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.

A day (of almost grace) in a life

7:00 am. I wake to the sound of something beating on the wall. I assume it’s Jesse kicking the wall viciously, which I’m used to, but I look over and she’s still sound asleep. Ah. It’s the construction crew getting to work. A few minutes later everyone wakes up and Jesse starts hollering about the noise. I dress and head out the door. 10 feet away, Erick-the-Carpenter is getting things going with his crew. I shuffle in with my morning breath, bed head, and crusty eyes to chat with him about a cubbie that’s going in the master bedroom they’re working on. I try not to scratch in ignominious spots as my body slowly wakes up. I’m vaguely humiliated but the conversation has to happen. Erick manages not to snicker openly at my appearance, for which I’m deeply grateful.

I’ve made a commitment to myself to engage in maximum helicopter parenting for a while. Jesse needs help identifying and foreseeing her flash points, and then managing her reactions. I’m on it today.

8:35 am. We head out the door for summer camp at the Audubon nature center. It’s been a pretty smooth morning. We’re all permanently on edge because of Jesse’s behaviors, but she’s only had one break-on-the-stairs so far, and she and Nick have played well together in our efficiency-apartment basement. I’m all over them, helping them iron out problems with sharing and personal space.

The car ride goes surprisingly well. Jesse doesn’t do anything too awful and Nick isn’t too annoying.

Yesterday before we got in the car, I asked Jesse to first take deep breaths and think about how she would go about not attacking Nick in the car. I saw her standing next to the car door, breathing and thinking peacefully. As I walked over I noticed Nick. He was already in the car. He was pressing his face up against the closed car window beside Jesse and and slapping his palms on the glass, yelling “TAKE DEEP BREATH-ESS! TAKE DEEP BREATH-ESS!”

Today goes better than that.

9:30: I’ve dropped the kids off. They seem to be enjoying my extreme hands-on parenting. They can’t get enough of it. Jesse went into her camp classroom and seemed happy to be there. In fact, she seemed glad to see me go, thus displaying the independence one associates with beautifully parented, self-confident children. Nick refused to let me enter his classroom. He kissed me in the hallway and said firmly, “mommy, you stop right there. Don’t come in!”

During the next two hours, I buy and deliver some donuts for the work crew at the house; hit Home Depot to pick up door handles and start spying out tile tools and toilets; stop by Trader Joes for some basic eats; run by the house to drop cold groceries off and get the dog outside to pee; and do some quick searches about tile on the computer. La la la.

11:45 am: I pick Nick up from his camp class and we head downstairs to find Jesse. She’s peaceful enough that we’re able to stay for half an hour after camp in one of the outdoor preschool classrooms (a play area, really). Other kids are there, including a little five-year-old named Charlie who’s wearing the same taekwondo “board break-a-thon” t-shirt as me. “Heeey!” he exclaims in delight, because we all train at the same academy. We bow to each other. “Pilsung!” He shows us his kicks. Jesse is a perfect senior taekwondo student: she praises him without exaggerating and encourages him with a big smile.

The kids get along really well. Superficially, Jesse and Nick are ideal children. They play cooperatively and without bossing; they watch out for the littlest ones and make sure they’re included; if a big kid takes something from a little kid, they go retrieve it and give it back; when someone’s hurt, they’re attentive and caring. But I have to watch Jesse like a hawk. She veers towards hostile with Nick a few times. I call her over each time I see her swerve and remind her to back off, make distance from Nick, and calm herself. Remarkably, she does it.

12:30 pm: carpenters and plumbers are busy at the house today, so I don’t want to take the kids home just yet. We head over to Qdoba and Noodles & Company. Jesse gets her new favorite lunch, a not-much-cheese chicken quesadilla, and we carry it next door to Noodles. After we order Nick’s lunch, we settle at a table outside. When the food comes, the kids are sweet and well-mannered, and Jesse remembers to say “thank you!” A few minutes later the server comes back with two giant chocolate chip cookies for the kids. “You are such well-mannered children and so sweet! So I thought you deserved a treat and wanted to give you these!”

Jesse’s face lights up — no, her whole body lights up with a brief, radiant moment of pride. She and Nick stare at the cookies greedily.

“Thank you so much!” I tell server lady. “You are so kind!”

And then I have to do the nasty deed. “But we can’t have the cookies because Jesse has a severe egg allergy.”

The kids’ faces collapse. I want to cry. I guess I could just say thank you and let server lady walk away, but it seems wrong to accept her generosity superficially and then throw out the cookies.

Server lady keeps a smile on her face, but the collective disappointment is palpable. Server lady doesn’t give up. “Oh I’m sorry. I wish there were some other treat we had that I could give you!”

I speak up, against my nature. I don’t like handouts and I don’t like asking for free things and it’s hard, but I do it. “Well… They can have your rice krispy treats, and I’m sure they would love it if they don’t have to share this one rice krispy treat that I bought.”

Server lady is on it. She’s back a moment later with a second rice krispy treat the size of a burrito. Jesse fondles it and declares that it is covered in love. It is the most delicious rice krispy treat ever. Jesse can’t wipe the smile off her face for a good five minutes.

1:30: We stop by home ever so briefly to pick up the kids’ iPads so they have something to do in the doctor’s office. Anything to  keep them from playing with the toys in the waiting area. I will never understand toys in a pediatric waiting area. Germs. Why.

1:45: Jesse has two plantar warts that won’t go away, one on the ball of her foot and the other on the bottom of her big toe. Pediatrician Dr. Linsmeier gives those warts a hard burn with liquid nitrogen. Jesse has an extreme tolerance for pain and doesn’t shed a tear. The only evidence of pain is a single twitch and an almost inaudible mutter. “That hurts.”

Dr. Linsmeier shows the kids what’s inside the bottle she was shooting ice from. It looks like water. She does her magic trick and flings the contents across the floor! Most of the nitrogen disappears in an instant and a ghostly fog forms across the exam room floor. A few drops of nitrogen stay liquid and bounce around on the floor. Dr. Linsmeier is the most awesome doctor ever.

2:30: We head home. The construction crew is winding down and the house is a mess. Everyone is a bit tired, and I have to focus on cleaning up. Jesse struggles to keep it together. She spends some quality time outside by herself, and then she requests Alvin and the Chipmunks. Because she knows quality Hollywood when she sees it.

4:00: Daddy’s home!! Anthony has come home early because it’s school registration day. But first he and I discuss the eating bar that’s going in our future kitchen. There’s turmoil over its shape and depth, because the wall its abutting isn’t going to be as wide as originally planned and yadda yadda. I want Anthony to decide, since the bar is his thing, but he’s being weirdly fussy about it. This annoys me no end, and I think he’s feeling cornered somehow. I just want him to make all the decisions, and I want them to be good ones. Is that too much to ask?

4:30: Although Alvin is COMPELLING viewing, we pause the movie and drive over to the middle school where registration is going on. I have remembered that taking school photos at registration is a flashpoint for Jesse. She hates being directed to sit in awkward positions and being told to smile over and over. It makes her all crazy inside. Last year I ignored everything to do with school photos.

This year, I plan ahead. We talk about the hurdle. We see the hurdle, we decide to jump it, and we come up with ideas for how best to jump. No cows are involved.

Nick tries to help Jesse by demonstrating how to smile for the camera. It looks something like this.


Jesse practices.


Does she seem stressed out in this photo?

When it’s time to take the photo at registration, Jesse shows masterful emotional control. She grins, she smiles, she laughs, she goes along with the directions to tilt this way and that and turn this way and that. It goes super smoothly. I could not be more proud of her. Baby steps.

Nick also handles his photos well. He puts on his rictus grin and wiggles. Anthony tries to make him smile more naturally by being silly behind the photographer, and Nick responds in kind. He poses with his mouth wide open. He juts his hip and throws his hands up in mock surprise. The photographers are patient. “Let’s try again. Ok. Try again. Yup. Let’s try that again.” Nick is upbeat the whole time. Unlike Jesse, he doesn’t give a rat’s ass about the photos or the photo shoot. He truly, completely does not care. He doesn’t care that anyone else cares. He doesn’t care how the photo turns out. He’s just going along because he’s having fun watching all the adults try to make him do something he’s not doing. He’s a school photo sociopath.

5:30: We’re back home and it’s time for dinner. I have some aging thick-cut bacon in the fridge, along with chicken I took out of the freezer two days ago. It must be cooked. I fire up the grill and get the bacon on there on a cast iron pan. Quick marinade for the chicken, camping style: ketchup, soy sauce, vinegar, pepper, lemon juice, paprika. Done. I chop farmshare beets, potatoes and carrots to roast. I’ve also got a big cabbage from last week’s farmshare box, and I have to do something with it. So I make a cole slaw, with some onion, garlic, and grated carrot thrown in. The farmshare box also contained something that looks like dill gone to seed. I pull the seeds off and grind them up with a mortar and pestle. I don’t think it’s dill after tasting it, but I throw it in the slaw anyway.

While all this fantastic cooking is happening, random shit is going on around me. I lose track of interruptions. But overall, Jesse is doing really well. I’m still helicoptering and helping Nick and her manage things. It’s been Jesse’s best day in probably a full month, even though Nick is being more annoying than usual, and I’d like to bring it in strong. But something happens; I don’t remember what. Something Anthony says irritates me beyond reason. I step outside and spend 15 minutes or more wandering around the yard and pulling a weed here and there. Also collecting Japanese beetles in a little bucket of soapy water. When I come back in the house, no one seems to have noticed my absence. Excellent.

8:00 p.m. Watermelon. Everyone wants watermelon.

8:10 p.m. Jesse comes up behind me. I think she’s going to hug me. Instead, she screams as loud as she can directly into my ear. It’s excruciating and vicious. I refuse to accept her apology.

Everything unravels for the next half hour as Jesse refuses to follow directions, refuses to stay away from us, and does a lot of mean things — more screaming in ears, hitting and kicking, and a full-on tantrum that results in me putting her on the front porch. Eventually, she settles onto the sofa in the living room to read some of her book. Nick settles into bed in our one bedroom and watches an episode of Dinosaur Train while Anthony and I clean floors and get water and fold laundry. On one trip past Jesse, I ask her if I can give her a kiss goodnight. She shakes her head no. I’m filled with sadness. i try to hide it as I speak. Jesse, I wish you could come upstairs and be with us. If you can just be gentle. We all want you with us. We want you to share quiet evenings with us at bedtime.

9:00: Jesse comes upstairs. Not exactly meek, but she’s trying as hard as she can. It’s been a long day with a lot of little challenges, and she’s emotionally exhausted. I realize that I am too. She crawls under the covers and watches the end of Dinosaur Train. I sneak into bed next to her and spoon up behind her for a bit. I bury my nose in her beautiful brown hair, close my eyes, and whisper, “I love you, Jesse.” I don’t know if she hears me. I don’t know if she believes me.

There are a few yawps and threats, but Jesse hangs on by a thread and falls asleep in our bedroom with us. It’s the first time in a long time, and I’m grateful.

Baby steps.

grumpy about positivity – 99 problems

I’m working on being more positive.

Jesse’s workbook on grumbling too much says some people are more positive and some people are more negative. Some people are more pessimistic, some are more optimistic. Some people are flexible, some people are inflexible. Some people are pains in the ass (pain in the asses?), some smell like mangos and buttermilk.

“Who do you know who tends to be negative? Draw a picture of that person.” Said the workbook page. Jesse drew herself and me.


Before you think weird things, I can explain the body drawings. Those aren’t my ovaries dropping into my groin, nor is Jesse portraying us wearing either hoochie-mama outfits or BDSM gear. Jesse has been working with one of those 3D wood body forms to figure out body dimensions and movement points. She draws bodies with ball joints now, and proportions have been out of whack for a while. And now that I look more closely, she does appear to have given me a cleavage. Huh.

Oh. On the “who’s positive” side of the workbook, Jesse drew a picture of Nick with the caption, “most positive thinker ever.”


I think she’s right. You remember that Sesame Street ditty, “One of these things is not like the other”? That’s Nick, trapped in a house with three pessimistic, pretty inflexible people. Poor little awesome guy.

The workbook says you can exercise being more positive and flexible. You have to learn to jump hurdles. See the hurdle. Decide to jump it. Figure out how to do it. Jump.


Four easy steps. Jesse read it a few times and pondered as we sat together. She wanted to know why the pictures showed a cow jumping hurdles. She looked at me curiously, expectantly, but then before I could say “It’s a metaphor,” she wandered off into her own mind and I left her alone.

A while later she came back to me with a sheet of paper. “Look Mom, I took each of the four steps and I wrote them like what they actually mean.”


Not bad. I guess she doesn’t need cows. But her approach is a little abstract. We worked on it for a while and we’ll continue to do a bit of learning every day on this.

Anyway, I decided to work on being more positive today because, you know, I’ve got to be a better role model. Jesse and I spent much of the day together, because Anthony took Nick on a solo adventure. They took the dog to the beach and went out for food and lots of fun stuff. Jesse sat in the house while I painted wood siding. It was a just punishment for when she bit Nick on the face last night.

Oh no I didn’t! That wasn’t a nice thing to out Jesse on – I’m getting negative already!

Come on, girl. I’m trying to be positive here. Reboot.

After I cleaned up from the painting, Jesse and I went to lunch. I realized I’ve been forming a positivity mantra lately without even knowing it. Every now and then I’ll announce to Anthony, “I got 99 problems but [insert whatever I’m thinking about] ain’t one!”

It’s very upbeat, yeah? I decided to use it with Jesse today.

Jesse and I went to Qdoba. On the drive there she started in on her strange penis chatter.

“I got 99 problems but a penis ain’t one!”

That stopped her. “Mom.”

Jesse wanted to eat a not-much-cheese chicken quesadilla, with pico de gallo and corn salsa, dipped into tortilla soup. We picked up our food. “I got 99 problems but my lunch ain’t one!”

“Mommy, that’s weird.”

“I got 99 problems but being weird ain’t one!”

“Mom. Stop.”

“I got 99 problems but stopping ain’t one!”

“Mommy! You’re embarraassing me!”

I don’t think it worked with her. But bellowing it at her cheered me up for sure.

After lunch, we went to the bike shop and spied out bikes with 24-inch wheels. Jesse found a Trek she love-love-loved, jet black with a matte finish. Soooo emo and soooo expensive. I offered Jesse a bribe, part of my stealth plan to sidestep the meds. “You work hard for the next month on two things: following directions, and improving your mood, you know, like feeling better about yourself and being happier so you stop being so hostile to us. You don’t have to be perfect, but you have to try really hard. Do that for a month, and then if you chip in a hundred bucks from your savings, we’ll get you the Ninja bike.”

Jesse’s eyes opened wide with optimism and a dream of awesome bike rides to come.

We’ll see what she can muster. I’m not optimistic.

No wait. I AM optimistic, really I am!


I found myself thinking about 99 problems all day long after that. I tried to apply it positively as I bent over to paint board after endless board in the back yard, my back and thighs aching from the uncomfortable position, the thumb tendon of my painting hand throbbing in pain.

I got 99 problems, but rain ain’t one! (Damn. Looks like I’ve got no excuse to quit painting.)

(Ah. That’s negative. Try again.)

I got 99 problems, but making dinner ain’t one! (Because I’m spending the entire f*&^ing day painting these damn boards and I don’t have a kitchen to cook in anyway.)

(Shit. Still negative. Try again.)

I got 99 problems, but Jesse screaming at me ain’t one!

(Because she’s inside playing with her iPad, so I’m just delaying the inevitable. Gawd, I’m such a bad mommy.)


I got 99 problems, but going with Jesse to the new psychiatrist this week ain’t one! (I’m refusing to go. Anthony has to do it. I can’t believe we’re going to be reduced to meds. Shaking my head.)

I just can’t do it. I’m born and bred to pessimism.

I got 99 problems, but a functioning kitchen ain’t one!

I got 99 problems, but a functional toilet on the same floor as our bedroom ain’t one!

I got 99 problems, but being underweight ain’t one!

I got 99 problems, but time to exercise ain’t one!

I got 99 problems, but being positive ain’t one!

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 tics

Jesse has had a new word tic for the past 5 or 6 months. We call it Penis. 

Not to be confused with *** Is Fat or I Hate *** (insert any name of someone she loves), Feet on the Table, Kick You, Punch Punch, Lick It, or Touch It Touch It, which are well-established tics that wax and wane. 

It is the nature of Jesse’s tics to seek forbidden terrain. Penis is a new adventure in Jesse’s mental and spiritual journey, and Penis is with us in the car as we make a physical three-day journey from Wisconsin to the Atlantic Ocean. 

Jesse says it at all manner of odd times, a curious expression of her stress. She wakes up and rolls over. “Good morning penis penis penis.” She goes to sleep saying it too, and in the dark she mixes it with loud, reverberating yawps that sound like jungle monkeys heading into territorial battle — or like a miserable child struggling to get a grip on something in her brain that none of us yet understand. 

When times are tough (in her mind), Jesse wanders a room twitching like she’s getting electric shocks. “PP! PPPPHPPHH! PPE PE PE PEE!! PE PENIS!!” She takes a deep breath and tries to calm herself, fails and then croons quietly in her sweet, high-pitched little girl voice. “Penis penis. Penis.”

She mutters it sometimes at taekwondo during stretching. Even as it humiliates her, she seems powerless to control the blurts. Everyone ignores her masterfully there, but at home where we endure it on and on, trying and trying to ignore it and not reward it with attention, it drives us mad and shreds away any remaining armor of patience. All that’s left is a collective raw nerve. 

I’ve suggested different words, like “peanuts.” But apparently not even that packs the right punch for her.

We’ve also tried reverse psychology. One morning we woke up to Penis. I said to Nick, let’s just only say penis to Jesse today. He looked at me in concern and then said hesitantly, “mommy… Nooo…”

We were silent a moment and then Nick spoke. “Jesse?”

“What, Nick?”


For a while Penis manifested in phrases. One day as I took a shower, Jesse popped her head into the bathroom and spoke cheerfully. “Hello hairy penis lady!”

On her third visitation, I snarled, “say it to me one more time and I will take your iPad away for the entire summer!”

She didn’t come back. Shit shit shit, I thought, as I pondered the weight of idle threats. I found her in the bedroom. She looked at me and spoke mildly. “Hairy penis lady.”

I had to send Anthony to her to undo my idle threat and impose a more rational consequence.

Penis shows itself in physical behaviors too, which are very disturbing. Jesse puts her hands to her crotch and mimes as though she’s spraying pee everywhere with what appears to be an absolutely enormous penis. Or she tries to punch or kick Anthony’s privates. 

We’re driving to a beach house that we’ll share for a week with a handful of families. Jesse has expressed a lot of concern that Penis tic will rear its ugly head. She knows peeps will think she’s strange. Maybe they’ll get pissed off. Odds are good that if she gets going, kids won’t want to play with her. Worrying about this ramps up her stress, increasing the probability of Penis taking over her mind. 

This morning, the topic of imaginary friends came up. It occurred to me that Penis is much like an imaginary friend, a mysterious presence in Jesse’s mind that follows her everywhere and manifests in our real world. I suggested Jesse say good bye to her imaginary friend, much like Anthony once did long ago (more on that another day). Maybe Penis doesn’t have to come to the beach house with us. 

Jesse didn’t answer but I knew she heard me. I could tell she was thinking. 

We drove three hours and found a DQ for lunch, in the prosperous hills of West Virginia.  We walked in and Penis started right up as we waited for our food. I asked Jesse to go say good bye to Penis, just go open that door and send Penis out. Penis can wait outside, and you can spend time with her later if you have to, when you’re not with us. 

Jesse glared at me and slowly walked to the door. She opened it and, after a long look at me, stepped outside. I waited a few seconds and realized Jesse was staying outside. 

I stuck my head out the door. “Jesse, you’re not Penis. Penis is imaginary. Leave her outside, and you come back in.” 

“Oh!” Said the relieved look on Jesse’s face. She sat down at the table with me and we had a peaceful few minutes. 

Penis did not re-enter the premises, and then I re-learned a lesson I always forget, perhaps as a survival mechanism. Jesse’s tics are tag-teamers. Before we left, Jesse had put her feet on the table repeatedly, started whining, and also she kicked me incessantly until I was livid. I didn’t have any space in me to praise her for letting go of Penis, and I was filled with the rage of impotence and failure, having watched my supposedly brilliant ploy defeated soundly by Jesse’s issues. 

I snapped at her one last time, my shins and knees aching from her kicks, “stop kicking me!!”

“Why?” She sounded insolent to me.

“This is why,” I answered grimly as I shoved a foot up on her thigh under the table and dug my shoe in. 

“Ooow,” she grunted quietly. She kicked me again under the table and I kicked her hard a second time. I was so pissed off I wasn’t even thinking about child protective services. 

She stopped kicking me.

Still full of impotent rage, I yelled and shrieked at her in a full fit of Snarla when we got back in the car. When she threatened to hit Nick, I snarled, “do it! DO IT SO I CAN PUNCH YOU BACK! Let me show you what it feels like to live with you!!”

I said to my ten-year-old daughter. 

I went on, though the words are a blur in my memory. I’ve never in my entire life let anyone treat me like you do! You hurt our bodies every day, and you put Nick down constantly! I don’t care why anymore! It has to stop! I don’t care why you abuse the people who love you most! Whatever you do to us, I’m going to do to you WORSE!!

My child, my love, my little offspring, for whom I would rip off my own arm if I had to, cringed away from me in fear. And I didn’t feel even a little bit bad about it. 

At least, not until I calmed down about ten minutes later. But her behavior has definitely improved in the 5 hours since. Not perfect, but better. Not as many P-bombs. 

And so I’ve learned a bad lesson. There has to be a better path to helping Jesse overcome her challenges — something better than just being more fucking crazy than her. 

grumpy about the construction project (random moments in a life of mayhem)

Everything is happening fast. The crew got enough demolition done to lay down floor joists for the addition’s first floor, and then before I could even take a photo of that skeleton, they had the subfloor in. So the space that used to look like this —


looked like this after about a day of work:


Wow. Just like that, it’s all covered up. Erick seems to be demonstrating the wide sitting stance in tae kwon do. Then they framed up the exterior walls for the first floor of the back corner of the addition.IMG_9500 IMG_9503IMG_9506 IMG_9510

You can see the framing for the small windows that’ll sit on either side of my new range in the last pic. It’s all being done so smartly. We still aren’t living al fresco, because no existing exterior wall has yet been torn out. I think they’re planning to finish the new exterior first so our existing home will never be fully exposed to the elements. I had expected it to look more like a gaping two-story hole covered in plastic sheeting. Instead, the plastic sheeting is inside. IMG_9554

They put that in to separate the work space from our living room, which will be untouched. It keeps out most of the construction dust. The plastic is taped in place and held up by extender rods, like shower curtains on end. The opening is some funky tape-on zipper system, so that closes right up whenever you want. It’s great, but now I’m worried about looking in the kids’ stuffed animal bin. ET might be hiding in there.

Our kitchen, which used to look like this… IMG_9018

now looks like this:


Which I consider to be quite an improvement. We’re eating in our makeshift kitchen in the basement, which isn’t so bad. It’s a bit like being in college again.


Except for the fancy gas grill we invested in, which is perfectly fine for cooking gourmet food. Like bacon.


That’s the kind of food we’re eating now. Bacon sandwiches on hamburger buns are the new normal. I think I’ll continue the trend even after my kitchen is done. And, if I use slices of raw eggplant instead of bread, I will finally be paleo and grow strong cavewoman muscles.

We’re trying to keep things as clean as we can in the spaces we’re living in, but it’s been a struggle during the heart of demolition. I feel a sort of muck in my eyes when I wake up. Demolition dust is like ghost smoke, it just goes everywhere no matter how hard everyone tries. The guys put down some thick paper product on the floors to protect them, taping it in place carefully up the stairwell. It turns out the paper is harder to clean than just mopping up the floors at the end of each day after the crew heads home. More importantly, our wee dog was a brat about the papered stairs. She wouldn’t go up or down them. She’d just whine at either end hopelessly until someone came to retrieve her. So annoying. After only a day we asked if the paper had to be down. Erick the boss said no, so I said great, we’ll take it back up over the weekend and I’m sorry you did the extra work. I felt so bad. The guys nodded quietly and said sure. But at the end of the day they had quietly and neatly taken up the paper for me, without any fuss at all.

I hate it when people are thoughtful and nice. It makes me feel like such a grumpy shit.

Why can’t I be like that too? Instead, I’m just feeling crabby and tired on this Monday morning. The kids are hating all over me about the renovation. Every single morning, Jesse wakes up whining loudly. “UUUUGH. WHY??? Why do we have to renovate the house??? Why are you taking everything away from me?” She keeps going, even as I heat up the oil on the hot plate to cook her blessed FISH STICKS for breakfast. Nick has been chiming in too. “Mommy? Can they put the rug back on the stairs? Then it will be soft when I fall.”

I’ve had some low points too.

One day we forgot to leave the kitchen door unlocked. When the crew arrived at 7:00 am (uuugh), they couldn’t get in the house so they rang the bell. I jumped out of bed and ran downstairs in the t-shirt and shorts I was sleeping in. Dan and Talon were standing at the door. They saw me and some strange look passed over their faces before their polite smiles came on. “We are soooooo sorry to wake you up! We could just wait if you want. Seriously, we can just wait outside until you’re ready for us to start. Soooooo sorry.” I shrugged to myself about why they were feeling so bad until 30 seconds later, when I walked into the bathroom and happened to see myself in the mirror. GAH! I jumped back in terror. Eyes half swollen shut, skin splotchy, wild bed-head sticking up all over the place. I was probably drooling. I looked insane.

Another day I was taking a dump on the basement toilet, which is located on the same exterior wall as most of the demolition and rebuild. As I sat, bits of plaster and dirt rained gently down on my head. I almost cried.

But I know it’s all in pursuit of a good first-world cause. Someday soon, I will see my crazy-ass morning face in a beautiful master bathroom mirror that I don’t have to share with the kids (I think), and I will sit my ass on a pristine new toilet to poop.