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.

Navigating Early Intervention

“Do you know how lucky we are?” Z asked me as we drove toward the school where we would receive the results from C’s Early Intervention Evaluation. “Seven highly trained adults. Seven. Gave him their full attention for two and a half hours this morning.”

“I know. I know you are right. I know.”

“We are so lucky, so privileged to have access to this kind of help for him.”

“Yes. We are.”

I had told him I was sick to my stomach over getting the results of the evaluation. We spent the morning sitting behind a two way mirror observing his test while answering hundreds of questions about him.

We watched the meltdown he had an hour into the test. They redirected him and got him back on track. We watched as he was able to focus. We watched him eat his snack and get back to testing and we watched him fade until he was asked if he was all done. “All done.” he replied firmly.

Midway through the process one of the evaluators came into the observation room and mentioned Sensory Issues and I froze as dread crept up my spine. After she left I found myself standing and delivering a wild and nonsensical monologue to another woman in the room that touched on over-diagnosis and over-medication of ADHD (not even the reason we were there) and how if you look at any kid long enough you start to see something wrong with them.

Before the outburst I’d told myself I’d stay cool. We were doing what was best for C and that is what mattered. This whole thing was not a value judgment on him or on our parenting.

And yet, suddenly I was the parent who did not want to hear it.

Looking back on the last year I realized I never wanted to hear it. Every time I explained to someone that C received speech therapy I would casually explain that he had terrible ear infections and health problems when his speech should have been developing. I’d slip in that he tested normal in all other areas. Except I’m realizing now I wasn’t casual at all. I’m sure that I seemed oblivious and petty and desperate.

The emotions aren’t new. The fear, guilt, defensiveness, and worry. How could I not be able to teach my kid to meet developmental milestones? What is wrong with my parenting? Is this my fault? And there is a stigma for services. How the hell do I get over my own embarrassment so I can teach C he has nothing to be ashamed of?

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In New York the Early Intervention provider switches from the state for two year olds to the local school system for three year olds. So another set of standardized tests are performed. During the week leading up to the test he was observed in his preschool classroom. Wednesday a Professor from SU and two of her graduate students spent an hour and a half in our home watching C play and asking me tons of questions. Thursday he had a three hour block, just him and the testers. He didn’t make it to three hours. After two and a half little man was so exhausted he napped for nearly three hours in the afternoon.

This process is important. But man, it is overwhelming both for him and for Z and me. Watching your not-quite-three year old be put through a multi-hour standardized test sucks even if there are some play breaks. By the end it just felt unfair and cruel.

—————————————–

Z and I sat at the head of a conference table, surrounded by the seven professionals who tested our boy and listened to the results. Most of which were in the normal range. But there were new concerns about coping when he becomes frustrated. The only area he scored below normal was the emotional piece, the area he’d had the highest score in the fall.

In the past year his speech has exploded. We were shocked to find he scored average and slightly above average in the two speech components. His clarity is poor enough that we think the school system will grant continued service and we hope they do. He is not at the same level with his peers concerning speech no matter what the tests say. A year later we have learned Early Intervention works. It works. His therapist has been amazing with him. His improvement is due to many factors, but she is one of the most significant.

During the meeting it was clear I was struggling. When his low emotional score was disclosed I couldn’t help myself, I asked what I’d done wrong. How could he have improved so much in one section while falling behind in another?

One of the kind evaluators pointed out that these areas of development do not progress in a straight line. There are fits and starts.

Hopefully C will continue the speech therapy. It is up to us to decide what to do about the other piece. Do we want to see how he does for a year without extra services? Do we want to just deal with this now?

Z and I are on the same page. We want what is best for our beautiful and wonderful and loving boy. I was sure he’d qualify for speech and nothing else. I know my kid. I know him.

It is awful to spend a morning learning that your child, your heart, your love, hell — your job is struggling in an area and you were completely oblivious. The doubt has crept in, if I didn’t know this about him what else am I missing? Does he deserve better than me? Is this the ultimate stay at home mom job evaluation and did I just fail?

Z was right when we drove to the meeting. We are so lucky. C is so lucky. Yes, these services are free. But the process is involved. We have the resources to send our boys to a preschool that made us aware of Early Intervention and helped guide us through it. How many parents out there don’t have the resources or time or knowledge to discover that this is an option? How many parents are so busy working to provide a home and enough food for their child that they don’t know there is an issue with the kid until he or she reaches kindergarten? How to we help get these resources into the hands of families that need them every bit as much as we do?

I don’t know. But I do know that I need to be grateful. I must stop wallowing about how hard this is for me. It is a waste of time to obsess over my failings as a mother. C needs help. Z and I will make sure that he gets it.

beautiful c

This boy. He’s going to be more than fine. Photo by Ellie Leonardsmith.

Who Is the Real Butthead?

“I offered him a Hershey’s Kiss and he said he couldn’t have one because he lost his treat.” my friend J told me.

“Man, I love that T is incapable of lying.”

“I asked him why he lost his treat and he told me he called you a fool.”

“Yup. Last night when I was putting him to bed. He was mad at Z. I don’t think he understood exactly what it meant. Or that he would be in so much trouble.”

This conversation happened moments before J’s husband discovered that C was evacuating his bladder and bowels hidden by my car’s driver side door.

While we were chatting I could smell myself. I didn’t get the chance to shower today and my year-old flip flops reek with an odor that can only be described as evil.

It has not been a banner day.

Z’s sister E and our niece G left this morning. We had a great visit with them, and the good news is we will see them again next month. But the thing about sharing a living space with guests is you start to see how you and your kids are acting with fresh eyes.

My fresh eyes are pretty embarrassed by what they saw. All I do is yell at the boys. All they do is give me the metaphorical finger. Thank god they haven’t learned how to give me the literal finger yet, but I’m sure it is coming.

Back when I was a fantastic mother (you know, before I actually had children) I knew I would not stand for disrespect from my kids. Man, I knew so much back then, so very much. I was so self righteous, so smart, so incredibly full of shit.

At nearly five and nearly three my boys are raging buttheads.

Nearly five years into parenting there are still days when I don’t get around to bathing.

For the life of my I cannot figure out how to potty train my nearly three year old. Today included one pee in the potty, two pees on the floor, countless trips to the bathroom in which nothing happened, and as mentioned, my friend C finding him leaning against my car with one hand as he pissed, a gigantic turd dangling between his legs like a tail. Thankfully grown up C convinced three year old C to squat on the ground until the poop broke away and fell to the driveway where it was immediately swarmed by flies. But then T ran behind the car and stepped right in the shit.

Some days parenting feels like I’ve crested the top of a roller coaster, like my stomach has fallen through my feet as the tiny car that holds me plummets back to the ground. But I never level out, I just keep falling and falling while feeling more and more out of control.

My boys are not quite five and three. If they are buttheads it isn’t their fault. Which leads me to some pretty uncomfortable conclusions about my job performance.

T and turbo

See this adorable photo? Taken moments after T kissed the damn snail and hours before he’d call me a fool.

t pic of c pic of t

See this adorable photo? Taken by T of C taking a photo of T. Very meta. Taken moments before an epic physical altercation between the boys over who got to play with the playmobil dude wearing the black outfit.

leonard cousins goodbye

See this adorable photo? Cousins saying goodbye? In the next photo I snapped it looked like T was trying to pull off a chunk of C’s flesh.

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.

 

When Motherhood Can Bite Me

C is nearing 3. The age when T actually grew horns. T’s 4th year has been so great it has sort of erased some of the horror of his 3rd year from our memory. But the fog is lifting and we are starting to remember how rough T was. Um, yeah, we actually decided that we weren’t going to have a third kid when T was three.

The whole terrible twos thing is a joke. At least for our kids. Three is a fucking beast of an age. I get it that sucks for the kid as well. Three year olds are desperately trying to assert their independence while scrabbling for a modicum of control over their lives. They are told no all day long. They are expected to start behaving themselves at preschool and in public. So they rebel.

C was exhausted after school. So he refused to nap. Therefore he was an absolute delight at Wegmans. By which I mean he was a raging asshole to the woman who checked us out and was trying really hard to be nice to him. T had a T-ball game tonight. Z is in Baltimore overnight so I was flying solo. Naturally I got us lost on the way to the game. Naturally C screamed, “NO! NO! NO!” every time I asked him to do something or tried to prevent him from doing stuff he shouldn’t have been doing. Let me tell you, that kid can scream. If I picked him up he’d scratch at my face or hit me.

We are doing a fantastic job raising our little gentlemen.

Actually, it’s pretty humiliating. I feel like everyone must think I’m the shittiest mom in the world when he throws tantrums in public. Sometimes I am scared to take him places he is such a loose cannon.

The game mercifully ended and we headed home. C was drinking a juice box, his newest fascination. T doesn’t like juice boxes so we don’t have them hanging around. Now, let’s be real. I shouldn’t have trusted him to have the box in the car. Sure enough and with T’s encouragement I caught him spraying juice everywhere.

Finally we were back home, the juice got cleaned up, I called Z so he could say goodnight to the boys. I sank into the sofa, not really paying attention to what C was doing.

I felt an explosion of pain on the side of my face.

C climbed on the arm of the sofa, turned around, and basically trust falled the back of his skull into my cheekbone.

So here is what I learned about motherhood today. Sometimes you are so mad at your kid you have trouble looking them in the face. Sometimes you are embarrassed because you know tomorrow morning you are going to have a prominent shiner that you will have to explain to the world. Sometimes you are fed up and exhausted and want to scream, “FUCK YOU CHILDREN! FUCK YOU! PUT YOURSELVES TO BED GOD DAMN IT! I’M GOING TO THE BAR FOR A DRINK OR SIX!”

And I’m a little ashamed to admit how hard this was for me. With difficulty I didn’t scream at him. Instead I bathed him, read to him, sang to him, and cuddled with him. I wanted to just dump C in his room and walk away. But I explained why I was upset that he hurt me (and I understand he was not actively trying to bust up my face, he probably thought he’d fall in my lap). Then we did stories and songs and cuddles like usual. Did I have to fake it? Um, yes. Did I want to be vindictive and deny him his routine? Um, yes. My face really hurt and the day was really shitty.

What I learned tonight is when you are alone with the kids it doesn’t matter what happens. You have to keep it together and be a mom. Now, you wise folks probably figured that out ages ago. I’m slow. And selfish. But I did it tonight. I didn’t do it gracefully. There might have been some serious muttering under my breath.

But I did it. Maybe I don’t get a gold star today. At least I didn’t fail.

photo (33)

My cheekbone doesn’t usually look like you could use it to cut glass.

IMG_1963

This is what T was doing in Baltimore. Pretty fucking amazing.

IMG_1962

Process shot. And Pain shot. I’d never have enough courage to do ribs. My dude is hard core.

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.