Moments of Engagement

When I find out a couple is splitting up I panic. Being married is like being in a club. Marriage can be awesome, but it is also constant work and sometimes it really sucks. When someone else’s marriage ends, even if that person is a stranger or a celebrity it is frightening. If that person can’t make it, how will Z and I? Marriage is the hardest and the best thing I’ve ever done. But there is strength in numbers. Because the knowledge that it could suddenly go south looms large.

When someone loses their battle with mental illness it feels the same way. When a talented, beloved, financially secure, success loses his battle with mental illness it is debilitating. A week and a half later and he is still in my thoughts for much of the day.The pain that his wife and children and close friends are in is so overwhelming it nauseates me. I mourn him. He was a  stranger, but I also welcomed into my home regularly through the television. He never knew me. I mistakenly thought I knew him.

I didn’t know him, but I know his disease intimately. I understand the hopelessness that led to his decision. The fog so dense it physically weighs you down, the agony of moving through another day, the feeling of utter uselessness, knowing with clarity that your loved ones would be infinitely better off without you as a weight around their neck.

The chance for another episode of severe depression is greater for me compared to the general population because of my history. I look at my sons, my reasons for working so hard to be well, and I know if I became depressed again there wouldn’t be a damn thing I could do to prevent it. Manage it, yes. I am lucky enough to have a deep support system. But I cannot control my mental illness. I cannot will it away with sheer force or moxie or by pulling myself up by those bootstraps. More than 20 years with an anxiety disorder has taught me that much.

I am not depressed right now, but this news has settled over me like a heavy blanket, making it harder to take a deep breath, or engage in the word that feels fuzzy and just out of my reach. My constant companion, my anxiety has been more present. I worry. I worry about him, about where he is now, about if our souls go on, about what, if anything, comes after life. I worry about me, about my friends who suffer from mental illness, about my family who puts up with so much to help guide me through this life, about my still innocent sons who don’t understand mental illness, who shouldn’t have to understand it for a long time, but who will become very familiar with because of me. I feel guilt for the burden I am.

There have been moments of engagement over the last week and a half. I am holding on tightly to them. They aren’t always what I expect will snap me out of the darkness I feel.

Saturday morning I was dressing when C started screaming and crying downstairs. I knew he was probably ok, but the small part of me that imagined blood and destruction won out. I pelted down the stairs naked from the waist down and as I ran past the front door with the windows along its side I felt pretty damn sure no one would be ringing the bell at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. C was fine. Pissed at his brother, but fine. As I walked away from the boys the doorbell rang. The utter absurdity of the situation shook me out of my stupor.

The adrenaline rush of being stung by a bee just as I was finishing a particularly good run strangely made me feel joy.

The panic surrounding C when he pooped in his underwear while we were at friends’ for a cook out frustrated the hell out of me, but engaged me fully.

Reading the first chapter of the first Harry Potter book to T and watching his delight as he used his imagination to see what I was reading filled me with pure happiness.

My sweet, wonderful, hard working, speech delayed C looked up at me this morning as he said, “You go run?” His talking is enough to help me shake off the cloud of unease, but his recognition that running is part of who I am (after a life on non-exercise) made me proud.

So I hold on to those moments. I will mourn an extraordinary life lost as long as I need to. My lack of faith in religion will not stop me from hypocritically praying that the depression will never reoccur in my life. I get up every morning for my boys. I dress them and feed them and sometime even manage to take them to the zoo. They need me. And they motivate me to fight against the anxiety and the threat of depression. By needing me they have given me a priceless gift. The reason to live my life instead of hiding from it.

leonard men beach 2012

These three guys. I want to be my best for each one of them.

ice cream mess

A moment of delight from several weeks ago. He even managed to get ice cream in his eye. What a nut.

t jumps off diving board

One of the best moments of our vacation. It was so hard for my guy, who is anxious himself, to screw up the courage to jump.

Running While Female

Today was the first long run of the first week of my first training for a half marathon. Five easy miles. Although five miles are never easy for me.

About 4 blocks from my house a guy on a bike wearing hard core racing spandex passed me. I smiled and gave a little wave. Because I smile and wave at everyone I pass, it just seems to be good exercising manners. His face lit up, he flashed me a huge grin. A couple of blocks later I’d forgotten about it.

Just gone the mile mark and I was trying to tell myself four more wouldn’t be so bad. A movement on my right caught my eye. I looked over into the smiling face of the guy from the bike suddenly running beside me. I did not smile back. It was around 9:45 am on a Sunday morning. There were plenty of people around, kids and parents on the playground at the top of the park, a young man taking shots at the basketball court, people walking dogs. And I was scared.

The guy was very fit, not struggling with the slow 11 minute pace the way I was. He stayed beside me or a few steps back. At the corner I sped up and made a right around him. For a little while I though he’d stopped following me. But he had not. Sometimes he was 30 feet behind, sometimes he was right next to me. I have no idea where he left the bike. As we circled around the park again he come up on my left, putting me between him and the curb and making me feel even more boxed in.

I wanted to tell him he was scaring me. I wanted to not give a shit that he was following me. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to call my husband. I wanted my wedding ring to increase in size, protecting me from…what? A guy taking a jog? I wanted to ignore the voice in my head saying my safety was threatened. I mean what was the guy really doing? Maybe he was just out for slow run. I wanted to not wonder if my smile and wave were too friendly back while he was on his bike.

But I did. I worried I had been flirting with him. Even though I knew I had not. I worried that my biker shorts and tank top were inappropriate. Even though they were not. I worried that I was being a weak, shrill woman who was making it all up. Even though I was not.

Who knew what his intentions were? I do not think he was going to hurt me. But he was making me uncomfortable and my reaction of tension and discomfort were clear.

Halfway along the side of the park there is a fire hydrant. I usually circle around it and return to the intersection where I hit two miles. I slowed until he was right next to me. And I quickly made the turn. About three quarters of a mile after he first pulled next to me he left me alone. I scanned my surroundings obsessively for another three quarters of a mile until I couldn’t help myself. I stopped with my back to a couple of trees in some shade and called my husband.

I felt like an idiot. A hysterical idiot. My husband and the boys were at a flea market and he asked if he should come pick me up. I didn’t know. I was scared to go home, scared he was still watching me. Scared in broad daylight surrounded by people. I decided to keep on going.

At four miles my husband called to tell me he was there in the car and he’d drive beside me home. I thanked him and waved him off. I finished the five miles. I did not see the man again.

About a month ago, after the Washington Post op-ed by George Will decrying sexual violence against women on college campuses as overblown, creating an atmosphere of victimhood as a prized and privileged status, the internet blew up with reactions that were all over the place. The ones that stuck with me were those written by women who agreed with Will.  I read responses from women who questioned why college girls always thought they were going to be raped. Women asked why did those girls think they would be so special that someone would want to sexually assault them. Women asked why other women were so hysterical.

The 2012 CDC finding that nearly one in five women will be raped in her lifetime? The statistic is nearly the same as a study commissioned by the Justice Department* in 2007 during the Bush administration. It is not a statistic conjured by a liberal administration or harpy feminists to further their agenda. It is real.

Women fear rape for many reasons. I do not  fear assault because I think I am special or desirable or that every guy is  inherently bad and a potential rapist. Sexual assault is a crime of violence and control, not desire. I have been taught for most of my life that women ask for it through their every action. I have been taught that if I am assaulted no one will believe me. The comments by women in response to Will’s article support that. When someone larger and stronger than me gets in my personal space I get scared.

So what the hell happened this morning?

I don’t think I was ever in real danger. Still, I changed my plans to run along the partially secluded path around a stream across from the park after the second mile. I don’t think the man’s intentions were bad. But he surely knew he was making me uncomfortable and he did not stop.

The bottom line is I am ashamed. For not telling him he was scaring me. For not demanding that he leave me alone. For letting my worry that I would offend him get in the way. For even questioning if I’d been flirting or if I was dressed wrong or if I was asking for it in any way. For feeling small and worthless. For still having dread in the pit of my stomach hours later. For already fearing Tuesday’s run.

I’m ashamed for feeling ashamed.

I expect more from myself. But I also expect more from that man, from any man.

photo (44)

I was not doing anything wrong this morning.

 *Study found through this Slate article.

Last Days of School

A year ago I watched the mother of one of T’s classmates struggle with the reality that her child was leaving the comfort of our extraordinary preschool and moving on to kindergarten. The transition proved painful for both mother and child. I sympathized with my friend, but I did not understand her sadness. In fact, I told her it simply wouldn’t be a big deal for T and me. She had the grace not to tell me I was full of shit.

Five years into this parenting gig and I still feel a twinge of annoyance when a more experienced parent tells me how my family will feel or act during an upcoming phase of development. “We are different” I think, “They don’t know us. We are special.” At the same time I cannot resist breaking it down for parents with kids younger than mine. I hear myself explaining what is coming and I hate myself for being that person. Especially as I see the look on the face of whatever friend I’m speaking to. I can see what is running through their head, “We are different. She doesn’t know us. We are special.”

At the beginning of last week I dropped the boys off at school and on my way out found this in T’s mailbox:

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Last fall we were asked to fill the paper with words that described who we hoped T would be as an adult.

photo (42)

That hair. I miss that crazy hair so much.

Friday was the final day of school. During the week laminated photos that decorated the boys’ classrooms trickled home with them. But the little poster of our hopes for T was the first. I lifted it out of the mailbox and suddenly my throat was burning and tears flooded my eyes. I made it to the car before the ugly crying began.

That friend of mine? I emailed her and confessed I was wrong last year. Both T and I were struggling with his upcoming transition to kindergarten. I asked for advice on how she got through it.

A year ago I was so excited for the following fall I couldn’t see straight. T would have the same teachers that he adored. C would be going to school as well. He threw a fit every single day of spring semester when we dropped T off because he wanted to stay. And the fact that I was going to have a couple of hours a day to myself helped tremendously. Our small transition included the loved and familiar for T, exactly what C needed developmentally, and a fucking break for me. Life was great. Transitions were great. Why would kindergarten be any different?

Oh, pompous, naive, foolish Karen. When will you get over yourself and start actually listening to the more experienced parents?

The unknown is hard for both T and me. Watching his anxiety rise as he realized he wouldn’t be able to bring his much loved teachers with him to elementary school was heartbreaking. His fear is real and I ache for him. I’m also kind of furious that he is growing up. His delicious little boy body is getting harder and harder to lift. His limbs dangle everywhere when he crawls into my lap. The last five years have been the fastest of my life and I know time will only continue to fly by with more speed. Even if I didn’t believe it the first time a well meaning, experienced parent told me.

walking away from preschool

T walking away from preschool for the last time on Friday. Again, I was able to save the ugly crying for the car. Victory.

preschool T

The boys attend (Um, I mean C attends and T attended…sniffle) a laboratory school on the SU campus. Undergrads and grad students work with the children each semester. The assignments include these lovely bound books made for each child that tracks development over the semester. Here are the covers of T’s 6 books.

toddler room C

And C’s first two.

Don’t Read the Comments

The last week has been really weird. Awesome. Overwhelming. Scary. Cool. Annoyingly Navel Gaze-y.

Through a friend of a friend of a friend of mine from high school my last post was put up on the Huffington Post on Tuesday. My friends on facebook were amazing about sharing it. After a couple of days it had a more than 1000 likes and 200 shares. It was crazy. It was definitely the widest audience any post of mine has ever received.

And then last night A Mighty Girl shared the post on their facebook page. Suddenly the piece had 15 thousand likes and more than 1700 shares on facebook.

Let’s be honest here. People don’t blog because they want their words to go into a vacuum. We want to be read. I’ve been very happy with my teeny tiny and very kind readership over the last 4 years. But I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t wondered what it would be like to have a post read by a shitload of people, if I hadn’t hoped for it.

It would be disingenuous to pretend it isn’t a head rush of an ego boost. Turns out the reality is also deeply unnerving. I do not have a thick skin. And I read the comments.

For some reason the ones that hurt the most were those that thought I’d made the interaction up. You guys know honesty is my deal. I’m a lot of shitty things, but liar is not one of them.

Hey, these problems are pretty good ones to have. The bottom line is I’m thrilled this has happened. Next to that joy is also some trepidation. I can’t explain to strangers that I really love my kids and try to be a good mom. They only see the little slice I’ve given them. And if I don’t explain myself clearly enough in that slice it is my own damn fault.

I’m scared to write another post. This note doesn’t feel real because it is just an extension of the last one. I’m scared the last post was a fluke. I’m scared I’ll be influenced by the larger audience, scared my writing will change because I’m trying to reach more people.

This is what I’ve wanted. This is really cool. I also sort of fear I bit off more than I can chew.

I know the endless self promotion is gross, but tomorrow morning at 10:35EST I’ll be doing an interview about the piece on HuffPost Live. Did I mention how surreal this has been?

In other good news (Why do I feel so guilty about all the good news? Oh yeah, because I’m crazy) that academic conference I was terrified of presenting at? It happened on Thursday. The panel I was on could not have gone better. And I only had horrifying diarrhea once during the whole trip. That actually might be the absolute best piece of news of this crazy damn week!

freaks geeks

Z’s Father’s Day present. Hand lettered by Syracuse artist Cayetano.

z and e play

Last weekend Z and our dear friend E rocking out at Art on the Porches.

leonard cousins farmers market

E and G are visiting for the week. Leonard cousin time!

The Bitch is Back

At three miles and change my throat felt full and I dry heaved a little. Home was over a mile away. I’d run almost two and a half miles away from the house to force myself into doing 5. It was a punishment run to make up for a shitty performance the day before. And instead of finishing I had a long, slow walk of shame back to the house. The best thing that can be said is I didn’t cry.

Earlier this week another mom in C’s preschool class who is an accomplished runner and I were chatting because we were both geared up for a run. I told her I was doing speed work. “By yourself?” she asked. “Yup.” I replied. “Wow.” she said, clearly impressed.

I felt like a total fraud. Here is what I wanted to blurt out: “I get so anxious when I’m doing a challenging workout that I don’t sleep well the night before and have hideous diarrhea up until the moment I actually get out the door. Yes, I have performance anxiety without an audience. If I actually had to do speed work in front of other humans I would probably shit out an organ.”

I’ve been working on not saying the crap that would make near strangers horrifically uncomfortable. Pat on the back, Karen. Instead of that word vomit, my tongue was bitten and I vaguely mumbled something.

The October Half Marathon? I’m not going to be doing those 13.1 miles in a vacuum. In fact, one of my best friends in the world signed up so we could tackle it for the first time together. She and her family came up from Brooklyn to spend the weekend with us and help us celebrate Z’s birthday on Saturday night.

On Sunday we went for a run together. I was so anxious I almost shit out an organ beforehand. I was so anxious I was running about a minute slower than usual. I’ve been assured by many that running with a partner is great fun. You get to chat and the time flies by. Um, right. I huff and puff with such vigor that I was unable to string more than three words together. Man, I was disappointed in myself. I felt awful for my friend who wasn’t getting much of a workout at all. It was humiliating.

Thankfully my friend loves me no matter what. She knows about the anxiety. As usual, she was nothing but kind to me. That bitch anxiety did not have A’s lovely manners. She told me I was an embarrassing, pathetic mess. She lied and said that A was regretting signing up for the half with me. She told me no matter how great life was right now that she would dog me for the rest of my life.

Unfortunately that part is true. Life is going well for our family, we are in a good place. But I am overwhelmed and ashamed of how my anxiety colors everything. Leaving the house is still hard every day. Why do we have cook outs in our backyard? So it’s guaranteed I’ll attend. Our friends have been so accommodating about letting us host, but I still feel terrible about it.

Z has a work fundraising event on Thursday. I’m already spun up about what an awkward fool I’ll be there. Yesterday my friend’s family and ours went to the Zoo. I managed to have a pretty bad anxiety event there. Last week I had to cancel my therapy appointment due to a babysitting snafu. I’m sick to my stomach over the makeup appointment on Wednesday because I feel so guilty about canceling and I just don’t want to face my therapist’s disappointment. And let’s not get started on the nausea I feel when remembering the panel I’m on at my first academic conference in June.

How ridiculous is all of that? What a staggering waste of time.

That’s what an anxiety disorder is. A sickening waste of time that makes you feel like a failure and a disappointment.

But here’s the thing. I will not let this fucking thing own me. I will not. Tomorrow is a rest day, but I will be back out there running on Wednesday. And Thursday. And Friday. I will go to Z’s work event on Thursday. I’ll drag my ass to therapy on Wednesday. And even if it takes all the Imodium on the eastern seaboard I will be a part of the fucking panel at the conference. Goddammit, I am doing a half marathon in October.

That bitch anxiety might be with me for the rest of my life. But I will not let her destroy me. I will not.

a and k post run

Still managed a smile at the end of the jog o shame.

sad and lovely elephant

Sad and lovely elephant we got to touch at the zoo. Her name is Siri.

luke fights palpatine

Luke Skywalker and Emperor Palpatine battling in the Death Star.

 

 

Who You Are

“So how do you feel?”

“Better. Good. I mean, I still cry a half dozen times a day…”

“What makes you cry?”

“Oh, you know. News stories. Stuff I read on the web. Every single time I watch Frozen.”

“But that is just who you are.”

It was a throwaway comment on the part of my therapist. At the moment I didn’t realize how much it would affect me. “That is just who you are.” The new medication is going well. And yet I am still who I am. What a tremendous relief.

One of the reasons the mentally ill are loathe to try drugs is because they don’t want to become someone else. They don’t avoid drugs because they think that their crazy defines them, or makes them unique, or gets them attention which are the reasons a lot of people assume are behind drug reticence. It is because they don’t want to lose who they have been at their core for their entire lives. I don’t want to lose who I am. It’s not like I’m so fabulous. But I’ve been me for 37 years. I’m used to myself.

With the right drug/s (and yes, finding the right drug/s can be a mighty struggle) you are still yourself. Just a functioning version of yourself.

Yesterday this post about a mother’s internal struggle with medicating her 10 year old who needed help showed up in my facebook feed. My heart ached for the anonymous author and for her son. As someone who needs drugs to function and sometimes to survive, as someone who worries I have passed my anxiety along to one of my sweet sons, I viscerally empathize with her.

At the same time I felt sick to my stomach by the time I finished the piece. I felt embarrassed and defensive and angry and hurt.

How do you give your child a controlled substance, addictive drugs, and act like it’s a normal thing to do?” she asks. She writes with brutal honesty about her struggle and I admire the hell out of her for it. But that question made me feel small and broken. I take an addictive controlled substance. I have every day for over a year. It is normal for me. I mean, what the fuck is normal anyway?

This mother. She is thoughtful, she is doing whatever needs to be done. “But on the other hand, how do you not try everything in your power to help your child who struggles every day of his life with demons you cannot beat down through sheer force of will and all the therapy money can buy?

Part of what hurts so deeply about the piece is she nailed it. All of it. How frightening and awful mental disorders can be. The fact that resorting to drugs makes you feel like a failure.

Psychotropic medication is a land mine of a topic. Controversy surrounding the over medication and diagnosis of kids with ADHD or adults with depression is well documented. And anecdotally who among those of us who went to college in the 90s or 00s didn’t know a dozen people who were given prozac at health services? The issue is real and a concern, but that isn’t what I’m talking about here.

I have mild asthma. When I occasionally have an asthma attack I use my inhaler and my attack stops. Every night I take a pill for my asthma/allergies. It effectively prevents attacks from happening the vast majority of the time. In fact, it is so effective that I started to believe I was taking it unnecessarily and let my prescription lapse. Two nights later I woke gasping for breath in the middle of an attack.

Brain drugs don’t work that way. Each brain responds differently to the type of drug, the amount, the time of day taken. And many drugs are prescribed off label, which means not for the use they were approved for originally. We just don’t know as much about the brain as we know about asthma.

Beyond the clusterfuck of finding the right drug is the fact that even if you have struggled with mental illness for years you have the nagging thought that you aren’t really unwell. You are just lazy and a coward. Progress is being made, but the idea that you should pull yourself up by your bootstraps and simply stop being sad or anxious or manic is prevalent in our society. Self loathing goes right along with many mental illnesses and it is hard not to buy into that, hard not to believe that you are making it all up.

And then there is the “what did I do wrong?” or “this is my fault” component.

During my lifetime I hope we get to the point where being treated with drugs for a mental illness is destigmatized and perceived as “normal” as using an inhaler for asthma. I hope it for the mother who wrote about her son, I hope it for that boy who is struggling, I hope it for myself.

mothers day

My sweet T and me on Mother’s Day.

c cow

Z took the boys to a big truck event at a local park yesterday.

t truck

T looks like a different kid with his short hair.

2 and 4

Two and Four for a little while longer. 2 wouldn’t look at the camera and 4 is doing all sorts of poses for the camera these days.

 

Zoo at the Zoo

Couple of weeks ago I was taking one of those time wasting “what are you?” quizzes that have been all over facebook recently. A handful of questions and it tells you what color you are. Z was reading over my shoulder. As the curser hovered across the choices he’d say, “Oh come on. Obviously you’d nap if you got a free day to yourself!” or “Go to a party or spend a night alone? Please. Alone every time.” My biggest concern was that I’d get orange (for newer readers I have an orange-phobia), but nope. I got black. The description was something like “you are in a bad place, but it is temporary”. It’s a stupid online test that clearly has a problem with introverts. It isn’t real in any way. But it made me feel pretty awful.

Life has gotten better this spring. The seasonal affective disorder that colors the first months of the year has lifted. I’m on new meds that (fingers and toes crossed) seem to actually be working. School is over and I met my deadlines. I’ve been managing my anxiety through expectations-the trip to New York and the UN was hard. I knew it was going to be hard going in and was ready for it.

When we pulled into the Zoo parking lot this morning there they were. Six full sized school buses with a river of children pouring out of them. The parking lot was crowded with their parent’s cars. As we wound through the congested pathway towards the entrance my heart climbed out of my chest and into my throat. By the time we got to the octopus display my throat was squeezing shut, doing its best to crush my heart. My pulse raced, I was lightheaded, my eyes burned and filled with tears.

Our zoo is usually empty when it opens. I assumed it would be today. The crowds caught me off guard and triggered the first full on panic attack I’ve had in ages.

The funny thing is I’d been doing so well lately that the stupid voice in my head has piped up with her opinion. She seems to think there has never really been anything wrong with me. My mental illness is an excuse in my head to be lazy. I don’t really have trouble leaving the house or dealing with large groups. It’s a lie I tell to get out of stuff. Because I’m a terrible person.

This morning I was reminded that I really cannot handle crowds, especially when I’m not expecting them. Of course the voice just changed her tactics. She told me it was pathetic that I couldn’t deal with a couple of buses worth of kids. I kind of agree with her.

When C started crying in front of the octopus tank I was ready to grab the boys and get the hell out of there. Instead we stayed for more than an hour. I’m not saying I will win any mom of the year awards for that hour. I was short with the boys. The damn tingling in my arm that accompanies the lightheadedness never went away. I fought tears until we were safely back in the car. But the boys did get to run around a bit. And I didn’t give in to this stupid disorder.

t in k hat

He pulled the hat right off my head. Yup, it’s still chilly here in Syracuse.

cadbury creme egg

This beautiful kid can destroy a Cadbury Creme Egg.