The Bible is the ancient holy book of my tradition. It’s not a simple book of history and rules. It isn’t dead words on a page. It is a living book, an ongoing story, and as a believer, who am I to limit it? As God said to Job, “Who do you think you are, puny human? I set the universe spinning, and you want to tell me what’s what? Pfffffft.”
During the summer of 1992, when my boyfriend (the one I later married, had two children with, and then divorced) and I had our annual I-hate-you-we’re-breaking-up-forever fight, I started going to a Bible study. I had a very rough relationship with faith in my late teens and early twenties. I grew up in an Evangelical Protestant church and while I believed in God, I struggled with the dogma in that religion, but I couldn’t walk away from it. I wanted faith, but I didn’t know where to find people who wouldn’t hit me in the head with a Bible.
So I dabbled here and there, and I went to a Bible study for young adults that was hosted by a large, non-denominational church, and it seemed OK and I got a little bit comfortable, and as so often happens in these circumstances, someone brought up the topic of abortion, and someone said that women should practice self-control, and someone said it’s baby murder, and you know how it goes. Even if you were never at a Bible study with a group of people between the ages of 18 and 25 who think they know everything and believe they have an ancient, divinely-inspired text that backs them up, you know how it goes, and everyone was oh-so-right and oh-so-indignantly-angry at the loose women with their unwanted fetuses and I didn’t get up and go to my little silver Toyota and drive home like I should have done.
When there was a pause in the self-righteousness, I said, “It’s not so simple.”
Every head swiveled on its stalk of neck, every pair of eyes stared at me, slow up, slow down (Is she a slut? How did we not notice?), and then a female voice rose, a voice trained for a lifetime for exactly this moment, “It is simple. It’s a baby. You can’t kill a baby.”
“I don’t agree,” I said, wading in a little further, still not turning the key on the door of the Toyota, still not entering that safe womb of stale cigarette smoke and discarded diet Coke cans. “Women have abortions for complex reasons, and you can’t just let them die from unsafe abortions. It’s not like…”
The female voice again, this time louder, shouting me down, and joined by others, “Legal abortion just makes murder easy for women!”
More voices, a confusion of anger, and I found my way to my legs, my left hand wrapped around the handle of my purse, and I worked toward the door. Amid the choruses of, “We’ll pray for you!” and “Read Jeremiah 1:5!” and “You’re no Christian!” I heard that female voice above the others.
She asked, “Do you know you’re a bitch?”
I didn’t answer her, not even a raised middle-finger as I finally managed to slip through the door, partly because I couldn’t wait to enter the warm dark of my car, and partly because I was stunned to hear the word bitch in that context. If ever there were people who wouldn’t say shit if they had a mouthful, it was the Evangelical Protestants of my youth. Maybe these were a different breed, or maybe I was a spectacularly terrible specimen of sin: the abortion apologist in the Bible study. Whatever the reason, it’s an interesting question.
On every topic, someone, somewhere, is bound to believe that I have taken the bitch stance. I have taken the part of the bitches. I am a bitch.
Misogynist implications of the word bitch aside, I can live with it because worse would be if someone could describe me as milquetoast, boring, or (shudder) sweet. I care about things. I stand for something. I hope I am open to learning, to hearing new perspectives, and to engaging in civil debate.
I don’t ever want to be a person who knows what’s right. I want to be a person who wrestles with the truth. I hold rightness loosely, prepared for new information and new experiences that might shift my understanding.
The Bible is the ancient holy book of my tradition. It’s not a simple book of history and rules. It isn’t dead words on a page. It is a living book, an ongoing story, and as a believer, who am I to limit such a book? As God said to Job, “Who do you think you are, puny human? I set the universe spinning, and you want to tell me what’s what? Pfffffft.”
Rightness is tempting. A good/bad, either/or universe is easier to live in than one that requires careful thought, big mistakes, and the uneasy state of I don’t know. I’m sure it feels great, being in with the in-crowd, knowing all the right answers, and being so very very right about all the things. Imagine the scene in that Bible study after I left: they probably joined hands and spoke prayers out for awhile, in the Christian key of just, as in, “Lord, just protect Adrienne, and Lord, we just ask that you guide her and show her the error of her ways. Father, we just ask that you help us to love her in spite of her sin.” Then, perhaps a few praise hymns to get the world back into its straight lines: bad is bad, right is right, the ground below and heavens above.
What didn’t happen is, none of us listened. None of us learned. We didn’t struggle or connect. How sad, to lose such an opportunity. How much sadder, that we are missing those opportunities everyday.
If I wanted to do this blogging and writing thing with a bag on my head, I would have had to make that choice at the very beginning. I don’t think I would do it differently even if I had it to do over again.
I kind of hate it when bloggers write about blogging because duh, most of my readers aren’t writers at all, so apologies in advance.
In November, 2010, I decided to take a short break from blogging and and all things internet-y to spend some time with my youngest son, Carter, during his fall break from school. That was true, but it was only half the story. Over the summer of 2010, No Points for Style had gained a respectable readership. I wasn’t playing in the big leagues by anyone’s definition, but my blog was growing and it was thrilling. I wanted (still want) nothing more than for people to read my words. Yes, I’ll cop to it: I want to be famous on the internet, and maybe even famous in the real world. That’s more complicated than it sounds, because it has more to do with wanting to be heard and needing my life to matter in some broad way than it does with fame per se, but I don’t guess I’ll figure everything out right here, right now, so, on with our story.
While watching my blog gain readers was exciting, it was also terrifying and confusing. I’m still not exactly sure why. Comments and emails about how I am poisoning Carter by giving him medicine, or how I’m ruining my relationship with my older kids by sharing stories of my marriage to their dad, or the occasional generic hate-filled diatribe peppered with misspellings and grammatical errors don’t particularly bother me.
I do know that I was paying far too much attention to the noise in the blogosphere (and social media more generally) about what was and was not OK in a blog and I pretty much tied myself in a knot over what other people might find acceptable.
Which, well, let’s back up a little bit, because this is what I do. I define myself, not based on my own preferences, talents, abilities, limitations, etc., but based on what others expect. And this is no small thing. In fact, it’s been pretty much sucking the life out of me for as long as I can remember. On meeting me for the first time, people tend to think I’m shy, but I’m just taking a few minutes to suss out who you would like me to be so I can be that person for you.
However (and this is one big-ass however), I am also an extremely passionate person with strong opinions, and I don’t just share those opinions; I deliver diatribes. In meetings, at church, at community events, in groups, I’ll be sitting on my hands thinking, “Be quiet. Just skip it this time,” but alas, I’m what you call mercurial, and before I know what I’m doing, my hand is in the air and there I go, speaking, and I have big gestures and high volume to go with the words. Put the passion and the fear together and (as my husband would be very willing to tell you), there is one sorry-ass puddle of shame-filled Adrienne to be found in the after.
Oh, Lord, The After. It can be ugly.
The After wasn’t particularly applicable to writing for a long time, in part because my audience was tiny, but more because writing gives writers as much distance from their subject matter as they choose. If a topic feels safe, I might dance right into the heart of it, and if it is dangerous I can stay safely away from the tender center.
And authenticity, integrity, blah blah blah. We analyze and dissect these ideas in the blogosphere as if they were real, achievable goals, an endpoint that some will reach and some will ignore in favor of a well-managed online identity and the product endorsements that are the supposed result of such bedazzled lives.
For the record, I always thought that was the falsest of false dichotomies. Whether we aspire to authenticity or not, we are all carefully managing our online identities with every word we share. I just had no idea how trapped I would become between the two non-existent poles.
I have never lied here in the virtual pages of No Points for Style, which is not to say that everything I’ve written has been factually accurate, but storytelling is the very definition of subjective. The truth as I have written it here belongs to me and no one else. The facts? Well, I don’t know to whom those belong. God, I guess, or maybe the past, but certainly not to me.
Even more strangulation has come in the form of replaying over and over the random bits of advice I’ve heard across the years. Be funny, said some; focus on mental health advocacy said others. Write shorter posts, from one corner; be more casual from another.
Why I even listen is beyond me because I know good and well that the only real advice I need is stop investigating your damn naval and write, you foolish woman. Some of it will suck; some will be brilliant. Most will be passable. Just fucking write.
I took that short break from blogging in the fall of 2010 and when it was over what happened was this: I found myself sitting at my keyboard, staring at the screen and thinking not about what I wanted to say, but how you would receive what I did manage to say, which is sort of like dropping a soggy wool blanket over a dancer: it stops all the art and replaces it with futile, ugly struggling. I tried several times to find my way back in, without much success.
I don’t know how one negotiates two desires that are so entirely at odds. I want to speak, and speak loudly, and be heard. I also want to hide under the bed where no one will ever have reason to call me names or fart in my general direction.
To speak and to be treated civilly is too much to ask if one is doing one’s speaking on the internet. All of us who put our hearts and minds into the public in this medium know that. If we haven’t experienced it directly, we’ve witnessed it.
If I wanted to do this blogging and writing thing with a bag on my head, I would have had to make that choice at the very beginning. I don’t think I would do it differently even if I had it to do over again. There’s nothing to do from here but shut the whole thing down, or take a leap back into the heart of the thing. I don’t know if the world needs my words or not, but I do know that I need to speak them. I am made of, for, and by words, and to be silent is to wither.
Even the knowledge of my own fallibility cannot keep me from making mistakes. Only when I fall do I get up again.
—Vincent Van Gogh
I’m not talking about the regular rules that our parents speak aloud – no running in the house; don’t sing at the dinner table; if you wear your tap shoes in the house you’ll scratch the floors and you don’t want to know what will happen next, young lady!
I’m talking about the underneath rules, the ones that make it impossible to get along with your in-laws because you don’t know their rules and they don’t understand why you don’t know them because they make so much goddamn sense and everybody knows this is how people with an ounce of common sense/human decency/intelligence behave and what the hell is the matter with you?. They are so deeply ingrained that we can’t see them without a shock of some kind – a family crisis like an addiction, divorce, or someone deciding to go to therapy.
The most important rules in the family in which I grew up are tightly related:
Thou shalt not be needy.
Thou shalt not seek attention.
Thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.
Thou shalt blame thyself for all things.
Thou shalt solve all problems with guilt and shame.
Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret.
Thou shalt seek to absolve thyself of others’ misdeeds and mistakes with perpetual regret. (See previous rule, “blame thyself for all things.”)
Thou shalt cultivate shame vigorously, hanging thyself on all available hooks.
Of course, these are not the rules my parents intended to teach me, but they’re the rules I learned.
Hence, I don’t know how to talk about my marriage to Robert because I don’t have much practice. If your familial tradition causes you to scream internally, it’s all your fault how could you do this you are such a goddamn loser what a waste why couldn’t you make it work what is wrong with you, it’s damn hard to take a step back and start sorting out the parts that are not your fault.
I’ve been sitting on this story for weeks, unable to find my way in. The internal screeching is loud, insisting that I rise above; take the high road; be the bigger person.
Also, every time I think of something that happened in our marriage that hurt me, I think of something that I did that, somehow, caused me to deserve it. This should probably come as no surprise since that’s how Robert and I fought when we were married, except that back then I was saved the effort of thinking of the thing I did that was worse than the thing he did because he did that part for me.
Clear as mud? Yeah, it doesn’t make much sense to me, either. How could it? I make sense of my life with words and stories and I have denied myself this story until now.
Since Robert moved out on July 4, 1997, I have carefully engineered a neutral narrative of the relationship that was central to my early adulthood. I have said, “We were far too young to get married,” “We brought out the worst in each other,” and “We didn’t have the tools we needed to make our marriage work.” I’ve spoken about my first marriage as if it happened to someone else; stripped it of its emotion and meaning.
To be clear, I am in favor of dignity and integrity. I’m proud that, post-breakup, I didn’t go out and talk trash about Robert to everyone who would listen. The cost, though, was the truth. In telling the story of our marriage in neutral terms over and over again, I denied myself the healing that comes from telling my story. My truth.
And you know what I say about he truth: it ain’t about the facts.
My story doesn’t match Robert’s, but that doesn’t make it wrong. It only makes it mine, if I will claim it.
My story begins with the rules that shaped my psyche. To say that I arrived at my first wedding (all of 22 years old) with low self-esteem would be an egregious understatement. More like the weight of my shame was roughly equal to that of a Volkswagen I wore strapped to my back.
I viewed my life not as something to be lived, experienced, and enjoyed, but as an exercise in contrition. Every moment was an apology for my very existence; every aspect of myself (body, mind, spirit) in dire need of reformation.
Robert concurred, which probably explains why our marriage sort of worked in the beginning. We agreed that I was broken and he was the savior who could have married a better woman but chose me instead. Repairing my faults – depression; tendency to gain weight (though at the time we married I had never been truly fat); messy habits; inability to cook; love of books and reading; devotion to made-for-TV movies; interest in politics; affection for very long showers; desire for education; and refusal to even try to understand why Robert and so many others thought Seinfeld was funny – would be my project. By conquering them I could become, if not worthy, at least acceptable.
So we moved into our lives, the contract signed and sealed but unacknowledged. My flaws were my demons to conquer if I was to earn my place in the home of the man who deigned to marry me.
He had done me a great favor by marrying me, so I set out to make the best of it.
And then there was this:
I had finally done something right, after all.
Robert and I both fell extravagantly, unreservedly in love with our Tooter (no one called him Jacob until he was three). He was pure light, all soft-sleepy sweetness and milk-drunk joy.
Our love for him was so large, it erased everything else. For a time, I was (almost) everything that Robert and I thought I should be.
Some stories are like laundry. The longer you put off telling them, the bigger they grow.
This story, the one about my earliest adulthood and my relationship with Jacob and Abbie’s dad, has reached the ceiling, toppled over, and begun to spread across the hall and into the bathroom.
So now the whole family is going commando, the house is smelling a bit putrid, and I’ve written half-a-dozen versions of part four of this story, none of which feel, precisely, like the truth.
In any case, this story, the one about my relationship with Robert, is not the one I set out to tell. I was trying to find my way into the tale of Brian’s and my messy start as a blended family and how we screwed up everything that could possibly be screwed up and were just beginning to get our feet under us when Carter was born. Carter being Carter, his arrival tossed all the pieces back into the air and left us lost and gasping until last week.
Not really; we’re still lost and gasping, but not as much as we used to be, so I’m calling it progress. The level of stress/pain/anguish rises and falls, but overall things get more difficult as time goes by. Such is the nature of a mental illness like Carter’s, but we are less surprised by the shifts now, more aware of the beast who lives here with us, inside our little boy. Less surprised = better.
I wasn’t especially interested in the story of Robert and me because I thought the life had drained out of it by now. This Monday it will be 14 years since he moved out of the house we’d shared, so the wounds have healed by now, even if some of the scars are twisted, lumpy things. I don’t feel much when I think about those years now except a sort of wistful regret.
When I started to write the story, I ran into so much ugliness—not the top-level ugliness, but the underneath; the stuff that makes up the whys and wherefores of it all—that I got scared. It was like somebody turned off the word-faucet.
This is the power of writing and telling stories, and this is also the curse of the story teller. The telling is an act of peeling away, of revealing, but the problem is not that one finds oneself in front of a crowd, bare-assed and raw. Ultimately, the problem is finding oneself bare-assed and raw in front of a mirror.
Much of what I see in the mirror hurts, and not in a distant way. The pain is now, today, because what I did then, I do now. Who I was then is who I am now.
The sameness is not obvious, which has enabled me to tell myself that I am different now, at least until writing the story stripped me bare. Robert treated me badly (Even now I hear him, Jesus, what are you complaining about? It’s not like I beat you or anything!), in ways I would not tolerate today.
Except that I do tolerate that treatment today. What the hell are you complaining about? It’s not like you deserve better.
Not Brian. Never think it. Far fewer people now than in the past, and still.
I turned off the words and put my clothes back on not just to protect myself, but because Carter needs me. He has bugs in his hair (not really) and the dogs destroyed all of his toys (they never did). His teeth are growing in wrong (they’re fine) and there are gorillas hiding in the bushes in our backyard. He needs someone with him every minute of the day, and me with my face in the computer does not match his idea of with.
So my story stalled, and the words backed up, and last week I had a sloppy, obscene emotional breakdown. I wailed to Brian that Carter is eating me, consuming everything that I like about myself and my life, including my ability to use words to make sentences and sentences to build stories and stories to make some kind of peace with the chaos swirling inside me.
Telling stories heals me, but telling stories requires two things of which I have a critically short supply: time, and emotional energy. Sometimes (as you well know if you are not new to No Points for Style), I stall out altogether.
Eventually, No Points for Style starts to hang over my head like an obligation, as if I’m a high school junior and I should be studying for a math test but instead I’m watching TV. My God, how I hate that feeling, when something I love, something I created and that fulfills me and of which I am deeply proud, feels like a burden.
Eventually, Carter starts to hang over my head like an obligation, as if I’m an employee and he is the job I can barely tolerate. My God, how I hate that feeling, when someone I love, someone I created and who fulfills me and of whom I am deeply proud, feels like a burden.
Come what may
I won’t fade away
But I know I might change
Nothing comes easily
Fill this empty space
Nothing is like it was
Turn my grief to grace
This article originally appeared in the Winter, 2010 issue of Brain, Child Magazine. I am reprinting it here because this is a key piece of Carter’s and my history that is missing from No Points for Style.
In the four months since Carter’s birth, I had memorized the shadows’ patterns on the ceiling of my bedroom, changing from long and bright on sunny mornings, to dim and faintly green in the late afternoon. This day, though, in late November 2002, was overcast and gray. The room was dark, the shadows barely visible. I wanted to read a book, but when I had tried that on other days, my arms shifted as I turned the pages and Carter screamed. The noise of the television disturbed him, too, as did the flickering light cast by the screen. I kept the air purifier on high because the white noise drowned out some of the sounds of barking dogs in the neighborhood and the noise made by sticks on the metal porch roof that clunked around on windy days.
Carter and I were lying on the futon under my bedroom window. The fingers of my right hand were not quite numb. I could feel a vague burning, a tingling in my fingers, and in an effort to relieve the pain, I made a fist: clench, unclench, clench. I knew—from many, many hours of lying there—that the clenching and unclenching would not help. My hips throbbed from lying in the same position—curled on my right side—for so long. I carefully, so carefully, moved my legs, trying to straighten them a little to relieve the ache there. As I moved my lower body, my upper body shifted just a bit and Carter’s mouth lost its grip on my right nipple. Eyes still closed, he was frantic, pitching his head around on the sheet, searching with his mouth for the only thing that comforted him. Pay no attention to the woman behind the breasts.
I turned over to give my right hand a chance to come to life. Carter, once he had a good grip on my left breast, sucked and swallowed for a few minutes, sighed, and began to breathe deep and slow, his body limp. I lay there with him for an hour and a half. My left hand burned. As the time crept by, I found it increasingly difficult to ignore my discomfort. My feet were ice cold; my back ached; I was thirsty. Since the futon was directly under the window, I couldn’t see anything outside except the underside of the porch cover. The harder I fought my internal blackness, the more I felt it descending on me, saw it dripping down the walls of my bedroom like roofing tar, stinking and steaming and filling every crevice and corner with my desperation. As uncomfortable as I was, the alternative was worse. I would have sooner chewed off my own arm than wake Carter if I could help it.
When he woke, calm and alert, I spent a few minutes cooing and talking to him, trying to elicit a smile. I didn’t succeed, and when he became restless and fussy, I climbed off the futon. I stretched my back and hips, felt blood moving into the places it had been restricted, and carried Carter to the bathroom to change his diaper. I tied him tightly to my chest with a baby sling and left the house. Moving fast, I walked down the street, around the block, across to the park. I tried to expel the furious energy that threatened to overtake me like a disease. The wind was cold, the sky gray and dark, and I crunched through the fallen leaves, cursing at the neighborhood dogs that barked and startled my baby. Carter screamed, quieted to crying, then fussing, then amped up to screaming again. I walked faster.
This is not what I expected.
Once upon a time, my husband, Brian, and I wanted to have a baby, the “ours” in “yours, mine, and ours.” When we married in 2000, our children—my son, Jacob; my daughter, Abbie; and Brian’s son, Spencer—stood around us while we said our vows. Having our own child seemed like a great idea, the perfect way to cement our new family; then there would be one person to whom we would all be related. How hard could it be? We only had to look to our other children to find proof of the excellence of our parenting methods.
Late one evening not long after the wedding I said to Brian, “I don’t think we should wait to have a baby. We should do it now.”
If I remember correctly, Brian’s response was, “Right on!” I shoved my diaphragm to the back of a drawer and we got on with making a baby.
Except making a baby didn’t turn out to be so easy. For eighteen months, in spite of religious temperature-taking, perfectly timed intercourse followed by hours spent lying on my back with my butt propped up on pillows, lots of peeing on sticks, and a shockingly expensive regimen of vitamins and herbs, no pregnancy. As the months wore on, I started to wear down. Sometimes I cried. Occasionally I was angry. Mostly I stumbled through the first few days of every cycle in a fog of disappointment.
On a morning in early November, 2001, six days before our scheduled visit with an infertility specialist, I forced myself from the bed, exhausted after many nights of bad sleep. With twenty minutes to myself before I had to wake the kids for school, I pulled a pregnancy test from the stash on my nightstand drawer and stumbled into the bathroom. I had long since given up any significant hope for this exercise; it was just what I did on the twelfth day after I ovulated. I went to the bathroom and peed on the stick, laid it down, and brushed my teeth.
Many times in the preceding nineteen months, I had believed (known) that I was pregnant and had been shocked when the test was negative. This time, when I saw that second line on the test, my stomach turned inside out. Dizzy, I sat down on the edge of the bed next to Brian and turned on the bedside lamp.
“Can you wake up?” I pulled the covers away from him.
He squinted at me. “What?”
We looked at the test for a few minutes, passed it back and forth. Finally, Brian started to laugh. “A baby! We’re having a baby!” we said, over and over, until the noise woke the children and we had to get them ready for school.
I’m telling you all of this now so that later, when the story gets ugly and you are tempted to think terrible things about me, you will know how very wanted Carter was, that my nose tickled in anticipation of his smell, that I could feel him in my arms when he was still smaller than a pinto bean. You need to know that I loved him even before he existed.
Who can describe the delicious feeling of a naked, slippery newborn babe? When Carter was born on that July day—at home, surrounded by my parents, my midwives, my husband, and our children—I was enchanted. His red hair smelled like rain.
Those first few days with Carter were nothing short of divine. Watching him sleep was a spiritual experience. Brian and I stayed in bed with him and took turns holding his naked body to our naked chests, loving him with our whole selves. Our older children, eight, six, and five, sat on our bed and petted Carter’s head reverently. “I can’t believe he’s our baby,” Jacob said. Together we investigated his sweet toes, his tiny bottom, the folds at his elbows. We took turns putting our faces in his hair to smell his rain smell.
By the time Carter was born, I had long believed that I was an expert on babies. I had cared for babies most of my life—as a babysitter, nanny, child care provider—and I’d already had two babies of my own. I love infants. If I can’t wheedle an invitation to the birth itself, then I’ll at least be the first person to show up after any friend’s baby is born. I’m quick to volunteer to babysit when new parents want to go out for a few hours. Through all of this, I’d developed a set of tricks that, if I kept working through them, never failed make a baby happy. I was confident in my expertise.
For Brian and me, compliments from strangers about our fabulously well-behaved children were so common that we’d almost come to expect them. “Thank you,” I would say, smiling secretly, smugly, in my deepest heart knowing that someday I would write the parenting book that would eliminate the need for any other parenting books. I tell you, we had this parenting thing knocked.
One afternoon when Carter was two weeks old, Brian took the older kids swimming. I was home alone with the baby for the first time. I left him, tightly swaddled and sound asleep after a long nursing, on our bed while I went to the kitchen to make myself something to eat. I heated my little frying pan on the stove for eggs and put bread in the toaster. From the bedroom came a sound that got me running—the terrified shriek of a baby in real danger. Carter had kicked off the blanket in which I’d swaddled him and was thrashing on the bed, screeching as if he needed people two blocks away to know…what? That he was scared? Angry? In pain? I didn’t know. I had rarely left the bed since Carter was born; he and I had spent most of our time there, me healing, him learning to nurse, a skill that had him flummoxed for the first few weeks. I learned fast that I couldn’t walk away.
I picked up my screaming baby and put him over my shoulder, patted his bottom, made shh shh shh sounds. He didn’t settle. I smelled my eggs burning and rushed down the hall with Carter in my arms to turn off the stove. I started using my happy-baby tricks. I walked with him hanging, face down, over my arm. I held him tightly, chest to chest, and swayed back and forth. We sat in the big blue recliner and rocked. I sat him in his bouncer seat on the dryer and turned it on. I put on music: rock, folk, classical, R&B. I tried nursing him, singing to him, walking in circles in the back yard, changing his diaper, leaving him naked, swaddling him, giving him a pacifier, letting him suck on my finger. I took him into the hall bathroom, which had no windows, to see if the dark would help. I would have dangled him upside down by his ankles if I’d had any reason to believe that that would work. I walked back and forth across the length of that house dozens of times, listening to his voice bounce off the walls. If I closed my eyes and concentrated, I could pretend that the sound was the air raid siren that used to sound on the roof of my high school.
Brian came home with the older children, all of them tired and hungry and sunburned, laughing hard at Jacob, whose bathing suit had slipped right off of him in the pool. I ran toward Brian, shouting so he would hear me over Carter’s screaming. “He’s been crying for hours! Can you take him for a ride to get him to sleep?”
“Holy shit,” Brian said, taking in Carter’s red, swollen face. “What’s wrong with him?”
“I don’t know. I’ve tried everything.”
Brian shrugged. “I can try a car ride. I don’t think it’ll work, though. He only likes you.”
“I don’t think he likes anybody,” I said.
I buckled Carter into his car seat and Brian drove away, leaving me in a blessedly quiet house. I had just finished a few chores and was hanging the bathing suits and towels up to dry when Brian came back into the house and set Carter, screaming in his car seat, on the floor in front of me.
“He screamed the whole time! Twenty minutes in the car and he didn’t even slow down!”
I carried Carter back to the bedroom and lay down with him. Finally, he consented to nurse, and then fell asleep. I lay there for twenty minutes, watching his breathing slow and even out until he was completely limp. I slid oh-so-slowly away from him, creeping off the foot of the bed without making a sound. Brian appeared at the door of the bedroom. “You did it!” he whispered. He looked a little stunned. I imagine I did, too.
Less than ten minutes later, Carter woke up, screaming.
Difficult as it was, the first three months weren’t so bad. Sure, it was awful to live with a kid who cried from morning until night, and then kept crying periodically until dawn. I hated to go anywhere in the car because Carter cried all the way from pillar to post. I believed, though, that by the time he was three months old, Carter would grow into himself, relax, get used to the world. Most babies who are high-needs in early infancy do improve at least a little around the anniversary of their conception, and if he had colic, he’d feel better after a few months. My expectation of imminent improvement kept me going.
As we moved into month four, I found it harder to convince myself that everything would soon be OK. He frequently stayed awake for ten or even twelve hours at a time. Some days (which would eventually become most days, and then all days), I couldn’t maintain my own illusions and I started to fall apart. Shocked into submission by the emotional appetites of a child whose needs were larger than any I had ever witnessed, I was focused on Carter to the point of obsession. My friends and family hammered at me to take care of myself. I should take a long bath, read a book, go for coffee with a friend, they said. They were right, of course, but I just couldn’t make myself walk away from my own, screaming baby. We visited one doctor after another after another: pediatrician, gastroenterologist, neurologist, and some whose specialties I don’t remember. They ordered tests and prescribed medicines, and Carter continued to cry.
Romantic ideals of motherhood tell us that our children bring out the best in us. True enough. I’ve done things for my kids that I never would have dreamed I was capable of doing; they’ve showed me my deep capacity to love, to value someone else’s life more than I value my own. But…
I wish there wasn’t a but.
Who can imagine feeling hatred for one’s own child? Who can imagine anger—not just a fleeting anger but a smoldering rage—toward an infant? I didn’t know it was possible until I experienced it. All parents are frustrated by the demands of parenting sometimes. Babies cry and will not be consoled; they occasionally refuse to sleep at night and need from their parents what their parents are loathe to give, like long middle-of-the-night car rides. I experienced all of those things with Jacob and Abbie. During the first two months of her life, Abbie had a habit of screaming from three to six every morning, at which point her two-year-old brother got up for the day, leaving me stranded, caring for two small children all day on just a few hours of sleep. But, as with most children, this didn’t last.
With Carter, I experienced an exhaustion broader and deeper than anything I’d ever felt, as much psychic as it was physical. By the time he was nine months old, I looked like a strung-out addict (as friends I met around that time have generously shared). I had never been more than twenty feet away from him and it showed. I held him day and night. During the day, he would rarely sleep and when I could get him to give up the fight, he was usually awake within twenty minutes unless I lay next to him, breathing on his head and giving him free access to a breast. Occasionally, he slept for awhile in the sling. He never (ever) slept spontaneously.
Most babies give something back to their parents by responding to them; when consoled, they relax; when rocked, they sleep. They learn to smile and then laugh. Carter took and took and took and rarely gave me any feedback that said I was doing something right. He didn’t smile until he was over three months old, and once he’d acquired the skill, he rarely used it. He didn’t laugh until he was almost two. All that giving without any positive feedback wiped me out. Many days, I believed that Carter hated me. On one very dark day, Brian had to talk me out of putting our baby in foster care.
When Carter was a few months old, Brian and the kids were sitting at the table eating dinner while I walked in circles around the table, bouncing Carter, grabbing a bite every time I walked past my plate. Brian’s face had the stunned and hopeless expression that he always wears in my memories of that terrible time. There wasn’t much conversation; Carter’s noise filled up every corner of the room and used up all the air. But in a lull, Spencer, my five-year-old stepson, said, “It’s a good thing we love Carter, or else we’d be banging him on the floor.”
There were other people in our world, people I expected would help us. Fact is, though, that when I told people that my baby cried twelve or fifteen hours out of twenty-four, they just didn’t believe me. I tried to tell people that my baby, who had a dry bottom and a full tummy, was still crying, and crying, and crying, and they were incredulous. “New mommy hormones,” they said. “Have you considered taking an anti-depressant?” they asked. People analyzed the way that I cared for Carter, searching for the ways that his crying was my fault. There was advice, mostly contradictory. There was criticism, sarcasm, and snark.
I don’t know why I wanted people to understand. Understanding would not have eased anything for me. In the first two years of his life, I never—even once—took a shower without listening to Carter cry from beginning to end. I even bought a sling that I could wear in the shower, but Carter was terrified of the water splashing around his head. It was not the fact of the crying that was the problem; it was the relentlessness that got to me. Day after day after week after month, he screamed. Sometimes I could think of nothing except finding a way to get out from under the noise of that kid.
By the time Carter was nineteen months old, he’d been to a dozen doctors, had a series of tests both simple and terrible, and had acquired a list of diagnoses as long as my arm, all of which made sense, none of which really explained the endless screaming: hypotonia (low muscle tone), right-sided weakness, sensory processing dysfunction, gross motor delay, fine motor delay, expressive language delay, self-regulatory disorder, pathological separation anxiety, dysphagia (difficulty swallowing), and on and on.
One day, I was at the kitchen sink washing vegetables for dinner. Carter crawled into the kitchen behind me and said, “Gruawmrth roompht.”
I didn’t know what that meant. I asked him what he wanted.
He repeated himself, but louder. “GRUAWMRTH ROOMPHT!”
I just looked at him, lost. He repeated himself one last time and then erupted in a wet, animalistic tantrum. In the time it took me to dry my hands and get across the eight feet of kitchen between us, he had a bloody nose and a huge lump on his forehead. He had hurt himself intentionally by repeatedly smashing his face into the floor.
In that moment I finally understood that mothering Carter was going to be hard, always. Something in me let go as I understood that I could stop looking for the solution, the answer, the one therapy or technique or diagnosis that would make it all OK. We could make the best of it, but it was never going to be OK.
It was hard, but he’s so wonderful and we love him so much and it’s all been worth it. I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.
My ass, I would. But that’s the script, isn’t it? It’s OK to tell the truth about mothering, as long as nobody tells the real truth. As long as we follow up the pain and the fear and the broken shittiness of it all with something nice, to make sure everyone knows that it was all just a passing thing, a crappy but temporary detour on the road to blissful motherhood.
I couldn’t do it. Some experiences are too big for social niceties, and I wasn’t able to tell polite lies for the sake of other people’s feelings.
I do like to teach, though, and since mothering Carter had made me an expert on the art of wearing a baby in a sling I began to teach babywearing classes. The owner of the parenting resource center where I taught asked me to lead a group for mothers of high-needs babies, and I answered with an enthusiastic yes. On a hot morning in late summer when Carter was three, I set up the classroom for our first high-needs baby group. I made a pot of tea, set out a basket of toys, and laid my handouts on the table. I was just settling into one of the couches when it occurred to me that I was a total fraud. As I sat looking out the window at moms parking cars and getting babies out of car seats, I realized that they would be looking to me for answers. They were there to ask me to solve their problems, and I had never solved my own.
Four moms and their babies came to that first group. I started by stammering something about how I’d had a high-needs baby and I knew how hard it was. And then the mothers in that room started to talk.
“Nobody believes me when I tell them how much she cries!”
“I don’t know what’s wrong with him; I’m pretty sure he hates me.”
“Maybe it was a mistake to have a baby.”
“Sometimes, I imagine throwing her through a window, and I don’t think I’d ever do it, but it still scares me.”
“I must be doing something wrong. I think I’m a bad mother.”
We talked over the sound of babies crying, as fast as we could, trying to get it all said. The pain, isolation, and anger came gushing out. We used up a box of tissues and I had to dig through three cabinets to find a fresh one. We lost track of time and a group that was meant to last for an hour went for almost three.
The truth is ugly. Sometimes mothers are mired in regret over the decision to have a child. Good mothers. Normal mothers. Mothers who don’t hit or starve their children, who never lock them in the closet or leave them in the car while they go into the store. Some mothers who love their children also hate them. This unspeakable reality, this underbelly of family life, gets more horrifying the longer we hide it. There is only one thing I can do: tell the truth and hope that people who have not been where I have been will forgive me, and that people who have been there will forgive themselves.
I learned from those mothers, and from dozens of mothers since, that ugly truths are like mold: They grow best in the dark. When we throw them out into the air and sunlight, they lose some of their power. When we share them with other people, people who can hear us and maybe even understand, the ugly truths shrink. We see that they’re not the only truth, but just part of it. When I put all the ugliness that I felt out into the world, I found what had been buried under it: love. Not the sappy, sentimental love of soft-focus baby formula commercials, but the real stuff, love with teeth.
Carter is eight years old now. I love him, and being his mother is hard.
tricho – hair
till(ein) – to pluck or pull out
mania – madness
When I have trouble writing, the cause is usually a story right behind my eyes that’s clogging up the works.
Not always; sometimes I just don’t have anything to say, but often, I’m gutless and full of fear and…stuck. A writerly constipation, if you will.
I have to tell the story that’s right behind my eyes, but I can’t find my way into that story. The cursor? I wish it would quit blinking at me in that nagging, accusatory way it has. Tell your truth. Expose it to the light. Don’t let it fester. Tell your truth, dammit!
Or maybe I’m projecting.
The story that is right behind my eyes is also ON my eyes, right there on the front of my face. My teenage-angst poetry was full of references to “naked eyes,” which is not an uncommon metaphor for the teenage-angst-poetry writing set.
For me? Not a metaphor.
I was eight years old in October, 1979, when my Aunt Nadine (my dad’s younger sister and only sibling) took her own life. Her sudden death and the week we spent at my grandparents’ house (where I was steeped in my family’s horrified grief) were traumatic.
What followed was worse. My parents, unable to find the support that they desperately needed, began to disassemble a few months after Nadine’s died.
This story? It might have nothing at all to do with that story. I don’t know.
But sometime in the year after Nadine’s death, I started pulling on my eyelashes and eyebrows. Pulling them out.
I don’t know exactly when I started because there was no way for me to know then that this little habit would become an important layer of suck amongst many layers of suck. A Dagwood sandwich of suck.
Why I did this thing was a mystery, and in the beginning no idea that it was anything other than a pleasurable habit. I did learn in a big hurry to keep it a secret; in fourth grade, a friend saw the discarded hairs in a tiny heap on my desk and cried out, “Ewww, gross! Quit doing that!”
Already, I couldn’t quit doing that.
And pleasurable? Yes. I don’t know why, but it doesn’t hurt. It never hurt. The after hurts; the swelling and the rawness and the styes. Windstorms? I’m here to tell you that eyelashes are more than ornaments; they serve a function and without them, even a breezy day can hurt. But the pulling itself? Never painful.
If I pull hair from my head or any other part of my body, there is pain. I imagine it feels the same for me as it does for other people, but for the lashes and brows, no pain.
It’s not because I’m used to it, either, because it never hurt. Not when I was nine or 16 or 25 or 32 or now.
Way back in the beginning, though, I had no idea that I wasn’t the only person in the world who did this strange thing.
Why couldn’t I stop pulling the same way I had stopped biting my fingernails?
I pretended to have trouble with my eyesight so that I could get glasses. I thought glasses would camouflage the missing parts of my face. I told ridiculous stories about my missing lashes (the lashes are always a bigger problem; you can’t draw those on like you can brows). Usually I claimed that I suffered from bizarre allergies, but sometimes I claimed to have a form of alopecia areata that only affects the brows and lashes. (No such form of alopecia exists.)
The bald-faced and weird looking part was bad enough; that I was causing it myself? Exponentially worse. I was desperate for any explanation for my bald face that didn’t involve me, alone, reading books and yanking hair.
I was twenty years old when I finally put a name to the cause of my naked face. My mom came across an article about TTM in a women’s magazine – I don’t remember which one; LHJ or Women’s Day or Redbook – but the day she handed me that article was an important one.
For a dozen years, I thought I was the only one. Age and experience have taught me that the perception of aloneness is almost never true, but I didn’t know that then. I just knew that I was making myself ugly by doing something I didn’t think anyone else had ever done, and I couldn’t stop.
After I read that article, I cried for days. When I was done crying, I went to a psychiatrist for the medicine mentioned in the article, the medicine the author said showed promise in treating TTM.
That was a bust, as were several other medications, supplements, lots of non-medication therapies, and a long list of self-help attempts that range from somewhat reasonable to downright ridiculous.
A therapy that I created in the early 1990s, known as spicy fingers, is not recommended.
The typical course of TTM begins in adolescence, though it can start earlier (as my TTM did) and, if not treated (or, as in my case, not treated successfully) waxes and wanes over the course of a person’s lifetime.
My TTM mostly waxes and rarely wanes. On the other hand, I have not developed other pulling sites.
I was on the hunt for a treatment that worked until Carter was born. At that point I decided that, as much as I hate this thing, as much as I would like to look and feel normal, it is, ultimately, a cosmetic problem.
With all of Carter’s needs, I don’t have time or energy to devote to cosmetic problems.
That right there? It’s a fancy, sneak-up-on-it way of saying I gave up.
I have to draw eyebrows and line my upper lids everyday. If I don’t, I look weird.
Weird enough that people stare.
I’m still ashamed. So terribly, acutely ashamed.
When I first read the research implicating SLITRK1 in TTM, I thought I would feel better. I thought the pain would dissapate and float away like magic.
Nothing ever works that way. When will I learn?
Trouble is, whatever the cause, whether I could control it if I really tried hard or not, whether I’m a person suffering with an illness or a person with a weird habit, making excuses to maintain it, it’s still me, still my hand reaching up from my book toward my face.
In that way, it is very much like Tourette syndrome. I can control the impulse for a little while; a few minutes, an hour, a day, but eventually, the cork will pop.
This thing? I almost never tell anyone about it. Brian knows, of course, and my parents. My kids know because they have watched me draw on my eyebrows hundreds of times. My ex-husband knows because I told him way back when we still liked each other.
I can’t think of anyone else I’ve told.
I doubt that there are many people close to me who haven’t noticed, but they’ve been gracious enough not to mention it.
Honestly? I don’t really understand my reticence to talk about this. I’ve been forthcoming about things that, objectively, are more shameful. Based on the dedication I have for keeping this secret, you’d think I was some kind of criminal and not a person who has a neurological disorder that causes me to pull out my hair.
Secrets are a burden. Ultimately, I believe that secrets will do nothing in the dark but fester and grow.
This is me, putting my money where my mouth is.
If I hit publish on this, it’ll be a miracle. Sitting here at my desk right now, I’m pretty sure this thing will never see the light of day.
I don’t know yet. If there is a picture of my naked eyes anywhere on this page, I found a heaping pile of courage somewhere around here and decided to use it.
Two birds with one stone here, folks. First, you’ll know how I decide what to share with you, my lovely readers, because apparently? Some people care (and care deeply!). Second, I’ll have a link I can email to said people when they express their concern about Carter’s lack of privacy. I’ve written on this topic in vague terms here and here, but it seems I need to be a bit more explicit.
For the record, just because you call it concern doesn’t make it so. Concern and criticism are different; please take some time to learn what that difference is. I have gotten some of each and really, there’s no comparison. The people who write to me with genuine concerns make me think, and deeply, about the choices I’m making and why. I have learned a great deal from reading and responding to those messages. The people who criticize me? You just make me want to punch you in the knees.
And how productive is that, really? I’m pissed off; you have busted knees; and no one is listening to you because you? Are a jerk.
Aaand now that I’ve gotten that off my chest, let’s move on to the matter at hand.
Every writer of creative nonfiction, whether for a blog or a book, a magazine, journal, or the family’s annual Christmas newsletter, has to make some big decisions. How much should I reveal of myself? Of my family? My children, spouse, parents, friends, siblings, co-workers, pharmacist, hair dresser, and the woman behind me in the line at the grocery?
How much? And what?
I would really like to think that readers would give me the benefit of the doubt (Most do, of course, but there are always those few who need to tell me all the ways I am wrong.) and assume that, while I may make decisions that are different than the ones you would make, I love my family and am making my choices carefully.
First? Let’s address the issue of my naïveté because that one, being completely and unequivocally wrong, is easiest. I know damn well where I am and what the internet is. I don’t share all that I do because I think nothing bad can ever come of that; I share all that I do because I believe (strongly) that it’s worth the risk. I have been victimized on the web several times, most recently about four years ago when a large cloth diaper company had its gallery stolen by a fetish site. Among the stolen pictures were more than a dozen of Carter. I know where I am; I did not just fall off this particular turnip truck. The people who tell me horror stories and call me foolish, ignorant, naïve, or (in one memorable case) a “hug [sic] fucking idiot” are wasting time and key strokes.
Can’t you feel the love? The genuine, heartfelt concern?
Sorry; sarcasm is my default state.
Anyway, back to it. To those who have accused me of exploiting my child for financial gain, I thank you. If you believe that I will, someday, make money off of this? You must think very highly of me. I do hope, someday (soon? please?) to make money from this habit of using letters and words to make stories. First thing I’ll do when the buckets of cash (snort!) come rolling in? Double Carter’s occupational therapy sessions.
I am all exploitative like that.
Let’s do my favorite one next because it’s amusing, and it’s the one I’ve probably gotten most often. A direct quote from one email, “Why do you share everything about his life? Doesn’t he deserve some privacy?”
I’m a wee bit perplexed. When did I say that I share everything here? I do not. Perhaps it seems that way to people who are raising neurotypical children; some of things I’ve written here are dramatic, frightening, even shocking. It may seem like I’ve let the blog into every darkest corner of Carter’s illness, but there is more. Some of it is worse; some of it is simply private, and I have my reasons for holding back the things that I hold back. Sometimes the reason is that Carter said, “Don’t post that!”
My bright dream is this: someday, when Carter is an adult, he and I will write a book together. We’ll tell the whole story of his childhood, his illness, all the darkest symptoms and all the shining joys, but there are things I will not share without his adult consent.
This last one is sometimes very sensitive for many, many reasons, perhaps most easily understood by people in the special needs parenting community. We are constantly walking a fine line between the optimism that keeps us moving forward, and a realistic assessment of the possibilities.
That line? So fine that it’s sharp. I cut myself on the damn thing all the time.
People want to know if I’m not hobbling Carter, making his problems known and thereby causing him future problems when he wants to go to college, get a job, find a romantic partner, etc. I’m going to tell you something now that makes most people recoil in horror because it makes me seem like a pessimist: the likelihood that Carter will grow up and live independently is small. The likelihood that he will grow up and go to college, have a career, or have a stable relationship are much smaller.
In no way does this meant that we have given up on him. We are doing everything we can to help Carter gain the skills he needs to have a happy, productive life. I don’t really care what that means; whether he lives independently, in a group home, or with us, I’m all good. Suicide, life in prison, or losing him to the streets are the things I’m interested in helping him avoid.
In some sense, it seems to me that the work of public advocacy naturally falls more to parents of children who are seriously ill. If Carter was mildly ill and had fewer other disabilities, maybe I would choose differently. If he had a better chance of overcoming his many challenges and living an independent life, perhaps I would be more concerned about outing him before-the-fact.
Kids surprise their parents every day. If, someday, this blog is a stumbling block for Carter? I will be overwhelmed with joy and I’ll do whatever it takes to fix that problem for him.
I read quite a few anonymous blogs by parents of children with mental illness and I respect that choice. But I also know that it’s very unlikely I would ever be asked this question if what ailed Carter was cancer or epilepsy. Carter has no more to be ashamed of than any child with an illness of body instead of an illness of mind (and it isn’t like those two things are different, but I’ll leave that for another day). If he suffers from stigma, shouldn’t we blame the stigma (and the society that props it up in a million ways small and large) instead of his mom and her blog?
After the very best parenting that his dad and I can offer him, what Carter needs most from me is that I do my part to change the world. More health care services, better education, less stigma, more understanding…that’s what Carter needs.
I am only one voice, true, but I am one of thousands of people who are prepared to make noise until we die or things change, whichever comes first.
Do you have a hole? Please tell me that you have a hole. In my hole, I play All For Leyna by Billy Joel over and over again.
WTF, right? Unrequited love is not what ails me, but whatever.
Sometimes, I have to get in the hole because it seems like the only safe place. I’ve never been great at protecting myself from the slings and arrows of ordinary life. I run around the world all exposed until I’m saturated, then run away and hide.
With Billy Joel. Because that makes sense.
I don’t love it in the hole, but it’s a trap as much as a refuge. I can’t leave until it’s ready to release me.
Inside the hole (and outside of it, too), I think too much.
All the people who know me even a little bit are now screaming DUH!!! into their computers. Ignore them.
Because I think too much to the eleventy-hundredth power, plus some more.
This is (finally!) my 100th blog post. It took me a year and change to get here. I’ve been thinking for two weeks about what I wanted to write for my 100th post, about how to sum up this past year of blogging, what I’ve learned, how the blog has changed and how the blog has changed me.
Blah blah blah. I have no fucking idea. I have more questions now than I did when I started.
I feel pulled, stretched, yanked. I love the blog; it gives me a place to make sense of things, to force my very unorderly life into orderly lines of words.
Who the hell am I? Why do I do this? Any of it?
I’ve recently tried to expand my blog-reading repertoire and when I read blogs by other parents who are raising kids with special needs, I feel almost hopelessly ashamed of myself.
Where did I ever get the idea that it’s OK to be so damn negative? Why do I think that I have it worse than anyone else? Why don’t I take it all in stride? Why don’t I write more often that I’m grateful, happy, filled with joy? That I wouldn’t change a thing?
Because that wouldn’t be true.
Turns out? Blogs are not magical identity-generating (or altering) machines.
If I pull back and take a look, I know that I am juggling too many balls. I keep dropping one, or 3, or a dozen. I am too many different kinds of mom (step; non-custodial; regular); I have too few resources, both external and internal; I put too much energy into some things and not enough into others; I abandon things that nourish me in favor of things that nourish others; I abandon things that nourish others in favor self-indulgence; I never get enough sleep; I always eat too much; I pay too much attention to my pain and not enough attention to joy; I am always out of balance somewhere, somehow.
Always. Never. Never say never. Never say always.
This symbol means many things to many people, but it means one thing for me: you can’t pull on one of the three spirals without changing the other two. The three spirals represent body, mind, and spirit, the three facets of the whole.
The whole me.
The triple-spiral that is me? Not nearly this tidy and even.
I try to ignore the people on the periphery who are clamoring for more, more, more, the people who are on the outside of the inside, the people who do not know and will not try to understand.
They find their way in, though. I give them space in my brain and they yammer yammer yammer on about how I need to do more of this, be more of that. They are so noisy sometimes that I begin to hate them because hate and anger build walls. I want higher walls, more ways to protect myself from all those slings and arrows.
I want to do and be all the things they want me to do and be.
There is too much, too many, too deep, too broad, too wide. I eat more, sleep less, try harder.
And it all unravels some more.
My house makes me ashamed, and I write about it, hoping that I am not alone, but it is so far beyond a frustration with the act of cleaning that I don’t know how to express it.
Brian deserves more of me.
As do Jacob and Abbie.
As does Spencer.
As does my grandma.
As do my friends.
As do my parents, my in-laws, my extended family and beyond and beyond and beyond.
I miss my church. I don’t know if they miss me. I’m glad they don’t pull at me, but I wonder.
Carter is a bottomless well of need. How deep and wide is the anger in all of us about that? And how much do we hate ourselves for that anger?
In and out, in and out, it weaves, then tangles, then makes knots so complicated and strong, we will never find our way out.
And I want to scream blood from a stone! You’re trying to get blood from a stone!
My parents struggled. There were issues. Like every person caught up in the self-help movement of the late 80s and early 90s, I thought I would do things different. Better.
God forgive me, I didn’t know.
God forgive me.
I steal these hours at the computer, turn up the music, and use letters to make words, lay the words down in lines, try to untangle some of the knots.
They are unyielding.
I know that I deserve as much as anyone else; I know that I have to put on my own oxygen mask first; I know I know I know.
And I come face to face with my wanting, my desire for Something to Call My Own.
Something that says, definitively and loudly, that I matter. I was not born for these people, am not a sacrifice on the alter of Carter’s illness, am not the servant of other’s people’s expectations and anger. I am not a player in other people’s stories but the author of my own.
Author of my own story, and also author of many stories: big and small, funny and sad, light and serious.
Because there are other voices, too, the ones that say, if you want to Matter, if you want to be One of the Important Ones, you must amuse and delight. Be positive! Make them laugh!
You are not enough, were never enough, can never be enough.
And the not enough is also a being too much. My body speaks my truth: there is too much of me. I do not want so much as yearn; am not angry so much as enraged; am not sad so much as despondent; am not joyful so much as euphoric; am not hungry so much as famished, voracious, ravenous.
In 100 posts, I have committed again and again to tell my truth.
But often I get lost on my way to my truth. Is the truth in the not enoughness? Is it in the too muchness? Will I see it? Will I find it? When I get there, will I believe that I matter?
If we knew each other’s secrets, what comforts we should find. ~John Churton Collins
I chose that quote as a tag line for my blog not because it’s pretty (It IS, but there are prettier ones.), but because it’s what I believe and the reason I write. I believe in the power of truth. I also believe in the power of Truth, but that’s not what we’re concerned with here, not the Truth of religion and philosophy, but the truth in ordinary stories told by ordinary people. Speaking of that with which we are concerned, forget about facts.
Truth ≠ Facts
We’ll come back to that.
Let’s start with the power of bullshit. Not the “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks” pleasantries of daily life. If we dropped all of those and got honest every time we bumped into someone we knew or were face-to-face with a bank teller, the world would grind to a halt. There is such a thing as an overshare. We’ll come back to that, too. (Come back to it with respect to the written word. Across the counter from your bank teller? You’re on your own.)
No, by bullshit I mean the protective armor that we wear to protect our deep wounds, the kind of armor that is so impenetrable that the people around us have no idea there’s anything under our surfaces but sunshine and fairy dust. That bullshit isolates every one of us until we’re no more connected to each other than the rows of canned vegetables on the grocery store shelves. We all have mushy, salty, half-healed (or mostly healed, or not-at-all healed) wounds inside, but damned if we’ll show them to the world.
So we all feel unique. And uniqueness is utterly, terrifyingly lonely.
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When the issue of Brain, Child Magazine that had my story, “Love with Teeth” in it came out, I expected to get a few letters of understanding, a great many messages of pity, and a smattering of hate mail (because you don’t use the words “regret” and “hate” in reference to your own baby without ruffling a few feathers). Instead, starting two weeks before I even laid eyes on the magazine, the messages flowed in like water:
“Thank you for putting words to what I was feeling.”
“I can’t believe I’m not the only one!”
“I thought I was a bad mother. Thank God someone else felt the same way I did.”
Number of haters who wrote to me: zero. Number of “oh, you poor, poor thing” messages: zero. Number of supportive, understanding, thank-God-someone-told-my-truth letters: dozens and dozens.
(We’ll just skip right past the number of advice-giving letters I received. That part makes me weary.)
Many of the parents who wrote to me or came to this blog because of that article still read and comment because telling the truth creates communities and builds relationships. Storytelling creates a bond whereby we are not connected by thoughts but by feelings, not by brain but by blood and bone. Truth is the heat and the texture in any relationship, the thing that draws us back to others again and again, even though it’s much safer to hide inside our armor.
I was so scared of the response I might get to that article, when it was time to submit it Brian had to press the “send” button. I couldn’t do it. In spite of what I wrote about the parents’ groups and the sharing being so healing, I still felt alone. I felt unique when I wrote The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me, too, and was again surprised by an outpouring of “Hey, me too!” messages. Apparently, this uniqueness thing is my curse. I am grateful to have such abundant evidence that I’m mistaken.
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“But I’m an honest person! I stick to the facts; I never lie!”
Yeah, well, when it comes to storytelling, all the facts are in the eye of the beholder and in the words of the storyteller.
This is not to say that it’s OK to bend a story to one’s own purpose by deliberately misrepresenting events. You won’t catch me defending James Frey. But any trial lawyer will tell you that eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate because memory is malleable. We look at the world through lenses created by our experiences and ideas and inborn personalities. What is salient to me might be unimportant and therefore entirely overlooked by you.
This is a concept with which every writer of creative nonfiction must grapple. The truth I tell is only my truth and no one else’s. I take pains to get my facts straight (and to make it clear when I know the facts may be inaccurate), but ultimately I am a human being, not a computer. Objectivity is impossible.
Just because a story is inaccurate does not mean that it’s untrue.
Just because a story is accurate does not mean that it’s true.
(It’s also best to have this concept firmly and confidently embedded in one’s psyche before sharing stories about one’s life with the other people who were there. Otherwise? Big, big mess. HUGE mess.)
Objectivity doesn’t draw us back for more. For all the value our culture puts on “facts” (called truth, but I hope I’ve made my case that, though related, they aren’t the same thing at all), and as important as those facts may be in some circumstances, they’re not what we really seek. Would you read this blog if I wrote the facts? “Carter woke at 6:48 this morning. He spoke of his fear about the school day in a whiny voice. He is nauseous due to constipation so I helped him insert a suppository.” I mean, who gives a shit about something as mundane as a bunch of facts?
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But what about the internet overshare? The references to memoir as “navel contemplation” or worse? To hear the media discuss it, you’d think this was a scourge on the face of our culture, a destructive force akin to fascism. Some seem to view the telling of personal stories as the ultimate in self-indulgence.
Yes, there are lines, but the beauty of the written word (and, to some extent, face-to-face communications) is that we get to choose the limits for ourselves, both as writers and readers. I chose to share about giving my grandmother a manual disimpaction because I think it’s profoundly illustrative of how I think about and experience love. It’s gross, yes, but there is a larger meaning, a purpose. I didn’t share the gory details, but if I saw a good reason to do that, I’d be willing. And if you were reading that and felt your stomach doing flip flops and thought to yourself, “I don’t even care what her point is; this is disgusting and I’m never coming back here again!”, you can leave. And if you choose to write a blog post about how the internet overshare is ruining the world, you can do that, too.
(For the record, I am not going to discuss in any way, ever, my positions on pornography and hate speech. I’ll just state that my opinions about those two things are different from what I wrote above and leave it at that.)
I suggest that the naysayers have never felt horribly alone with an experience or feeling and then discovered the joy of discovering that they are not alone at all. If no one takes that step of putting the story out into the world, how will any of us ever know that we are not isolated and adrift?
The way one conveys other people in writing is always sticky and I’ll refer you to Lee Gutkind and the other masters of the genre for deeper discussion. Ultimately, every storyteller (journalist, memoirist, blogger, or back fence gossiper) must make an ethical decision about how much of other people’s stories to tell. We can’t tell our own stories without telling bits and parts of other people’s stories, but be clear: the truth belongs to the storyteller. When I write about Carter (or Brian or my parents or anyone else), I’m writing about how I see, understand, feel about, and relate to Carter, and reveal infinitely more about myself than him in the process.
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This is my apologia. My purpose in every word is lay down is to tell my truth, and I always do it with a little prayer that you will share some of yours. The facts are only a framework, and a mushy one at that. My heartache over raising a little boy with emotional and developmental difficulties might speak to your pain about a sister who was born with spina bifida. The funny in my day might help you see the funny in yours. I eviscerate myself in public because the truth that spills out of me is the only real power I own.
***A late-night Twitter conversation with two amazing women inspired this post. Nichole’s blog is In These Small Moments and Kris (who named her blog for the very concept I’ve written about here) blogs at Pretty All True. Go now and soak up some of their bloggish fabulosity.
There’s the love you feel when you watch your baby sleep and he’s soft and limp, miraculous and sweet-smelling of milk.
Then there’s the love that makes it possible to walk that same baby through the house through the fourth straight hour of fussing and crying. That’s love with teeth.
Love is when you stay married to your partner in spite of all his annoying habits.
Love with teeth is when you never let those annoying habits grow large in your mind and heart.
Love is when you make the decision to breastfeed your new baby because you want to give him the best possible start.
Love with teeth is when you discover that breastfeeding your baby feels like you’ve got a staple gun having its way with your nipples and you keep nursing that baby anyway.
Love is when you tell a breastfeeding friend who is in pain that it will get easier, that she’s doing great, that it will all be OK.
Love with teeth is when you hold her hand at 4 am and tell her that it will get easier, that she’s doing great, that it will all be OK.
Lots of siblings adore each other when they are small.
Extraordinary siblings are still best friends when they’re teenagers.
Love is when you get a new stepmom and you accept her from the start.
Love with teeth is when your stepmom is utterly lousy at fulfilling the role and you keep forgiving her and letting her try again. And again. And again.
Love is when you work your ass off trying to hold a troubled marriage together because a divorce will change your kids’ lives forever.
Love with teeth is when you stay in that marriage for one last year after it dies because your daughter is a rabid mama’s girl and she needs that time living with both parents to bond with her dad.
Love with fangs is when, a dozen years later, your daughter wants to go live with her dad and even though it breaks your heart, you let her go because that is what she says she needs to be happy.
Love is when you’re willing to be a friend’s birth assistant because her partner’s culture forbids his participation.
Love with teeth is when you’re still willing to be her birth partner at the 44th, the 52nd, then the 65th hour of labor and she has turned mean.
Love is when you feel guilty about bullying that weird, shy girl when you were both in 6th grade.
Love with teeth is when you go find that girl and pour your heart into writing the best, most sincere apology letter possible.
There’s the love you feel when you see some pretty flowers and, inspired by sweet memories, buy some for your grandma.
And then there the love that makes it possible for you to give your grandma a manual disimpaction because you aren’t willing to see her suffer even though the task goes far beyond your personal grossness tolerance threshold.
Love is when, just a few weeks before her wedding, your granddaughter’s fiancée breaks up with her and the rest of the family is complaining about the trouble caused by non-refundable plane tickets and gifts that need to be returned, and you send flowers and a card.
Love with teeth is when, on the day of the wedding, you (only you) remember to call your granddaughter and make sure she knows that she is deeply loved.
There’s the love you feel for your children because of who they are and what they do.
And then there’s the love you feel for your children because they are.
No love that is real is ever easy.
Love with teeth never forgets that.
Sometimes, love with teeth holds on with all its might and refuses to let go no matter how tired and tattered it gets.
Sometimes, love with teeth screams and wails and resists, but it releases.
If it’s easy, it’s not love with teeth.
Love is when you have a friend and you enjoy her company.
Love with teeth is when you see each other through marriages and divorces, births, deaths, economic crises, cross-country moves, and a thousand other changes across 20 years and you still look forward to her calls and visits.
Love is when you find a partner you want to live with forever.
Love with teeth is when you find a partner you can’t imagine living without.
Love is when you work hard to hold your family together, to make sure your children have everything they need to grow up safe and strong and healthy.
Love with teeth is when you do all that in the heart of the dust bowl.
Loving yourself means eating well, getting a pedicure or a massage, making sure you get enough sleep.
Love with teeth means you never let anyone (including yourself), any time, ever, treat you like you’re anything less than a divine creature, apple of the creator’s own eye, son or daughter of God.