Hawaii honeymoon

The Line

I have (very) recently entered a new phase in my life. It feels like I am standing on a beach and I turn around to find that someone has drawn a line in the sand right behind me, and that side of the line represents before and this side of the line represents now. I am standing right on the other side of the line but there’s no going back. It’s not even a big line, but it’s a line. I didn’t really expect it to be drawn there, but there it is.

I did try to erase the line, sort of. After all, it’s just a line, freshly drawn and not very deep. If I fill in the hole, I thought, maybe the line won’t be there anymore.

But it doesn’t work like that.

I can’t explain what this is just yet. I’m not ready, and it’s not entirely about me. I am walking another line as well, one that’s between my desire (and probably need) to write about this and the reality that it’s not time. But please bear with me. It’s a significant, in fact life-changing, thing and I don’t know what to do. But I do need to put it out there as I work through it.

road curving out of sight

In one of her Dear Sugar columns, author Cheryl Strayed (when she was still writing anonymously) was asked, “What do you do when you don’t know what to do?”

Part of her answer included this:

“I talk to my partner and my friends. I make lists. I attempt to analyze the situation from the perspective of my ‘best self’ – the one that’s generous and reasonable and forgiving and loving and big-hearted and grateful. I think really hard about what I’ll wish I did a year from now. I map out the consequences of the various actions I could take. I ask what my motivations are, what my desires are, what my fears are, what I have to lose, and what I have to gain. I move toward the light, even if it’s a hard direction in which to move. I trust myself. I keep the faith. I mess up sometimes.”

That’s what I am trying to do.

I have had many people tell me I am strong and can handle this and am so loved and will be okay. Easy for them to say, I think. What I think is that this is just another thing I have to deal with that might sink me. It feels, on a daily (and in fact moment-to-moment) basis that I can’t do this. I am not equipped. I am clearly messed up and this is just another thing that will reveal that to be true.

I can do this, of course, and I will, but oh, it’s hard.

The irony (truth? beauty?) is that I’m mentally moving through the phases of this fairly quickly. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance – the stages of this, at least for me, are pretty much exactly the stages of coping with dying. And just like those stages as identified by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, these stages are not linear. They are messy and they stop and start and sometimes one phase completely overwhelms the others and makes any feeling other than that anger or that depression seem absolutely, undeniably impossible to achieve. And then it retreats, even if only slightly, and something else can start to emerge.

I can’t recall exactly how I came across that particular Dear Sugar column, but like so many things that find their way to me when I need to see them it was an unassuming click on a passing link that led me down a path I didn’t know was there and didn’t know I needed to find until I was standing on it.

Since crossing that line a mere three weeks ago, I have had a few glimpses of my “best self” – the one that’s generous and reasonable and forgiving and loving and big-hearted and grateful – and I know she’s in there. At this stage she’s being drowned out more often than not by my not-best self – the one that’s angry and hurt and sad and scared and disappointed – but she’s in there.

It’s early, though. It’s early days on a very hard journey and I’m going to mess up sometimes, but I’m trying to keep the faith and continue on.

After all, it’s only a line.

footprints in the sand

Stuck at the Second Level

Sitting at your kitchen table at 7 a.m. trying to determine where mental health fits on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is probably not a good sign. It’s probably a sign that you need help.

I didn’t get a satisfying answer from Google (one site suggested that failing to have needs met at any of the stages can lead to depression or anxiety, but I think it has to work the other way around as well, i.e. that mental health issues can prevent people from moving through the stages) so I turned to a friend who is wise in the ways of psychology and mental health. “I would put it in the safety band,” he said, “but really, mental health is a precondition for all of the four levels above physiological.”

That makes sense to me, and it’s why I had turned to Google for answers that morning.Maslow's hierarchy of needs

What I had secretly been hoping for was for someone to suggest that mental health was a requirement for functioning properly in this world, that it fit squarely in one of the levels as a clear and understood need, as though I could then point to this theory and say, See? I have a right to good mental health! and someone, somewhere, would then be obligated to ensure I got it.

This, needless to say, is not how life works.

The idea of it being a precondition to the higher levels does fit squarely into the thought process that led me to Google, however.

Many of the things I would normally aspire to, like being involved in my community or deeply pondering or even pursuing answers to life’s big questions—the things that normally make me feel alive and grateful for this life—now exist mostly as a sidebar to the story of my life rather than being woven in as a fully developed theme.

looking up from inside a building courtyard surrounded by walls

I know I have important needs that are not getting met. I even know what some of them are (lately, a lack of sleep has been putting me firmly at the bottom level of the triangle).

Other needs, though, are less easy to defend as legitimate. The need for solitude and for quiet, the need for living space that isn’t constantly terrorized with the mess and energy of three other people, the need to be able to do my own thing sometimes without the burden of guilt caused by leaving more of the childcare to my spouse who is already home with them full time – where do those needs fit? And why does not getting them met cause me to spiral?

I don’t know how to reconcile these needs AND be a mother. I don’t want these needs to rear their ugly heads on hard parenting days and, while I’m down, kick me once more with the knowledge of how significantly (and negatively) I can affect my children’s place on the pyramid. But it feels like admitting these needs is taboo. Not okay.

I’m stuck. I’m struggling. And admitting these needs is scary, especially when there’s no clear path to getting them met.

In Transit

Right now I’m sitting in the observation deck at the Minneapolis airport, a peaceful room with only classical music as the backdrop for the view of the runways. I look out at the planes sitting at the gates, seemingly quiet with no hint as to the activity happening inside; those planes are all going somewhere, though I can’t tell where just by looking.

It feels like a metaphor for me and my own journey.

view from observation deck at MSP airport
I’ve felt a little lost lately, and it feels odd. I don’t know what to say about it. When I first started putting words to my journey three years ago I could see the path I was on, like a moving sidewalk in front of me. Whether I walked or not I was going somewhere, and I had some idea of where. I just had to wait for that moving sidewalk to spit me out the other side. And then it did and I thought, Oh. I’m here. 

“Here” turned out to be a different city. “Here” turned out to be a new job and a new baby and a new appreciation for the time during which the moving sidewalk went a little nuts, forcing me to hold on tightly to the handrail lest I get chewed up en route. And so it was, for a time – at peace, happy, accepting.

After a while, though, things started to feel a little off. I didn’t know why at first, and then I did.

And then I stopped writing because I don’t know what to make of it.

The question I’m wrestling with is, “Really?” I had a baby and got sick and didn’t get help soon enough and now I have to struggle with depression for the rest of my life? Really?!

Inside, I’m railing against this. I’m angry and frustrated and, sometimes, feeling defeated. I did all that work and learned all those lessons and got brave and shared my story to help others and I still have to deal with this shit?

Apparently, yes. Really.

I’m in this airport on a three-hour layover on my way to DC for a conference hosted by a company I know well. I used to fairly regularly fly to the US to speak at conferences hosted by this same company, and as I sit in this quiet room I look around for the me who used to do this, but she’s not here. Just this new me and some classical music.

I’ve often wondered lately if this is it. The last few months with the ups and downs of what I now know is an ongoing depression journey have felt a bit like a layover – interminable and frustrating, watching as everyone else takes off while I’m stuck looking out the window. I’ll depart eventually, but whether I go onwards or backwards I don’t yet know. I’m still in transit.

A Window Into Apathy

“I found myself losing interest in almost everything. I didn’t want to do any of the things I had previously wanted to do, and I didn’t know why. The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment. Everything there was to do seemed like too much work. I would come home and I would see the red light flashing on my answering machine, and instead of being thrilled to hear from my friends I would think, “What a lot of people that is to have to call back.” Or I would decide I should have lunch, and then I would think, but I’d have to get the food out and put it on a plate and cut it up and chew it and swallow it, and it felt to me like the Stations of the Cross.”

dark clouds over hay fields

The TED talk by Andrew Solomon about depression that’s quoted above has been open in the browser on my phone for ages. Weeks. Months, maybe. I wanted to watch it but hadn’t yet, so it stayed hidden away, only occasionally glimpsed when I clicked on another link and saw the window whiz by as I opened a new one.

And then last night I was putting Connor to bed, and as he wiggled and settled and drifted toward sleep I was scrolling through the open windows on my phone trying to clear them out. (Because there are so many things sitting on my chest as obligations, and open windows on the browser on my phone felt like yet another series of things I really should get back to, which is ridiculous, so I decided it was time for those windows to go away.) I scrolled through each window one last time and thought, no, I’m not going to make those quinoa cakes and I really don’t care what 29 awesome things I don’t know about Google and I’m sure those stock photos that don’t suck are great but I don’t really need more stock photo sources and I closed each window in turn.

And then I got to the window for this TED talk.

lightning-strike

You know how sometimes something ends up in front of your face and then later you look back and wonder at the timing? It gets pushed in front of you through some kind of cyber-magic and you finally pay attention to it and suddenly all sorts of things make sense. That’s what happened with that TED talk. I somehow—not deliberately—ended up on the transcript page and as Connor wiggled and settled and drifted to sleep I started reading.

In January I wrote about how I was missing inspiration and some of you said, “That’s okay” and “Some periods of your life are just like that” and “A different path is not a bad thing,” and I thought no. And I even said it—I said This is not how I wish to live—but what I didn’t say at the time was Something feels wrong. Something is wrong. I just let it float around in the back of my awareness and I thought about words like apathy and how I don’t remember ever feeling so strongly that I just don’t give a shit and for more than three months now I’ve wondered what it’s all about.

But last night a window appeared in front of me and I didn’t close it. Instead of closing that window I opened it, and now I can actually see through to the other side. I’m not sure what’s over on this side—because I do feel like I’m on the right side now—and I don’t know exactly what to do about it, but at least now it has a label. At least now I’m no longer confused about what’s happening. I went from thinking I’m slipping and not really understanding why because it felt different than in the past to knowing that, in fact, I slipped.

Now, as well, I know that apathy is a symptom of depression. And as wrong as it feels, the knowing of it feels much more right.

The Red Button

We were in a hotel at the end of last summer and, as most kids do, Connor wanted to push the elevator button. As we approached, he saw the red emergency button and simultaneously went to push it and asked what it was for. My husband told him what it was for and said, “When you see a red button, don’t push it.”

I was surprised Connor didn’t push the button anyway. If I had offered the explanation and told him not to touch the red button, we very likely would have been explaining to hotel management that there was no emergency, terribly sorry and thank you, it’s just our five-year-old’s tendency to push buttons his mother asks him not to.

Most of the buttons he pushes are mine. I’m not really sure how to describe our relationship without making you think it’s typical of life with a five-year-old boy. Which is not to say that your challenges with your five-year-old boy (or whatever) aren’t difficult too, but this, to me, has often felt different.

I think all parents think they suck at some point. For a blessed few, maybe it’s just a one-time feeling on a particularly bad day. A lot of parents probably have that feeling at 7:23 on a Saturday morning when they’d rather be sleeping and instead are dealing with kids who have been up for over an hour and are bored or restless or just plain loud. And some parents probably have the I-suck-at-parenting thought on an almost-daily basis.

I am all of those parents, but this situation with Connor isn’t the Saturday-morning variety. I’m not entirely sure I suck at being a parent. Most days, I just think I suck at being Connor’s mom.

Way back when he was still a nursing baby, he used to slap me across the face. He got me good some days and it eventually led to a very abrupt ceasing of breastfeeding. I lasted a long time, through the slapping and the biting and the scratching. By the time he was 16 months old I had cut nursing down to once a day before bed, and then one day I stopped. Cold turkey, baby. I’d had enough and I decided in a moment of anger and frustration that I’d wasn’t going to take it anymore.

Connor didn’t seem to notice, just like he still doesn’t seem to notice when I try to take a stand on things I’m not willing to tolerate.

He doesn’t seem to notice when I withdraw after he’s smacked me on the back first thing in the morning or dug his fingernails into my arm while we’re watching TV. He doesn’t notice when I ask him not to do something nor does he notice when I say DON’T DO THAT! He doesn’t even notice when I take Lego away. He’s not like this with Rich or with my mom or at school. It’s all part of his belief that Mommy is no fun and she’s not my friend. And before you start with the platitudes, let me tell you this: It’s not something I’m imagining. And another piece of evidence surfaced a few months ago.

I walked into our bedroom one afternoon to get something and realized Connor was in our bathroom. He was talking to himself and before I left the room again I heard it: “I don’t like my mom, but I do like my dad.”

broken bridge over water

The extent of this problem—because it’s most definitely a problem and not just a parenting challenge or a phase—has become abundantly clear, again, in the last few days. It doesn’t matter if I try to play with him or suggest outings or let him have an extra show on Netflix. It doesn’t matter if all I’m trying to do is prevent him from injuring himself, or me, or his little brother. This is how it is: He pushes, I push back, we collide.

It’s time to do something about it. Past time, actually, but who wants to put yourself out there and say, Hi, I think I might be the worst mother in the world because I can’t deal with my own child. Other parents seem to manage fine with only the occasional raised voice or extra glass of wine after a challenging day – WHAT’S WRONG WITH ME?!

I sure don’t want to do that.

But I also don’t want to live with this constant frustration and my parents’ phone number on speed dial for those days when I just can’t deal with him for another second. I’m worried that if I don’t do something about it we (he? I?) will have an ongoing, perhaps increasing, problem.

I’m not sure where to look, but it’s time to find a cover for that red button.