It’s a Whole New World, Baby

I’ve been reading the weirdest stuff lately. Not weird, really, just weird for me. POW accounts and memoirs by survivors of violent crimes, tales of child abuse and war, and other tragic stories that are typically far too painful for me to stomach.

In general, I figure the depths of human depravity are what they are and me having a head full of their horrors does nothing to alleviate anyone’s suffering, so why all this reading? For months now, I’ve been reading my face off, immersed in this stuff. My husband was perplexed, asking my why in the world I had abandoned my usual fare in favor of studying (as Kurtz would say), “the horror, the horror.”

Why? I don’t exactly know, but as an avid armchair Freud, I can hazard a guess.

I’m trying to get my feet under me. I’m trying to regain a perspective that lets me live my life, this life that is the only one I have to live, where things are so unbearably fucking unfair.

Because things are unfair. Carter is mentally ill, and that’s unfair. My older kids went to live with their dad, propelled by an anger so hot they hardly glance back at the mom, step-dad, and brothers they left behind, and that’s unfair. We’re crippled financially, and that’s unfair. Our outrageously expensive health insurance denies some of the therapies that Carter urgently needs, and that’s unfair. Our lives have narrowed because Carter’s needs are emotionally overwhelming for Brian and me, and that’s unfair.

No doubt about it; there is much that is unfair.

And nobody ever survived extraordinary circumstances* by wailing endlessly about unfairness. Immaculee Ilibagiza survived the Rwandan holocaust in 1993 by hiding in a tiny bathroom with several other women. They sat, crowded, completely still and silent, with barely enough food and water to sustain them, for weeks. She survived by praying constantly, not by ranting about the unfairness of it all.

I haven’t quite shifted my perspective yet. Today, when I got a letter from our insurance company informing me that Carter has been denied for both occupational and physical therapies** (therapies that everyone on his treatment team agrees he needs very badly), I wanted to curl up under the bed and cry my face off.

Honestly, I don’t ever want to be too accepting. If some of us don’t rail against the unfairness of it all, how will the insurance companies know that they’re acting like assholes?

There is also this rebellious streak in me. Early on, when we were flailing in the dark, trying and mostly failing to find help for our troubled little boy, I heard over and over, “You have to make the best of it!” There are dozens of versions of that, of course: be grateful for what you have, count your blessings, at least you’re not dealing with (fill in the blank), on and on.

I don’t believe that any of us has to do that. I’m trying to find acceptance now because I’m able to do that, and I’m only able to do that because I grieved and raged and struggled. I felt all those painful feelings and I will continue to feel them. Keeping a stiff upper lip? The only purpose of that is making other people feel comfortable.

No, I have no use for false bravado. I’m looking for something different; something deep and genuine. Carter is stable now, and in this pause, this break in the storm, I need to heal the parts of me that have been wounded in the past 8 1/2 years.

Be patient with me. It turns out that building a new world view is a time consuming endeavor!

*I’m not comparing anything we’ve experienced to the horrors endured by POWs, violent crime victims, or any of the other things I’ve read about lately except in the most metaphorical way. Some things in life can only be understood by those who have experienced them, and I would never presume to understand those things through which I have not lived.

**Our insurance company covers OT and PT if the qualifying diagnosis is (or is caused by) illness, injury, or disease. Since Carter’s injury (probable perinatal stroke) is not verifiable, he doesn’t qualify. Our insurance doesn’t cover developmental delay at all.

This post originally appeared at Hopeful Parents.

Eyes and Hearts

I want to crawl into bed and read, but my eyes won’t cooperate. After hour number seventeen dozen gazillion of crying, they will only focus well enough to keep me from smacking my head into the walls when I move around the house.

Eyes are stupid. It’s a good thing I can adjust the font size on my computer.

Hearts are stupid, too, what with their unwillingness to stop breaking. I mean seriously, e-fucking-nough with the relentless breaking and breaking and breaking. I’m all busted up and I’m waving my white flag, so howzabout we take a nice, long rest?

Also stupid? Friedrich Nietzsche and his bullshit about getting stronger because of things that don’t kill me. If Freddy was here now I would tell him to bite me.

I want to tell the stories. I want to sit here in my quiet house, staring at the computer screen that I can’t really see, and spill it. Tell it all; the secrets, the lies, the manipulations. I want to make noise. I want to declare, to share my story, to say the truth that is mine and mine alone.

The things about which I have kept silent to protect him or her or them could fill a stadium.

I spent the day indulging in revenge fantasies. I Googled “how to ruin someone’s life” and made a plan. I would never carry out that plan, any more than I will sit here and spill everything. As painful as waking up tomorrow with my grief will be, I at least won’t be the vindictive bitch that I am in my fantasies.

Except that, somehow, I still play the villain in this story. I’m like one of those actors who gets typecast and can never shake loose of an old role.

Somehow, strangely, the fantasies make me feel better. I know how to ruin a life, to make things oh-so-awful, and I choose not to do so. There is a dark power in that. It’s the only power I have right now, and I’ll take it. I’ll keep it close to my heart, the action I didn’t take, the thing that puts the lie to it all – the lies that say I am the one who ruined everything; the person who tore it all apart; the one who will stop at nothing to hurt as many people as possible.

I claim my part, the very real mistakes I have made, the ways I have been an inadequate and at times destructive sister, daughter, mother, friend, human being.

I claim my part and no more. I made my mistakes. Just mine and no one else’s.

I’m burning my costume. I’m done playing this role; finished being paralyzed by my guilt. I’m fallible, and I love my kids with my whole heart.

When we talk about love for our kids, we use expressions like, “I would take a bullet for her,” or “I’d jump in front of a moving train for him!” And of course we would; no question, no hesitation, I would protect my kids from a grizzly bear.

The grand gesture, though, is meaningless against the weaving together of days, months, and years. No grand gesture can compare to the daily tasks of self-management that parenting requires; the willingness to make a meal instead of have another cup of coffee; the offer to help with homework when the couch beckons; the deep breaths when a sassy child drives his parent to the brink; the guilt when the deep breaths don’t work and there is yelling.

Most days, those things are part of life, the joy of being with our children far outweighing the many small annoyances. Some days, though, parenting seems harder than wrestling tigers in the living room.

I would tackle any wild animal and let it pick my bones clean in favor of this constant, grinding, relentless grief.

Salt in the wound, though, is hearing (often, and loudly) that I have gotten exactly what I deserve; that I am a terrible mother and my children were right to reject me.

I will heal. I will learn to live with this, and I will find a way to be OK no matter what kind of relationships Jacob and Abbie choose to have with me, even if one or both choose no relationship at all. I’ll learn to let other people (including my kids) think what they want of me and not let it impact my feelings about myself.* Eventually, I’ll be OK because I’m a bad ass like that.

For now, though, it hurts like a motherfucker. It hurts physically, like someone threw a bag of bowling balls at me. Brian buys tissue in a giant case at Costo and stacks boxes on the shelf next to my side of the bed. Every unanswered text, every unreturned phone call, every tiff is an opportunity for the grief to surge forward and fill the world.

“…[A] parent’s ongoing feelings of sadness, regret, abandonment, guilt, and worry are some of the most burdensome, disorienting, unshakeable feelings that an adult can encounter.”**

Yeah, that sounds about right to me.

Their birthdays are this week. Abbie turned 15 on Saturday and Jacob will be 17 on Friday. I can’t stop wishing we could turn back the calendar a few years and try again.

Shit in one hand and wish in the other, right?

*OK, so I’m never going to totally learn that one, but I’ll get closer. Or further away. Or some damn thing. You know what I mean.

*Joshua Coleman, When Parents Hurt

Grieving Lessons

Every time we get a new dog, we have the same argument. I want to wait to give the new dog a name. I figure, if we give it a few days, the dog will name itself. My family, on the other hand, is so eager to have something to call the thing (why they can’t call it dog for awhile is beyond me) that they jump all over each other to choose the name within two hours of the new dog coming home. Hence, Blossom was named Blossom instead of the much more appropriate Pig Pen. Blossom enjoyed exactly two things: laps and gross stuff.

That right there is an unfortunate combination. A dog who enjoys eating the birds that the neighborhood cats kill almost as much as she enjoys rolling in everything interesting (the stinkier the better) is unlikely to be welcomed into many laps.

Somehow she managed to get all the lap invitations she wanted, anyway. She’d worm her way in, tail thumping, grinning her damn fool dog-grin, until the person whose lap she wanted into couldn’t say no.

She died a few weeks ago. We were all sad, but Carter was heartbroken. A few days after she died, Carter wailed, “Mommy, will I ever be able to go on with my life?”

Grief is like labor, but in reverse. At first, the pain is constant and concussive, filling the world from horizon to horizon and greedily consuming attention and energy. It crests, and crests, and crests again, leaving little space between contractions for rest.

I told Carter that after awhile, the sadness would start to melt and that he would still feel it, but not all the time, and not so deeply. That’s what I said out loud. In my guts, I was filled with warm gratitude that Carter has had this most appropriate introduction to grief.

My first experience of death* was violent and so shockingly destructive that my family is still grappling with the consequences now, over 30 years later. Jacob, Abbie, and Spencer learned about grief when a friend’s four-month-old was taken from the world by that terrible night-thief of babies, SIDS.

From that perspective, it has been sad yet somehow delightful to guide Carter through his grief, to help him through this most ordinary of human experiences. Virtually everything in Carter’s emotional life has been extraordinary, and Brian and I worried that Blossom’s death would spin him into mania or psychosis, but that hasn’t happened. He has been, simply, sad.

A few days ago, Carter said, “Mommy, you were right! I’m starting to be able to go on with my life! I’m still sad when I think about Blossom, but I don’t think about her all the time anymore, just sometimes. Isn’t that great?”

*My mom’s younger brother David died at age 19, when I was 2 1/2. While I have some vague memories of that time, my first true experience of grief happened when my dad’s younger sister Nadine took her own life when I was 8 years old, the same age that Carter is now.