This whole anxiety disorder thing is never going to go away. I know that. Nevertheless when my therapist reminds me of that fact, as she did yesterday, it always kicks my ass.
T fell asleep on the way to the pediatricians yesterday. That sentence probably seems pretty benign to you, but by the time we rolled into the parking lot I was terrified. Dude does not wake up with a lot of grace. He comes by that pretty honestly, I’m the same way. Although, at nearly 36 years old I have mastered myself enough to be socially appropriate when roused from a nap in public. Sadly, T isn’t there quite yet.
I actually thought I’d magically dodged a bullet when we schlepped into the office. T was only whining, it seemed like I was worried about nothing, my superior mothering skills had talked him right off the ledge.
I believe the gods recognized my hubris and set out to punish me.
The whining quickly ramped up into full blown hysteria. At first the other parents looked at me with bemused smiles on their faces. The kind of look that said, “We’ve all been there Mama! Its sucks, but he’ll calm down!”
Um, yeah. No calming down. None. Just ramping up. Did I mention that the waiting room was packed?
Months ago I listened to a story on NPR about temper tantrums. A scientist interviewed said that if you hold your child during their tantrum a change happens in their brains that will lead to them outgrowing tantrums over time. I have no idea if that is bullshit or not, but it stuck with me and I try to hold T when he really loses it. Because I have no fucking clue what to do. None. It never would have occurred to my sister or me to throw a tantrum as a kid. We were way too scared of our parents. Thankfully dude doesn’t have a lot of them, but when they happen look the fuck out.
Poor sick C was left to entertain himself at the chalk board (because that’s age appropriate for a 14 month old) while I held T tight. Ten minutes later he was still freaking out. I started murmuring things in his ear like, “Thomas. Look around you. Every single person in the waiting room is staring at you. Because you are disturbing them. The kids want to know what the heck is wrong with you. This is not the way a big boy behaves. You need to pull yourself together.” He’d look around and see the other kids looking back at him and stop crying for about 10 seconds, then he’d catch himself and throw himself right back into the tantrum with even more vigor. Yeah, I don’t know if I was doing more damage or not with that spiel, I don’t really even fucking care. It just felt really important in the moment to explain to him what an enormous dickweed he was being.
Twenty minutes later when the nurse called C’s name not a single adult in the waiting room could look our way, not that I blame them. I gathered our bags and the boys, my cheeks burning red as I trotted after the nurse with what little dignity I had left.
That nurse. What a peach. I attempted to explain what was up with C as T howled in the background. After about two minutes she excused herself for a sec. I took the time she was gone to let T know how extremely fucking pissed off I was at him. She returned with a sticker in her hand, which she extended to him like a peace offering. What what his response? Do you think he thanked her for her kindness? He looked at the sticker of a fire engine, threw his head back and wailed, “NOOOOOOO! I. WANT. A. DIGGER. STICKER!”
After instructing him to apologize, which he did without too much coercion (lucky for him–if he failed to do that I was going to pull the car over on the way home and drop him on the side of the road to fend for himself like the wild animal he is) I turned to the nurse and thanked her for trying to help out. People, by that point I was beyond humiliated. We got back to the task at hand-poor, sick, forgotten, well behaved C. I couldn’t hear myself think over T’s continued screams. I don’t think I was making a hell of a lot of sense, not that the nurse could hear what I was saying anyway, but she did take C’s temp and weight and was able to make her escape.
Finally the doctor arrived. Or regular doc was off for the day because she was on call all weekend, but the lady we saw is my next favorite doctor in the practice. In fact, we’d seen her last Thursday when T was diagnosed with a sinus infection. She is amazing with kids. But his tantrum, which at this point was more than 30 minutes old, was inured to the kryptonite that was her soothing bedside manor. We seemed to kind of agree to just talk over the hysterical three year old keening on the exam table. When T began flailing around the doc grabbed C to free me up to try and deal with T. She was calm which helped me be calm, but of course the exam took about three times as long as it needed to thanks to T. By the very end, after C had been diagnosed with an ear infection and we were talking about the dreaded antibiotics, more than 45 minutes after the tantrum began, T cried himself out.
In the blissful silence that followed, only punctuated by his pathetic sniffles, the doc kindly asked me if I was going to be ok. I told her I did not think I was actually going to murder him that night. She said that was good.
On our way out we had to make a follow up appointment for the doc to take a gander at C’s ears after the course of antibiotics. By that time it was past 5pm and the waiting room was empty. I’d told T he needed to apologize to the receptionist and he did. She looked at me and mouthed, “Can he have a sticker?” I laughed. Thanked her. And said, “Absolutely not.”
A few days ago I realized that my class falls on the evening of Halloween this year. It only meets once a week from 3:45-8:45PM, so there really isn’t a way to join the boys for trick or treating and attend the class. Obviously I was super crushed. Especially because T not only has asked to be Luke Skywalker for Halloween, he has taken to introducing himself to people as Luke. When he did this on the first day of preschool there was a bit of confusion, but he was wearing a Star Wars shirt and Star Wars shoes and his rest time pillow had an Empire Strikes Back pillowcase on it, so very quickly his teacher realized which Luke T meant. Keeping with the theme C is going to use the Yoda costume T’s worn for the last two years. Z and I are ridiculously excited about our little Star Wars crew.
Last year was the first time that T really got the whole trick or treat situation. We knocked on doors for about half an hour and I had a huge grin on my face the entire time. It was so fun to watch him say “Trick or Treat” and the surprise on his face when he got the candy in return was hilarious. I’m bummed, really bummed to miss it this year. But the way I see it is I made a commitment. What is the difference between me skipping class to go trick or treating with my kids and another student skipping to go to a party? Shouldn’t I be teaching my kids that when you decide to do something you follow through even if it’s inconvenient?
As a proper facebook addict I posted about my Halloween class and Z’s flip suggestion that I skip school. And although no one said anything unkind, I started to regret my update. Right or wrong I felt like I’d be perceived as a selfish and bad mom if I didn’t cut class. For once I don’t think those feeling came from my crazy.
What if Z had class that night? Or had a work obligation? Would the assumption be he could just shrug off his responsibilities to join the family for trick or treating? Last year we were asked to be room parents for T’s class twice a semester. T was only in school for 6 hours a week, but all 6 hours fell when Z was teaching. It didn’t occur to Z or me for him to not teach one day, even though he team teaches and the other professor could have covered it. I was the room parent every time. Would T have loved to have his dad there one of those days? Yup. But it didn’t work out. T wasn’t scarred by just having me at school. And I don’t think Z felt terribly guilty about it.
Is the implication that there is nothing in life more important to a mother than her child’s experiences? It certainly doesn’t feel like that is the expectation for the father. I’m not condemning the gender roles assigned by society from my high horse, innocent of passing judgement myself. I fall into the trap of doing it all the time. Z has an acquaintance here who is a single with kids. The kids live with him. We knew he was married at one time and without finding out the circumstances Z and I had a conversation in which we wondered where the heck the kid’s mother was. We also talked about what an amazing dude we thought this guy was for being a full time dad. Recently we found out that the children’s mom lives a few towns over. Also, she has custody 50% of the time. I was appalled at myself. Did I really make the laziest and most unfair assumptions about this family’s situation? Me? A Sarah Lawrence girl, a committed feminist, and liberal? Isn’t my thinking a bit more sophisticated than that? Evidently not. It reminded me of the interviews Michael Chabon gave when he was promoting his book of essays “Manhood for Amateurs” In every interview I heard he said that even today the bar for being a “good dad” was set incredibly low.
Z and I have not set the bar low for his involvement in our son’s lives. In fact, the expectations we both have are to parent as equals. Z can’t be the room parent because of work? I’ll do it. I can’t put C down on Wednesday nights this semester even though I’m still nuring him? We figure it out and Z does it. I thought my expectations for dads in general were just as rigorous. But with very little information I constructed a scenario in my mind in which Z’s acquaintance was a Super Dad and his ex was an absentee mom. What the fuck?
Listen, if my professor magically tells me that I will face no penalty to my grade for missing the class I’ll stay for the seminar and skip out on the practical that starts at 5:15pm. If he cancels the second part of class I’ll be thrilled. But I’ve decided to approach this like I was a dad. What would people say if some dad had to miss Halloween because of an obligation? They’d say it was too bad, they’d be sure the dad was bummed, but responsibilities are responsibilities and sometimes these things happen.
And in the future I’ll make an effort to calibrate the mom and dad bar equally before I jump to conclusions about what goes on in the private lives of other families. You know what, scratch that. Perhaps I’ll just try not to jump to conclusions.
Happy Halloween in a few weeks, folks. Hope you have a good time no matter what you are doing.
Last Saturday morning T got a black eye. To be honest, I didn’t see it happen. I’m embarrassed to say I was in the kitchen getting a slice of key lime pie for myself. Yes, I said Saturday morning. Yes, I have no self control. So there I was heaping whipped cream onto my pie when I heard a loud crash from the living room, followed by a pause, followed by wailing. I flew around the corner and found T in a heap on the ground. You know that moment when you see your kid hurt, but you can’t tell if they are really messed up and bleeding? I don’t handle it with a heck of a lot of grace. I picked him up and a purple lump had already formed at the corner of his eye. He wouldn’t let me ice it, there wasn’t any blood, and I’m still not sure how he did it. From what he said he fell into the corner of the table. He could have been climbing on it and fell, could have been climbing on the couch hit it on the way to the floor, but he also could have been just walking by and slipped and fell. I’ll never know because I was too busy getting ready to stuff my face.
The bump rose so fast and he was so distressed that I got really scared. I’m not great in a crisis. I know, shocker. So less than 5 minutes after this happened I was on the phone with a nurse at our pediatrician’s office. The nurse was really nice, but she clearly thought I was overreacting. I probably was. But I was really really scared and Z was still more than 24 hours from getting home.
On Monday morning Z offered to take T to school. He hasn’t done it yet this year. He teaches in the mornings and the timing is tight. But he said he felt bad for being gone the whole weekend and he wanted to give me a break. I asked him to explain to T’s teacher about the black eye. T also had these scabby scratches on his chest, he got those from a kid on the playground at school on Friday so I knew they wouldn’t have questions about them. Still, I felt like I was sending him to school a physical wreck.
When I picked him up on Monday afternoon I had to grab his car seat out of the office-Z had stashed it there so he didn’t have to return home and switch it over to my car before class. As I chatted with one of the office ladies T’s black eye came up and I explained he fell at home. That night I asked Z if he had told his teacher what happend. He said nope. I was annoyed because I’d asked him to and he glibly told me that she knew we didn’t hit him.
Tuesday morning I talked to his teacher about the eye and repeated to her what Z said to me. As soon as I said “hit” I felt like an idiot. It just isn’t something you talk talk casually about. Then on Wednesday I was fooling around with T as we held hands walking across the lawn to the school. We’d been listening to “She Don’t Use Jelly” in the car and I was singing to him and pulling him back and forth to the beat. And then I spun him around. I noticed that the director of the school was standing at the door and watching and I felt embarrassed because there I was jerking my kid around. So I stopped. We took a couple of steps and T completely wiped out. Like he ate dirt. After I established he was cool I wanted to disappear. Did it look like I threw my kid to the ground? It was humiliating. And he had a black eye.
As I’ve mentioned I’m on a downswing in the mental health department. By the time I picked T up on Friday I was sure that every adult that works there was staring at me. I was sure that they think I am abusing my child. I worry over choices I’ve made, mistakes that have happened. But at the end of the day I think I am a thoughtful parent who’s heart is in the right place. I am completely committed to doing what is best for my children. But I walk into his school and I feel like someone who is abusing my child. The paranoia is insidious. First the idea that someone thinks I’m guilty of an imagined transgression pops into my head. “But you aren’t guilty of that” the sane part of me shouts. I can’t hear it. I feel guilty, I start to act guilty. I’m not so far gone that I think I’ve done anything wrong in real life, but I am unwell enough to feel tremendous guilt for things I not only haven’t done, but that I know I’d never do.
When Z got home on Friday evening I was sure that Child Protective Services was going to be knocking on our door at any second, sure the school had called to report me. I explained to him what I was feeling, and to his credit he was awesome. He said he could see this one building up over the last week. He supported my decision to take a chill pill, he was great with the boys and gave me some space to calm the fuck down.
This pattern of behavior is old hat. I constantly think my friends are mad at me, that they no longer like me. I take perfectly normal interactions and manage to convince myself that I’ve offended people terribly. I believe people think I’m lying about basically everything. Sweet jesus, I hate it. It’s a way of punishing myself especially when I’ve been doing well. This summer was awesome crazy-wise. I was barely taking any chill pills, we even cut my therapy sessions down to once a month. I had the courage to take a class this fall, I’m thinking of taking another one in the spring. We have a social circle here, we feel happy. And my anxiety says, “Now you just wait one second, Karen. You are getting entirely too big for your britches. Do you think you can handle life like a normal person? You aren’t normal, you are a loser. You don’t deserve to function properly. You don’t deserve your good life and your husband and your beautiful boys. Remember you are worthless, remember you are pathetic. Start acting like it. Or so help me god, I will come after you. And I will win.”
That evil fucking voice in my head did win last night. But fuck her. I won’t let her ruin my life. My boys are too important, and I include Z in that. Hell, I’m worth more than that. I am not pathetic. I am not a loser. I am a good mom and I certainly am not abusive in any way to my son. This one was really hard to write, it feels scary to put this out there. It might just be the most uncomfortably honest I’ve ever been on the blog. Welcome to mental illness, folks. Do you know someone who suffers from it? Give them a hug tonight. Tell them you love them. Because it is ugly and scary and lonely in their heads. They might not seem to appreciate it, but keep telling them they are worth it. Don’t give up on them, eventually they will hear you.
And Z? Thank you. I will never understand why you stuck with me. But I’m well enough that I accept it. And I will always be grateful to you. Thank you, baby. Thank you.
How about a lighthearted palate cleanser after yesterday’s post?
Twice in the last 24 hours I’ve been ready to yell at T only to discover he was being a responsible kid. Last night I heard him yell “No Charlie!” as I made dinner in the kitchen. I ran around the corner to the living room and started to holler at T when I saw him grab something out of C’s hand. “But Mommy!” he cried, “Charlie is not allowed to have a DVD!” Sure enough, somehow C got his little hands on a DVD. T had rescued it and marched it right over to me. I apologized and told T he did the right thing. When I told Z the story once he’d come home from work he said, “Well, in your defense, statistically the chances were he was grabbing a toy out of C’s hand.” Z often knows exactly what to say to make me feel better.
Today I was nursing C before putting him down for a nap. The rules surrounding this ritual are crystal clear to T. I get him a snack, set him up with a movie, and he MUST stay downstairs. If he comes into C’s room C no longer wants to nap. Less than 5 minutes after C and I retired to his room I heard T come up the stairs and move around. I tensed up, waiting for him to open the door, but a few minutes passed and he didn’t do it. I started to relax and think maybe he wasn’t going to come in, that I could address the security breach after I got C settled. Of course, that is when the door swung open and he emerged, naked from the waist down. I tried so hard to keep my composure, but instead dissolved into giggles. He said, “I had a great big poop. You need to wipe me.”
C hung out on the floor of the bathroom while I took care of business. And I told T I was so proud of him, that he handled the situation exactly in the right way, and frankly that I wasn’t surprised he pooped. Dude was farting up a storm in the car on the way home from school. He put his underwear and pants on and scurried downstairs and C and I went back to nursing. Did it take longer than usual to get him settled? It did. But you know what, it wasn’t a huge deal.
None of the moment to moment stuff that I let myself get wrapped up in is a big deal. And when T surprises me, or when he makes me laugh he also shakes my out of the tendency to sleepwalk through my day, he reminds me to enjoy myself.
The last time Z was out of town I took the boys to the farmers market on the Saturday morning. We were going out again later that day, so I only pulled into the driveway a few feet off of the street. As I was getting ready to unload my guys a man approached me, told me he was hungry, and asked me for $5.
When we lived in the city it drove me crazy that Z handed out money to the first person who asked every day. We weren’t making enough to pay our bills, I made the privileged (and perhaps common sense-often those who asked reeked of booze) assumption that the money didn’t go towards food. I’d rather contribute in a way that would actually help with food or housing. Except that I never actually did. We had a friend who had a no money policy, but he’d offer to walk to a take out place and get the person some food. It was crazy how infrequently someone took him up on the offer. But Z has a big heart and if someone says they are hungry and need money he tends to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Lately I’ve been feeling pretty guilty about the choices I made concerning folks asking for money in my past and dissatisfied with my inaction. Recently I read an article from Esquire magazine that a friend posted on facebook. It was written by a young evangelical Christian who has a ministry for the poor in Philadelphia, if I remember correctly. Part of the piece covered of the story of the Good Samaritan. The author said that when the story was first told there was another layer to what went down that would have been obvious to the contemporaries of the characters in the story. The folks who passed by the dude that needed help were well off and religious. Samaritans were kind of considered lower class at the time, yet it was that guy who gave a helping hand. His telling of the story–the haves don’t help while the have nots do–stuck in my mind.
That was what I thought about when the man told me he was hungry and asked for money. I told him yes. And he asked for $10. I gave him $5, frankly I was pretty pissed that as soon as I said yes the $5 wasn’t enough. Cut to last night at 8:30PM. Z was a half an hour from getting home from his trip to NYC, the boys were in bed, and the doorbell rang. We have glass panels at the sides of our front door and I always look before opening. I didn’t recognized the man, but after some back and forth he explained that I helped him out before. Then I got it. It was the $5 dude. And I’m ashamed to say I got a little scared. I told him I couldn’t help him out.
I continued to get more scared as I sat in the kitchen waiting for Z. This man knew where I lived. I was alone in my house with my two boys. Did I do the wrong thing by giving him money? Was he going to continue to approach me? Did I ask for that by helping out? Was I being a horrible person for being concerned? I don’t know what has happened in his life to lead him to the place he is now. And I do know my own life has been enormously charmed. What is the right answer in this situation?
Today I walked with a friend to get a cup of coffee around the corner from my place. There is a small shopping district about two blocks from our house. We live in a city, one that is much smaller than NYC, but a city just the same. Our neighborhood is a mix of single and multiple family homes on tiny lots built from the teens to the 50s of the last century. A healthy percent of the single family homes are filled with people who are affiliated with the University, the apartments house students, and there are naturally tons of other people who have nothing to do with SU. A few blocks away the area gets very economically depressed very quickly, there is a lot of poverty here in Syracuse. We live in the kind of neighborhood where there are occasional muggings and the break-ins increase as we near the winter holidays. But if you are careful it is easy to feel pretty damn safe.
As we walked home I started telling my friend what happened last night. She asked if the guy looked a certain way and I said he did. She said she saw him at my front door earlier in the week and it seemed odd to her. I don’t know where Z and I were, she said both of our cars were in the driveway, it’s a small house, if the bell rings we hear it. Bottom line, I feel even more unsettled. If something ends up happening with the dude I feel like I brought it upon our family by interacting with him.
As for the right answer, one doesn’t exist as far as I can see, only additional questions. What is the right way to help? Why do I deserve to have a full belly and this man does not? There is not a simple, pithy way to wrap up this story. I feel guilty. Guilty for being frightened of this man who has done nothing wrong to me, guilty for potentially endangering my children, guilty because I have so much and do so little in return.
So….how about some pictures to lighten the mood?
After dropping T off at school today I turned off the car in our driveway and didn’t move. I was scared to go in the house. Last night Z took T out for ice cream after dinner. He was giving me a break and spending some quality time with the kid because they won’t see each other this weekend. Evidently he forgot to close the back door when they got home. When I walked into the kitchen this morning it seemed drafty, I went to our back vestibule and sure enough only the screened door was closed. If you look up absent minded professer in the dictionary there is a picture of Z. At this point I’m rather resigned to his forgetfulness, although I’d be lying if I said it didn’t bug the hell out of me.
He packed up his car and drove off to NYC and I readied the boys for our day. But the whole while I was imagining a story surrounding the open door. The bare bone are that a rapist/murderer entered the house last night and hid. He overheard that Z was leaving for the weekend and that T goes to school at 9am and somehow he knew that I put C down for a nap as soon as we get back to the house (that part wasn’t fully fleshed out, but I only had a few minutes to come up with the scenario). As soon as C was down and I was alone in the house the intruder would emerge and rape and murder me. I consoled myself with the thought that C would be safe in his crib until someone discovered my body.
It was a real effort to leave the safety of my car and bring C into the house. I thought by doing it I would be setting the story in my mind into action. And in a moment of clarity I realized that I am in awful shape.
I know the mental illness posts are repetitive. They are also one of the things that helps keep the terror at bay. After realizing that I was simply being crazy I had the thought that I could write about it, and that helped me get out of the car, grab C, and enter the house. On the way upstairs I checked closets and behind the shower curtain. I noticed that our cat was completely relaxed. If there was a stranger in the house she’d probably be hiding. I wondered why I felt the need to reassure myself that I was alone even after I’d realized I was being a crazy person, then I decided to not question it. Whatever helps me get through an episode, you know?
My overactive imagination is usually a welcomed friend. It keeps me company, helps me get through my day. When I was little it not only gave me an imaginary friend (Laura Ingalls Wilder), but an imaginary nemesis (Albert from the Little House tv show). Laura and I were a team and everything that we did was a competition with Albert and his friend (I don’t remember if his friend had a name). How fast could we clean up our room? Brush our teeth? Run down the stairs? The answer was always faster than the boys. Occasionally they would beat us, but then it was revealed that for that moment only we were competing to see who was slowest and Laura and I still came out on top. Laura and Albert were real to me, our games are some of the sharpest memories I have from being very young.
As I grew up the books I read became fodder for my flights of fancy. I would become lost inside their worlds, often when I should have been focusing on what was going on in real life. Slowly, and over the course of many years the anxiety started to take hold and my imagination was no longer simply a source of comfort. I became increasingly paranoid, sure that everyone I knew was laughing at me behind my back. The imaginary scenarios became more sinister. I became convinced people were actually out to get me, I accused Z of all sorts of bizarre and outlandish things.
But eventually the therapy and the drugs started working, I slowly got better. These days it is hard not to feel angry and resentful when my imagination betrays me. I hate that the anxiety has poisoned at least some of every good part of me. But I try to chase the boogeyman away, to ignore the tingling I feel down my neck and at the base of my spine when I’m alone in the house, to go about my day and give the finger to the lies my anxiety tells me. I try to focus on the good stuff–Z will be home on Sunday night, I’ve got a babysitter for a few hours tomorrow, I can watch Harry Potter tonight, we’ll have Alto Cinco for dinner, there is left over key lime pie in the fridge. And one more good thing–I’m well enough to know that there really isn’t an intruder in my house. At least I’m pretty sure.