpiness, but I’m okay with that.

After a mostly delightful week at the beach with a gaggle of friends (four other breeding families and a single male), we headed north to New Jersey for a few days at my in-laws’ home. The kids call them Big GrandMa and Big GrandPa. Contact with them is always extremely stressful for me.

Some years ago when I was pregnant with Nick, there was a big blow-up at the home of the BGs, mostly relating to Jesse’s behavior and their inability to cope with a challenging and free-spirited child. BGP blew a gasket and made all sorts of inappropriate comments at dinner one night about our parenting, and both BGs made a painful stink about accommodating Jesse’s egg allergy, and they were generally nasty. It was just another blow-up in a long string of blow-ups over the years, but this time it was about my child. That was truly intolerable. I swore I would never, ever, everrrrr return to their home.

But the kids always want to see the BGs, and I love Anthony, and life is short and full of regrets, so fuck me and my promises to myself. I voluntarily visited the BGs last year, and again this year. I’m a willing participant, but still it gets me all anxious and angry. With last week’s encounter behind me now, I’m realizing that for the past few weeks I’ve been doing exactly what any infantile, poorly-socialized parent would do in my shoes: taking my stress out on my kids.

* * * * * *

The BGs don’t like me. Anthony would beg to differ, but I don’t think this is an issue we’ll ever agree on. They undoubtedly “love” me — because what choice do any of us have after all these years? — but at best they tolerate my presence. Also Anthony’s brother appears to hate me; he behaves in a way that suggests utter disdain for me.

I’m sure the culture gap has something to do with it. When I was getting to know Anthony’s family in my 20’s, I had no conception that “English” is an actual ethnicity. They just looked like white people to me. But they’re definitively not white Americans, and I had no idea of the unspoken, essential strictures that apply to girlfriends and daughters-in-law, or of the bold emotional repression that appears to define the boundaries of relationships in an English household.

Some many years ago, before Jesse was born, the in-laws found the opportunity to tell Anthony (and then eventually me) that  I’m an awful person who has hurt their feelings and offended their sensibilities repeatedly. One important example BGM shared with me fits in the story like this (and I swear I’m being totally objective in the telling here):

Years before Anthony and I were married, while I was still in law school, BGM started talking about children. She wanted grandkids so she could be a better grandma than her own mother had been to Anthony and his brother. She would love to be a grandma. Soon. Before she’s too old to be a good grandma. Like, now. She would like to be a grandma now. Which means her sons need to have children. Soon. Now. ASAP.

After a while it got to be pretty offensive to me, especially since I had already told BGM I wasn’t planning to have kids. But what could I do? I tolerated it.

One Mother’s Day weekend we visited the in-laws. As we were heading back home on Sunday afternoon, BGM hugged me at the car door. I said “Happy Mother’s Day!” one last time.

She answered, “Happy Mother’s Day to you too!” Then she pulled back and chuckled, “OH I suppose I can’t say that yet, can I!”

I took a deep breath inside and answered with my own chuckle, “You better get used to it.”

And that was my great offense. Those six words apparently ripped a hole in BGM’s heart and stewed silently inside her for years and years, until they exploded all over Anthony and me.

Well never mind. I finally gave her grandchildren. My purpose in her life is complete.

* * * * * *

Last week’s visit went surprisingly well, at least if you’re evaluating the BGs’ behaviors.

There was only one classic moment, when Anthony showed BGM a photo of us from about 10 years ago. BGM examined it and declared cheerfully, “Oh what a lovely photo! Look how lovely you were, Cahla, back when you were so young and slim.”

And there you have it. BGM in a nutshell. Lovely, lovely. After 30 years of cheap shots at me, I guess I can’t blame her for slipping just one in.

One day we went to a lake in the New Jersey Pine Barrens to frolic in canoes. Anthony’s brother met us there. He behaved exactly as I anticipated, disdaining to engage in conversation with me, barely saying hello or goodbye to me, and largely ignoring Jesse and Nick and Anthony. He is entirely self-absorbed. But I think I was polite. If I wasn’t, I’ll probably hear about it in ten years, after it has plenty of time to fester.

We had to sideline Jesse for a lot of our time at the BGs’ home, because she was so out of control. I had prepared myself for the worst — grumpy BGs being grumpy about kids doing exactly what kids do, getting nasty about potential harm to all their precious household goods, and being weird tight-asses about eating schedules and tea. But instead the BGs were pretty delightful with the kids, and they were earnestly sad about how discombobulated Jesse is right now.

One day, Anthony and BGM took the kids to the active-adult-community pool down the block. I stayed in the bedroom sulking and being depressed about Jesse. I heard BGP’s quiet voice from outside the door. “Cahla? Ah you theh?” (You get the idea — do the English accent thing.)

I gritted my teeth, opened the door, and stepped out sheepishly, mumbling about having some down time. BGP fell to tears as he spoke. “I just wanted to tell you how sorry I am about how hard things have been with Jesse. I had no idea, and I am so, so very sorry. We’re so worried about you, Carla.”

I nodded through my own tears as my father-in-law, who I believe has held me in contempt for all these years, took pity on me. “Carla, can I just give you a hug? I want to give you a hug.”

I could hardly bear it. Why does humanity always surprise us with cruelty and kindness at all the oddest moments? An emotional dissonance brayed short and loud in my heart, and then my own contempt for the man — masked for so long by my belief in his contempt for me — took a step back. I accepted his hug and his love, and something long broken was mended a little.

I’m headed for the bottom

We’re on our last day of a two week trip. We have four more hours to drive and then we’ll be home, where construction rages on. Our built-in amenities when we arrive will include a basement bathroom, laundry, hot water, and a single bedroom we’ll all continue to share. Possibly internet access. Our makeshift kitchen will hypothetically still be there, and I’m praying to any Thing any sentient being in any Galaxy has ever believed in, in the entire history of the entire universe, that the construction crew didn’t hit our liquor stash. Because I need some numb time. 

Jesse mostly kept it together in the in-between moments she shared with other people, but whenever we were alone together, Jesse made us miserable. She screamed, whined, tic’ed, and abused Anthony, Nick, and me both verbally and physically. It has been noisy and brutal, especially on the long-drive days when we’re trapped in the car together for hours. Unless you’ve experienced it, there’s no understanding how persistent and relentless Jesse is. There’s no humor to be found in the details, just heartache and a desolate sadness.  

The past few months have been rocky for Jesse, but really all we’ve seen is a continuation of behaviors she’s displayed her whole life, ramping up for one reason or another. This trip took her to a whole new level, and we see no way out of the tunnel anymore. 

From a safe distance, things would no doubt appear clearer. Why are her tics so bad right now, and why is she so abusive? Because of her anxiety. Why is her anxiety so bad right now? Because of the home construction, anticipation of middle school, a noisy brother, vacation stress, food allergies. Maybe she’s pre-pubescent. It’s all so obvious. 

Better parenting would no doubt solve a lot of these issues. Sticker charts! Reward systems! Spanking! Food denial! Firm discipline and clear boundaries! Lock her in her room! Set her free! Exercise! Outdoor time! Give her more love and patience! No electronics!

Blah blah blah. Anthony and I are at the end of all parenting roads that we can travel, and we see no hope. Our only remaining tool is one we’ve hoped to avoid; but I no longer see how Jesse can do anything — like start a new school — without some big changes in her behavior. So the dirty word raises its head: meds. 

I can’t even think about it without falling to weeping. It was one thing I wanted for Jesse so badly: to find a way to avoid dependencies until she was older and her brain and body had more time to develop. Maybe, I fantasized, I could hold her hand and walk with her out of the dark place where her mind resides, and she would never have to rely on meds to get through her life. 

So this moment, when we will almost certainly turn to meds, is the most profound failure for me as a parent. I have failed Jesse in letting her get to this incredibly miserable state. I could do no worse by her. 

I’ve also failed Nick, who watches the melting-down interactions of sister, mother, and father in fear, huddling in distant corners and taking deep breaths with his eyes closed, using tools to calm himself that are well beyond his six years of experience. I haven’t protected him from anything that matters. 

We managed to get Jesse calm enough to drive today. After a hellish beginning, she was actually really good for 2 hours. She only threatened to hit Nick twice, tic words only came out a handful of times, and she didn’t scream or whine at all. So when we stopped for lunch, we let the kids pick some candy in the gas station shop. 

Jesse selected some giant sweet tart thing. Sweet tarts don’t contain eggs, so I said yes without a second thought. As we drove off, she ripped into her treat. A moment later she announced, “this is disgusting!” I resignedly put my hand back and she spit it out, a gooey mess of half-chewed giant sweet tart. 

A few minutes later, Jesse was coughing with a sound I’ve heard before. I looked back and her face was a little splotchy. I quickly checked the label on the sweet tarts, which I hadn’t bothered to read before. Sure enough: EGGS. 

We pulled over at the next exit and gave her a double dose of Zyrtec. Ten minutes later, as we continued down the highway, Jesse emptied her stomach in the back seat. 


Add it to the list of my parenting fails. 

On the up side, we have further corroboration that Jesse’s egg allergy is still serious business. And all that puking and Zyrtec has sapped enough energy to quiet Jesse for a time. Also, a lady cop stopped to help us as we tried to work through the mess. She gave the kids each a stuffed animal for their troubles. How cool is that?

I threatened to take Jesse to a police station yesterday. As we headed down the road after cleaning up all the vomit today, Anthony pointed out cheerfully that Jesse did get to meet a cop after all! Only she was puking, not screaming or beating someone up, when it happened. 

Well that’s something, eh? Maybe things aren’t as bad as I think they are. Especially if I never ever ever have to go on a vacation with Jesse again. Everrrrrr. 

grumpy about the pick-me-up card

My last post was about how annoyed I am about misdirected inspirational one-liners. So it goes without saying that Anthony and the kids reacted to my grumpy by giving me feel-good cards.

Last week Anthony had to go to Florida for a few days, to a conference where he didn’t have to present or discuss anything. He had to spend his days socializing and eating well and working out instead. Without Jesse or Nick or me. Poor, poor fellow. While he was gone, Nick came down suddenly with a bad fever late Friday night, which left him acting lethargic and miserable like he had the flu. And Jesse seemed to be developing a new cough. I took them to the doctor first thing Saturday morning, and then Nick and Jesse and I were trapped in the house for 24 hours as we waited to see if his flu test came back positive. (I take quarantine seriously for infectious diseases and viruses. I don’t want to be responsible for infecting somebody who has compromised immunities. You probably don’t want to get me started on the anti-vaccination movement.)

It turned out Nick just had a really bad ear infection. Still, being trapped in the house for a couple days with one sick child and one stir-crazy child is always emotionally exhausting for me. I don’t get all “la la la let’s do some crafts!” I get all “stop coughing in my face! Stop whining! Stop playing with the dog’s butthole! Stop touching me!” I’ll never know if the kids really are jackasses or if it’s all in my grumpy, irritable head.

Okay, I do know, but I don’t feel like saying it out loud right now.

So Anthony took the kids away for lunch and a matinee when he got back in town. After 5 sweet, silent hours by myself, the minions came back bearing cards for me.

Here was Jesse’s:


Dang that’s a cute little round thing. Hedgehog, right? The message inside:


Aaaw. And Jesse wrote this note:


“Sometimes when I’m a little prickly you still love me. You still are nice to me. You’re the best!”

Wishful thinking on Jesse’s part, I think, but sweet. I felt like I was the prickly one, but Anthony quietly chewed me out when I said that out loud, pointing out that Jesse was saying she was the one being prickly. Check.

Nick also gave me a card.


Okay then, tell me. What do you see? A giant blue peacock? Are those feathers a romanticized depiction of my enormous ass? (Shrinking, by the way, thanks to the bipolar diet I’m on.) This is apparently what Nick sees:


Really. I’m amazing. Amazingly stinky when I forget to shower, amazingly prickly when I’m overwhelmed by the kids, amazingly under-achieving? I know I know I know, head slap that grumpy out of me! The best part was Nick’s special message to me, dictated to Daddy, who wrote it in his best handwriting:


Perfect. Nick loves me 69. Just last week he loved me 15, so the vector is moving in the right direction. Someday he might even catch up to me:  I love my family infinity.