Frozen

I’m just…stuck. How did this happen, when I love my life? It’s a hard life sometimes, sure, but it’s good. It’s very, very good, so why am I not living, creating, and enjoying?

Sometimes, I get frozen.

Actually, scratch that. Often, I am frozen. I live long stretches of my life like a deer hypnotized by headlights and it’s infuriating and frustrating and as an excuse to hate myself, it’s powerful. As a good slippery place from which to descend into depression, it’s very effective, except neither self-hate nor depression is my goal.

Let’s say I just dropped Carter off at school or a play date. I come in from the garage, let the dogs out, and pour myself a cup of coffee. I’m good with all that but now it gets sticky because I need to make a decision: what should I do next? I haven’t posted to my blog in days or weeks and I want to write something, and I’m feeling some pressure because I hate that I don’t post more regularly. There’s a proposal for a column that I need to finish and I’m angry at myself because it’s an awesome idea, plus I need to make some money. There are submissions for my church’s literary magazine to be read. There’s a book for which I’ve promised a review and have only read half, a long list of emails to answer, and don’t forget my book, with its stacks of notes and half-finished chapters gathering virtual dust in their electronic folders! That’s maybe one-third of what beckons me from my office, but I assume you get the idea. It’s a mash of things, most of them fulfilling and interesting, but there is also some sense of…not exactly obligation, but my life is not as good when I don’t do these things. I am my best self in the office, when I am creating and exploring, but I also struggle in there.

I sit down at my desk and adjust my chair, put on some music, light a candle, open all the necessary tabs on my browser and…crap. The few words I’ve produced are awful. I’m feeling a little guilty because Carter wore dirty socks this morning, so maybe I should tackle the laundry. I get up and carry my coffee cup through the kitchen (need to clean! need to shop! try to ignore!) and down the hall. The green hamper outside the hall bathroom is so full, clothes and sheets and towels are poking through the little holes and things are spilling over the top. How this hamper is so full is mysterious since Carter’s room looks like a textile-factory explosion. I kick my way through the clothes so I can open the window because it doesn’t smell very nice in there.

To heck with this, I think. I’m not picking up Carter’s clothes. He can do that himself when he gets home from school. I’ll start with Brian’s and my laundry, and I head to my room.

Where I am hit over the head with the fact that my little red-headed apple didn’t fall far from this tree because every pair of socks I have worn in the past week is on the floor on my side of the bed. The bedroom hamper is no more than 5 feet from the foot of the bed (more like 4 feet, what with the over-spillage), yet I pull off my socks before I get in the bed every night and leave them on the floor. Here are more coffee cups (there are matching groups of cups on my desk and on the table next to my favorite chair in the living room), plus water glasses and a towering stack of books that belies the fact that I switched to e-readers years ago and much prefer them.

I sit down on the bed and clear a little spot on the nightstand for my coffee cup. I’ll just sort the laundry. I’ll start with that, and I’ll feel a little better. A little more in control. I get up to gather laundry baskets and discover that two of them are in my Abbie’s room, full of clean laundry she hasn’t put away yet. One is in the laundry room, full of soggy towels from Saturday when Brian gave the dogs their baths. Also, Spencer’s clothes are in the dryer and there is a load of sheets in the washer that smell musty because I ran them two days ago. I look around at the drifts of dog hair in the laundry room (which is also the dog’s “bedroom”) and decide I need to sit down and have another cup of coffee.

It all seems too much, too big, and the chatter in my head is unbearable. My folks, my sister, my ex-husband, my 10th grade English teacher, the psychiatrist I saw when I was 19, some therapists, a pastor from childhood, occasionally even my kids, all their voices bundled, amplified, and heavily distorted by my shame (except the voices of my sister and my ex-husband who would say my worst assessments of myself don’t go far enough). Except it’s all my voice. Sometimes I can drown them all out with an audiobook or loud music and actually get something done. Other times, I can’t get above the struggle. The voices are deafening and exhausting and I’m overwhelmed with guilt because I am wasting my day, my talent, or my life (Welcome to my ego; is it not an unlovely thing?).

I stir like this all day, almost every day. I feel like I’m witnessing a fight-to-the-death between my brain’s ability to focus, organize, and execute, and my life. I keep us functioning at an acceptable level: there is food in the refrigerator, clean clothes in the closets, bills paid on time(ish), and everyone gets to their appointments on time. I meet my obligations at church and in the other organizations I’m part of and I never miss a hard deadline (though the soft ones and the ones I set for myself are symbolic at best), but the rest of it is a relentless battle, and life is not what it could be. I don’t have energy for relationships, creativity, and fun because I’m exhausted from this internal fight.

But dammit, the noise! If I shut down and shut it all out (books, Netflix, web surfing), I can get a little peace but I don’t get anything done, don’t even really live my life. When I try to accomplish something, the nattering begins. I’m not good enough; why didn’t I do this sooner; who do I think I am. If I wash the window sill above the kitchen sink, I notice the horrifying state of the front yard, and if I dust the window sills in the living room, I notice the horrifying state of the backyard. Carter needs his fingernails trimmed, we’re out of milk, I told a friend I’d write a piece for her new website, on and on and on and I am tired. I’ve read the books, taken the medicine, talked to the therapists, done the programs and I’m just…stuck. How did this happen, when I love my life? It’s a hard life sometimes, sure, but it’s good. It’s very, very good, so why am I not living, creating, and enjoying?

I believe there’s a solution, but all I really know so far is this: being hard on myself is not that solution. I’ve done that and it does not work. What I haven’t done is share the struggle publicly so let’s see where that gets me. Maybe you’ve experienced the same thing and I’m not all alone in the world. Stranger things have happened.

Catching Up with Carter J

When I don’t write much about Carter for awhile, I’ll get notes from people asking how he is and what’s up with him. I told Carter about that yesterday and he asked, “So those people are kind of like my fans?”

“Yes, I guess they are,” I said, and that made him shoot out flames of happiness just like when he’s getting ready to spend the day with his grandma and grandpa or he’s accomplished something very difficult at school.

Then he gave me a long list of things he wants to tell you. There was at least ten minutes of material about Ninjago (that’s a commercial for Lego in TV form) and I’m going to make an executive decision and just distill that to this: Carter really, really likes Ninjago. The rest, though, is stuff that might interest those of us who are not pre-pubescent kids.

Carter went back to school a few weeks ago with almost none of the angst and drama that usually accompanies this transition. I was in Chicago for the first two days of school and we expected that that would drive his anxiety levels to a very high level, but he did great. For the first time ever, he walked into school on the first day with a few hugs and kisses from his dad, and no tears. He was all puffed up when I got home from my trip, telling me how he was scared but he could totally handle it and it was a good thing because some of the new kids were scared and Ms D and Ms B needed his help comforting them.

For a guy who has spent so much of his life in agony because he was crippled by anxiety and convinced he couldn’t handle things, this was a huge deal. He hasn’t had nearly enough opportunities to be proud of himself, so to see him feeling like big stuff was a real treat. Brian and I were shooting out our own flames of happiness to see him feeling so good.

The school he goes to is tiny and isn’t really divided by grade. The elementary kids are split into upper and lower grades, but movement between the two rooms (and some of the older kids move back and forth to the middle school room, too) is fluid. Carter spends the morning in the upper elementary with Ms B doing math, reading, and writing. In the afternoons, the two groups get together to do project-based work in social studies, science, and art. Once a day, he goes to work with Ms C for 30 minutes of one-on-one reading instruction.

He wanted me to be sure to tell you about his teachers, who he loves and adores. He’s been with Ms D (the lower elementary teacher) for four years now, and he and she have a special connection. It’s true love between them. Ms B is new this year, and Carter says he likes her almost as much as Ms D, which is pretty impressive since if Carter lists his favorite people in the world (something he does obsessively), Ms D gets a place the list more reliably than several members of his own family.

If your 11 year old child wears a top hat to school and doesn’t come in tears, you know that’s an extraordinary school.

This smooth transition back to school is a happy surprise after months of surprising stability. Spring is typically the time of year when Carter comes apart (pretty common among people with mood disorders) but last spring was the smoothest we’ve had in many years, which led to a better summer. Early fall is usually when we’re beginning to get back to baseline. Last year, we were more knowledgeable than ever about what Carter would need, so we increased his lithium early (When he drinks more water and sweats more as the weather heats up, his lithium blood level drops, requiring a higher dose.) and treated sleep issues aggressively. For the first time, we got the manic episode right at the front end, before it spiraled out of control.

Now that the weather is cooling off, he’s starting to be a little shaky (a sign that his lithium levels are a little high) so soon we’ll reduce his dose, but this makes us a little more optimistic.  After several nightmare springs in a row, we have hope now that if we could get the jump on mania once, we may be able to do it again.

There is only one symptom I can think of that is not dramatically improved. We haven’t seen one of those terrifying, seizure-like rages in a couple of years. His anxiety has not improved as much (and he has been struggling with anxiety-induced hives for a few weeks) but it is noticeably better. He’s had no more than the very occasional, minor breakthrough psychosis and he’s even sleeping well. Only his frequent episodes of irritability have resisted all our attempts at treatment, but with so many other successes, we have renewed hope.

The insurance continues to refuse him any occupational or physical therapy, and as a result he gets a little more knock-kneed and sway-backed every year (this is a result of his hypotonia, and the extra weight that his anti-psychotic medication brings with it doesn’t help). We won’t stop pressing them to provide these services, but I’m not optimistic.

Carter was napping during church and I was trying to get a picture of the hives on his hand. I don’t know if you can see those, but isn’t he cute???

At school, he likes math the best. He wants the books we read to him to have lots of action and danger, and it’s best if there are monsters. He’s glad you are curious about him and he hopes you’re having a very good day. Finally, he says that, if your kids have trouble with feelings like he does, he would like you to tell them that Carter says if you use your skills, take your medicine, and ask for help when you need it, maybe you’ll feel better and he hopes nobody has to go to the hospital today. 

Our kids with mental/emotional/social/behavioral issues may have lots of big problems, but they also have big hearts full of compassion. It isn’t always easy to be Carter’s mom, but it’s always easy to love him.

The Success of Love

Parental Alienation Syndrome creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice.

The success of love is in the loving. —Mother Teresa

A few days ago I read the first post I ever wrote about my two eldest children, Jacob and Abbie, and how they came to live full-time with their dad. I sat at my computer, eyes goggling half-out of my head, unable to believe I had accomplished the mental-gymnastics necessary to believe what I wrote.

Better?

Better?!?

Like hell it was better, but I definitely believed it at the time, at least at the top of my consciousness. I was mostly (sort of? who knows) convinced that Jacob and Abbie’s dad was a better parent than I; that I was, if not abusive, at least profoundly deficient.

Truth? Yes, I’ll tell the truth: in some ways, in the very beginning, it was a relief to have them gone. I missed them terribly, but at the same time, Carter was so sick that I was living far beyond the limits of my emotional and physical resources and I was stretched much too thin.

More truth? In spite of all that I believe now, and all that I am about to say, I was at my low point as a parent when Jacob and Abbie left. The things other people did and said can’t absolve me of my responsibility, and I am responsible. I did the best I could under terrible circumstances, but that isn’t the same as being innocent.

When they moved out, I never imagined for one minute that they would go away and stay away. I assumed that, given the freedom to choose, they would spend most nights at their dad’s house and just one or two (as opposed to four, as it had always been)  per week at mine. I thought they would come around a few days a week after school, or hang out with us sometimes on Saturdays.

When I didn’t see them for a few weeks, I thought they needed some breathing room, a chance to decompress from the difficulties of life at chez Jones, and so I gave it to them. This was not a decision I made lightly. I prayed and pondered and agonized, staying up late at night writing and crying. Ultimately, though, I decided to live by the credo, “This is a family. We take volunteers, not hostages.”

So while I continued to invite my kids to dinner and other family events, and kept calling them several times a week, and texted them every night to say goodnight and tell them I loved them, I didn’t push or force. I stepped back, focused my energy on Carter and helping him get stable, and I waited.

As carefully as I made that decision, it was absolutely the wrong one. What I didn’t see, the giant piece of the puzzle that I didn’t even know I was missing, was this: my kids’ dad and other members of my family were actively working to keep my kids away from me. That, combined with their anger at my genuine shortcomings, stewed in a broth of early-adolescence, created a case of parental alienation syndrome (PAS) that I didn’t recognize until it was two years entrenched.

The kids’ resentments against me grew and deepened both because adults they love and care about encouraged (in overt and covert ways) those resentments, and because they saw me so rarely (we didn’t see each other for months at a stretch sometimes), I didn’t have enough time to show them that I wasn’t the person they had created in their minds.

Starting in the summer of 2011, when I began to push hard in any way I could to have more time with my kids, I watched it happen: when they were with me more, they started to soften. Their defenses began to relax as they let the reality-mom impact idea-mom. Then, something would happen (something always happened), I would see the kids less, and the fierce, hateful, horrible words would come from the kids’ mouths to my heart again. The same words that their dad and other people spoke to them about me.

Never, ever, ever underestimate the power of a good story.

My family’s experience of parental alienation syndrome is unusual in that the alienation began long after the divorce itself. In fact, Robert and I co-parented fairly peacefully for quite a few years. Or so I believed; I know now that he wanted our kids all to himself long before he got them, and when the opportunity presented itself, he took it. If my kids’ PAS had been more typical (that is, happening during the immediate post-divorce months or years), someone probably would have identified it sooner. As it was, I flew blind for a long, long time before I knew what was happening.

My 18-year-old son and I remain fairly alienated (though I see signs of progress), but my daughter has been home with me now for several months and, while PAS will always be one of the most painful experiences of my life, I’m healing.

Having my beautiful, brilliant daughter, with her heart wide open and her mind searching for her truth, doesn’t hurt one tiny bit.

For other alienated parents, this is what I know:

When you doubt yourself, breathe deep and remember that you don’t deserve this; what they say isn’t true. Oh, I know. I know that you weren’t perfect; that you made mistakes; that you were weak and broken and you failed in ways large and small. Still, you don’t deserve this.

Don’t give up.

Don’t let them (your kids, their other parent, and any other people involved in your children’s alienation) define you. You define you. There is no solution to PAS, no sure way to save our kids or our relationships with them, but I know that living our own lives with integrity is the start.

Never live down to their expectations. Live up to your own.

You are living in the vast darkness and hope is a tiny, flickering flame, almost invisible. Oh, I know, and my heart is broken because you are in the darkness and I remember the darkness and it is so large. So endless. So damn heavy. My grief was like being chained to a line of cinderblocks that I dragged behind me.

Find love. Find as much love as you can, because you deserve love. You deserve people and kindness and togetherness and a whole, fulfilling life, in spite of the terrible hole that won’t be filled by anyone but your children. Still, surround yourself with people who care about you and who see you as you are—gifts, flaws, and all. Those people who assume that only a terrible parent could ever be alienated from his or her children should be tossed overboard immediately.

Don’t give up.

Nourish your spirit, whatever that means for you. Read good books (or trashy ones), go to church, spend time with friends, write a blog, write a journal, pray, go dancing, learn to knit, grow a garden, or take up painting, but find something that feeds your soul.

PAS creates a world in which the ground under our feet shifts and rolls without notice; we need nurturing and support and a strong spirit to survive.

Your kids do need you. No matter how loudly they say they don’t, they do. No matter what they say you did, they need you. They may not hear your words of love (though you should never stop speaking them) but they see you. That bedroom you dust and vacuum every week for your son is not wasted space; it’s an invitation. That bicycle in the garage, with its oiled chain and inflated tires, is a love note that your daughter notices every time she sees it. The phone calls they ignore, the texts they don’t answer, the gifts they return, all speak their own language.

As long as our children are alive, there is hope.

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Don’t give up.

Pediatric Mental Illness? It’s Like This…

Pediatric mental illness is screaming and crying; raging and breaking things; cursing and swearing; ER trips and suicide attempts…

…and it is midnight visits from a 9-year-old who still knows how to fit into the curve I make in the bed just the way he did when he was a toddler. “Mommy, I’m so glad you’re the one who’s my mom.”

Pediatric mental illness is causing my marriage to become frayed and tattered by constant, unrelenting stress punctuated by terror…

…and it has also bound me to my husband and him to me with the strength of carbon steel forged by fire.

Pediatric mental illness is the cause of our deprivation due to living on one income: no vacations, no meals out, no new cars, and the horror and humiliation of calling on family for help when the car breaks down…

…and it is also a sense of contentment and pride knowing that, when it seemed that our flailing, struggling, violent, suicide-attempting little boy was doomed, we, his parents, were able to give him what he needed and help him back to relative stability. That may not always be true, and for so many families it has not worked that way, so we know that we are blessed, in spite of our financial suck-fest.

Pediatric mental illness is the hateful stares and nasty comments from strangers and those who do not (or will not) understand…

…and it is the vast, generous community of people near and far who surround us with love and understanding.

Pediatric mental illness is drama and crisis and terror…

…and it is also this little boy, my boy, whose heart is so broad, whose empathy is so deep, whose emotional generosity is so vast he takes my breath away. He is afraid of so many things, but he is not afraid of people in pain. He is not afraid to feel your pain with you.

Pediatric mental illness is the crumbling of our family around us, the absence of two of my children, the deep pain and woundedness in us all…

…and it is also a new understanding of what it means to be family, to invite without forcing, to choose to stay, not from obligation, but from love.

Pediatric mental illness is the utter destruction of faith, smashed around our feet and ground to dust…

…and it is the rebuilding of a new faith, faith that breathes humility into us in incomprehensible, overwhelming ways, faith that makes no false promises, faith that makes it possible for us to live with the fear.

Pediatric mental illness is the thing I would cure in an instant, no questions, no looking back…

…and still, there are gifts.

This post originally appeared at Hopeful Parents.

The Transcendent Familiar 5: Down Comes the Night

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 3.1 (except it’s less of a part and more of an interlude)
Part 4
However, maybe you didn’t read those, and maybe you want to read one post and not 5. Fair enough. Here’s what you need to know: Robert was my first husband. We married in May of 1993 and our son Jacob was born in December of that same year. We were both very young and our relationship was always chaotic and difficult.

Listen to the wind blow, watch the sun rise
Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies.

January 2, 1994

When Robert and I married, we moved into a house with an adorable green-and-white tiled kitchen. I rented it, hell-and-gone though it was from the part of Albuquerque in which we had always lived, because it was not an apartment, a word Robert said as if it tasted like curdled milk. It wasn’t a house, either. Not precisely. I suppose it could have been called a row house if you stretched the definition.

For Robert, what we lived in was far more important than where we lived, and where we lived was damn scary. In the three years we lived in that neighborhood (first in the row house, then in an actual house a few blocks away), we were robbed 3 times, our house was set on fire, and someone threw a large rock through a bedroom window and into the baby crib just minutes after I had gotten Jacob out of it. Once, as I pushed the stroller into the house, I heard POP POP POP and the squeal of tires. The drive-by shooting killed one boy and seriously injured another. My babies had smiled and waved at those boys when we walked past them less than 90 seconds earlier.

But all of that was in the future on the second day of 1994. The world was a haze of milk and dampishness and overzealous hormones. I knew that having a baby would be an emotional experience; that I would be exhausted, weepy, and maybe even depressed. I knew that I would love my baby. What I could not have comprehended was how deeply I would feel all of those things. I could not have imagined that falling in love with Jacob would be my first real encounter with divinity.

Over everything, there was a veil. I was me, but not quite me. More instinctual; more animal. Some kind of hormonal magic made me feel as if I was one step removed from everything and everyone except Jacob. He and I were learning to dance together, moving to primal rhythms in our slow, warm bubble.

On that Sunday evening that was the second day of 1994, Jacob was asleep in his bassinet and I was drying off after a shower. The derelict water heater provided hot water for approximately 4 minutes, or tepid water for about 6, so in the winter I finished every shower shivering since I could never manage to get the conditioner entirely rinsed out of my hair before the water ran cold. I stepped out, towel wrapped around my head, intent on dashing to the bed and huddling there under the blankets until I was warm, but Robert was standing in the bathroom door.

“Jackie called,” he said. I recognized the name of his high school girlfriend. “She was calling to talk to me about my son. I have a seven year old son.”

“You told me Jackie had a miscarriage.” I wasn’t shivering anymore. I felt like a dead tree, rooted in place but lifeless.

“I guess she lied. Jackie’s crazy.”

“What’s his name?”

Robert looked around the bathroom as if someone may have written his son’s name there somewhere. “I don’t know.”

A few days later, an envelope full of pictures arrived in our mailbox. They left me with no doubt that the child in the pictures was Robert’s son.

His name is Anthony.

And if you don’t love me now, you will never love me again
I can still hear you saying you would never break the chain.

May 9, 2011

I was at Robert’s apartment, chatting with Abbie while we waited for Jacob to come home so the three of us could go shopping, when I saw a picture on the wall of a girl about Abbie’s age who l I didn’t know but who was, somehow, familiar.

“Who’s that?”

Abbie shrugged. “Casey. I guess she’s my sister.”

I recoiled and caught myself. Trying not to let anything but curiosity show on my face I said, “She looks about the same age as you. Have you met her?”

“Oh, that’s an old picture. She’s 20, I think. Or maybe 21. She doesn’t want to talk to us. Dad just found out about her last summer.”

“Do you want to meet her? Are you curious?”

“Nah. I don’t care, really.”

Robert and Jacob got home. “Abbie told me that’s your daughter.” I gestured toward the photo. “She’s Amy’s, right? You always said that wasn’t your baby.” I remembered Amy, a wisp of a girl with a blond baby on her hip, from the early years of my relationship with Robert. We ran in loosely-connected social circles but none of my friends was close with Amy.

“Yeah, whatever. Amy’s crazy. Neither of them will talk to me.”

“Have you talked to Anthony lately?” I asked.

“No,” he said, “but hey, do you know his last name? Maybe I can find him on Facebook.”

Listen to the wind blow, down comes the night
Run in the shadows, damn your love, damn your lies
Break the silence – damn the dark, damn the light.

Part 6