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.

Second Side

She likes to pretend people can’t see it. In her own mind she is lean and lithe and neither the bulges she tries not to see nor the fit of her clothes seem to convince her otherwise.

At yoga she does triangle pose and imagines the length of her limbs must make everyone else notice. The slender feeling moves with her as she transitions into the stance of a warrior.

There’s a bit of comparison there; of course there is.

I’m not that heavy, she thinks.

I definitely don’t look like that. 

But what she’s imagining is what she used to look like, not what she looks like now.

rusted-red-barrel

Time has marched on. Life has intervened and left its marks. Former good practices now abandoned, she is flawed. Imperfect.

She knows this, yet doesn’t see it. Her body image is based on a mental picture, not what the mirror reflects. But she’s about to turn around.

The warrior windmills, hands to the ground, and a vinyasa follows. Chaturanga, cobra, downward dog. She steps to the top of her mat, takes a deep breath, returns to mountain.

Second side.

She takes the pose once again, picturing lissome limbs and graceful movements.

But she has placed her mat along the far wall, closest to the mirror, and the truth lurks. In triangle once again, she stands strong, reaching through her fingertips. Her pose stable and her balance solid, she moves her gaze towards the sky and in doing so catches a glimpse of her reflection.

In that moment, she sees it.

More large than lean; more bulgy than beautiful.

imperfection

The warrior vanishes; the wise yogi fades away.

She is just a girl in front of a mirror. Flawed. Imperfect. Trying to find her beauty.