Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Adventures in Real Parenting: You're not the only one not havin' any fun

First there was an unusual Facebook status. You don't say anything but your antenna is up.

During an otherwise typical phone conversation she mentions that she's added parental controls to her computer to limit her internet access. She's worried that she's been wasting too much time online.

A text message.
I can't focus.

You respond with ideas gleaned from a writer's website. Are they relevant?
Before you get started, created a couple of rituals to help your brain switch to focused.
Write down what's bothering you and set it aside for a finite amount of time.
It takes time for these things to work and become habits.
Don't freak out about it. That will only make matters worse.

An email exchange about what's plaguing her mind. You try to be positive and encouraging.

Another text exchange.
I'm afraid I'm losing my mind.
I can't stop my thoughts from racing.

You're worried now. This is not like her.

You ask, Are you getting any sleep?
Not really.

You look for clues - physical, emotional, mental. You email her links to what you hope will be helpful websites about racing thoughts. Big surprise, it's a syndrome.

More texts.
This is scaring me. I don't know to do.
I have a ton of work to get done and I cannot make myself focus.

Your efforts to stay calm and positive collapse. You are trying to concentrate on your own work and these interruptions have halted any progress. Lack of concentration is contagious.

Another text.
What do you think I should do?

You: Go to the emergency room, I guess. What do you want me to do?

Your husband arrives home. It's time to share this burden because you are getting nowhere and you are not so skillful with this kind of thing anyway. You are either a doormat or a brick thrown through a window. He's always been the one to take care of the children when they're sick or injured. He's efficient and caring. You get angry at pain and suffering and think you can shout it away.

He calls her and does Bad Cop.
No, we're not going to worry about that. No, that's not a priority. No, I don't care if that's the case......If you need to come home, you're coming home. We'll make you an appointment if that's what you need. No. Okay. Okay. I'll tell her. Call her tomorrow. Yeah. Okay. Love you, honey.

He seeks out your eyes when he comes back into the room. He wants you to acknowledge that he resents playing Bad Cop. He gives you the shorthand version of the conversation and instructions about the next day. You thank him because you were failing her and letting her fail herself.

The next morning you have appointments to keep. You get the call.
I'm coming home.

Your afternoon just took on a different dimension.

The youngest, a leggier, brown-eyed version of the first, scowls and chews a Dramamine. She hates the winding drive across the ridges of foothills.

You listen to the news. Egypt is coming apart. Answer questions from the backseat before switching over to some music. Pink. Pink works.

The Dramamine isn't working. You see the inside of a Rite Aid, a Kroger and a sketchy Shell station. At the Rite Aid, you buy a Coke hoping that it help the Advil end this massive headache you're nursing.

When you park the car at the Kroger and climb out, you ask yourself why you wanted kids. While you dick around looking at the hippie section, your youngest texts you about how sick she feels and suggests you turn around and head back home.

You answer. No. Let's go or I'll pick you up on my way back. How's that for an idea?

You half expect her to agree with that scheme. She's got her phone and her book, after all. She once spent an entire minor league baseball game in the stadium's restroom.

You discover that Kroger carries Dr. Bronner's Castile Soap so that stop wasn't a complete waste of time, after all.

At the Shell station under the blue-white fluorescent tubes, you feel the attendant's eyes on you as you stand with your hands in your jeans pockets waiting for Poopy McCarsick to finish her business in the restroom. You have no money to buy gas, but you remembered to raid your coin stash so you buy a container of mint Tic Tacs. Maybe that will help settle her stomach. You put your remaining thirty-eight cents in your pocket and hope for no more reasons to stop.

When you get to the car, she locks her door eying the hairy, tattooed guy in the monster truck next to you and tells you that the toilet was clean, but the bathroom was so gross she definitely flushed the toilet with her foot.

You listen to Radio Classics to pass the last leg of the journey. Robert Montgomery is Phillip Marlowe in the Lady in the Lake on Lux Radio Theater. You've seen the movie version. You tell your traveling companion how the movie is shot so that the viewer sees everything from Marlowe's point of view.

You arrive at your destination and a ghost opens the door. Your face gives you away and she looks embarrassed. She's pale and drawn. You finally understand what that means. Her eyes are red from crying and her skin looks more olive devoid of makeup.

Do you hug her? You opt not to. She possesses a large personal space bubble so you respect that. You've got your words to let her know how you feel. Use those.

Back in the car you try not to overwhelm her with questions. The little-ish ears are listening, but quiet. She nows things are tense and confused so she gets cozy under a blanket in the backseat and listens to Orson Welles and Victor Mature on Suspense Theater in between snatches of stolen conversation.

You want to ask a million questions, dig, dig, dig for clues. Is this biological? How are classes going? Did something happen to set off this reaction? What exactly do you mean by racing thoughts? Do you think you might be having panic attacks? Did that other thing get resolved?

You step lightly, trickling out questions, letting her guide the conversation. This is the part of parenting that stumps you. You want to fix things. You like clear water. This choppy stuff highlights your inadequacies. How could you have been so arrogant to think you could be a good parent?

You tell her about one of your panic attacks. The 2nd Story in Bloomington. They Might Be Giants was coming on in about thirty-five minutes when you suddenly felt the room closing in on you. You couldn't breathe. Was your chest  going to explode? You went pale, your hands clammy. Your then boyfriend (you still can't believe he married you after you behaved like such a nutter) asked you if you were okay. No. You wanted to go home.

You don't remember if you drove yourself or if he took you home and returned to the concert. You remember you wanted it that way. You wanted to be alone.

You try not to stare at her. You don't remember ever seeing her so - - hollow. You swallow your fear because one of you has to keep it together. Where will you be if you both peel away at the same time?

The drive home is white-knuckle. In the daylight, you hug the center line on that road with its sheer drops on either side. In the dark, you curse the oncoming traffic under your breath because you want to use your brights.

She melts into the house. You make a quick dinner, do something familiar - a dvd. She goes to bed early while you finish your beer and try not to look too worried when the youngest glances your way.

No, the doctor on duty can't see you for something like that, the receptionist smiles. We know her. She wants to accommodate us, but some rules can't be broken. Open hours are a crap shoot anyway. A Monday appointment with her general practitioner will have to do.

The weekend drifts by. She looks better and then fades again. Is she sleeping? Yes, but she wakes often. She's gotten work done, but her brain continues to race, her thoughts at war with her drive to finish her project and paper. Pride and Prejudice must be read aloud or be crowded out by the clamor in her brain. It's not enough to know the story forward and backward. She must know the language, the nuance, the imagery.

She comes alive in the bookstore while the two of you wait for the youngest who attends a birthday party. She reads to you a Charles Bukowski poem. Sandra. She hugs The Bell Jar to her chest (she loves that book!), touches all the books on the Buy Two, Get One Free table. She's read so many of them already, but not Huxley or Kingsolver.

You wander deeper into the shelves. The 1913 Guide for Husbands and Wives is on a Valentine's Day display. When your husband arrives home from a long, busy day at work, do not recite to him a catalog of crimes committed by the servants.....

She finds Violette, the last book she needs for her Lit class and then you walk to the car in a twilight that whispers spring and she comments on the beautiful day. You hope that maybe she's turned a corner.

Over cheeseburgers, she goes quiet and any conversation feels forced. The youngest tries to lighten the mood. You're grateful, but you feel yourself sucking in, falling away. You can't taste your food. Can you ask what she's feeling at that very moment? What's happening in her head? Describe it. Details. Data, data, data. We can't make bricks without clay.

She's in pain.You want to take it away.  Her responses are so muted, her eyes dead. What happened? How did she transform from lively and confident and loving school to this shadow?

Sunday is upended by different routines.You do yard work fighting your own thoughts, but they don't race, they plod. Constant companions, you keep them leashed most of the time, but when you're running or mowing or driving alone, they seep in through the pauses of music, the switch from one direction to another. You make dinner, do laundry, stay available if she needs to talk. Staying busy helps you. You wonder if you should suggest some kind of physical work when she says she's going to the gym with her father.

There are no quick fixes to this ailment she can't explain. She faces a long night of school work. How will she get it all done? Impatience grips you. You want her better now. You want her to suck it up, to just stop being such a head case, to get a grip, to stop crying and get to work.

You hold in the words. They'll succeed in describing your frustration because you can't make this problem go away, but they'll only make matters worse. Tomorrow she'll see the doctor. Until then, you wait. She sits next to you while she reads. You rub her back and will her to just be well.

How do you handle someone else's pain? Are you Florence Nightengale or Nurse Ratched?


  1. Tell her I call mine The Octopus. It comes and goes, like hers, and numbs me to all that is good and joyful while it is here. I have breaks from the hollowness, when I feel okay, almost normal. Then, the Octopus descends and I feel engulfed.

    Tell her, too, that this doesn't last forever, it only feels that way while you're in the middle of it.

    It's good she can come home to loving parents, someplace safe.

    You are a fine mother, Lisa, one I wish I had.

  2. Just . . . hugs and good thoughts, even if she does have personal space issues.

  3. oh. *hugs* oh. it's the hardest when you can't take it away.

  4. Lady In The Lake was a disappointing movie, especially if you first read the book. So much stuff of the book was left out of the film ... they made it on the cheap.

    Oh, yes. Children are survivors and parents tend to take the punches.

  5. So many positive thoughts your way.

    I teach Freshman English, and I hear this kind of thing often from students. I just try to tell them that no matter what, everything will be ok--that there are some things more important than school, and that being able to identify that something is going wrong is brave. The failure would be pretending everything is fine in the face of panic and stress.

  6. Sometimes just being there and not saying a word is exactly what's needed, but the hardest thing to do. Peace.

  7. You are doing all the right things. You just need to hang tight until she gets the help she needs. You are strong and capable. She is in good hands with you. It might not be easy on any of you, but she will get through this and so will you.

    It's not like you're a stranger to adversity or having to shift gears. That's a mixed blessing. You're a warrior queen, not a pampered, simpering, useless weakling.

  8. My Grandma used to say the first hundred years are the hardest. And when my mother asked her, as a young mother herself, "when do you stop worrying about your kids?" Grandma replied "when you're dead." That is not much comfort, is it?

    I do know when my son gets that hollow feeling, lots of sleep helps. Her sending out a call for help to you is a good thing. Pressing the pause button the way that you have should help.

    So sorry you and your family have these worries. I hope the doctor can help. XOX

  9. I think I saw a solution on "Chuck" last night. Tranquilizer darts. Seriously. Knock her out with something so she can get a solid night's sleep, and that will go a long way to breaking the panic cycle.

  10. Wow, I'm sorry. Not sure what to say...and I'd like to think I'm more like a Florence Nightingale, but in reality, my only solution seems to be offering sugary treats. Sometimes, that just doesn't cut it. (But sometimes it does.)

  11. Beautiful, beautiful post. My heart aches along with yours.

  12. Grab her. Hug her. Tell her you love her. But most importantly, chant this mantra. It will get better. It will get better. It will get better. Even if you find that you're saying it to yourself. That's okay. The two of you must know. It will get better.

  13. I hope she's better soon, and I think you're doing all the right things. Let us know how she's doing.

  14. ((hug)) or as Boo Boo might do an extra-squeezy one.

  15. The most difficult bumps in the road to avoid are the ones that have appeared where the pavement was smooth.

    I'm sure she will be well again soon in such good company.

  16. hope she feels better soon sending a hug

  17. No matter how big they get, we'll always worry about their well-being. All you can do is what you're already doing, and that's being there, with your foot in the door so to speak.

    I think that part of what's wrong is that she puts so much pressure on herself.

    You're in my heart, Lisa.

    It's a testament to you guys' love for her that she knows she can call for you, even if she can't quite put her finger on what's wrong.

    I'm sending stong, uplifting thoughts your way and her's, as well.

  18. Hugs Lisa. I know she feels your love. It's so hard to be young.

  19. I don't think I gave you the encouragement I meant to give you.

    What I meant to say is, your daughter is lucky to have a strong and resilient mom like you instead of one that would collapse into her own selfish puddle because "she can't deal with it." You will deal with it, and help her deal with it, because that's the kind of good, kind, responsible person you are.

  20. Those smokestacks still nearby, Hoosier? You all should hotwire a couple of wrecking balls and go to town, make a family-bonding type of gig out of it.

  21. Oh Lisa. I have not had this issue with my son - but my mother has certainly watched me suffer many a panic attacks and major health issues. I never realized how difficult it must be for my mom to watch me in so much pain until I read this post. My whole heart goes out you and your daughter.

  22. What MacDougal Street Baby said.

    I hope it gets better soon.

  23. Your reactions are my dad, exactly, when faced with me in hysterics. He wanted to solve it, he wanted to fix it, and if he couldn't, he got angry. MathMan sounds like he takes on my mom's role, which for me was much more helpful. Best to just BE there.

  24. think the hardest part is trying to help someone else when you don't know how to help. You want to make it all better and yet at times there is nothing that can make it all better except time. I know for me when I struggle, more with depression than panic attacks, but still... I try to remember the mantra "this too shall pass". It may not pass for long, but I have cycles and so I know that if I can just make it through there will be an end.

    P.S.- on a separate note, I have Huxley, Brave New World and some Kingsolver, animal, vegetable and mineral and would love to share if it is needed.

  25. Thank you all so much for the wonderful, supportive comments. I'm trying to respond to each of them separately, but time is getting away from me.

    I love you guys. And I don't throw that word at just anyone.

  26. As always... amazing. And not just the writing but also how you handled (are handling) the situation.

  27. I'm with MacDougal. I try to put a wing out and tuck that child under it. Failing that, all you can say is, "This too shall pass."

    Poor baby. And I think you need a hug too.

  28. My college age kid tells me he struggles w depression. You would not know it really-- he seems mostly upbeat. The higher up you go in college, the more they lay on the workload. That alone is daunting- because the pressure of getting good grades & college costs are big & real.
    My kid's biggest problem is to say *no*.
    He has a hard time grasping that saying yes to just 5 additional things is enough to put his life into a tailspin.
    Sometimes I do the gentle thing-- give soup & tea & herbs that heal.
    Other times I play the Mom card--
    the Doctor said if you spike a fever you need to go to the hospital & this 102 temp says you are going NOW!
    But like you did, you need to just feel it out.
    The best thing you can do is take it seriously though.
    For what itss worth, the kiddo said a med student told him to take Vitamin D & he said it has all but made his feelings of depression to go away.

    Also a quality super B complex vitamin is good for the nervous system.

    You gotta just ride the wave, let them know you love 'em & do your best to support them.

    I hope thing settle down & get better soon.

  29. Well, I rode that highway with you, sister. I've been there myself, so I can imagine how it feels, what the results are, etc. Things do get better, and if she (and you) can keep that in mind, they surely will faster. All my best thought are with you guys. BIG HUGS!


  30. I found that when I felt anxious, writing down my fears literally made them leave my head. I had them all written down somewhere where I could visit them. Helped more than you could imagine. I know that your kids are active, but regular exercise in the morning helps too--natural endorphins.

  31. There's a saying in German; "Little kids, little problems; big kinds, big problems."

    When they're small you don't believe it. Dealing with rocketing fevers, four-year-olds scratching themselves bloody during chicken-pox, broken bones, cabin-fever threatening because you can't leave the house because the babysitter can't come, etc. You wish for the time when they are older, more independent, so that you can go back to having your own life.

    And slowly, gradually that time comes. A sigh of relief. But then you realise that you have to watch them deal with stuff where your parental omnipotence can't help any more.

    I'm watching my younger daughter struggling at the moment. Having got that training position as a pre-school carer/teacher she dreamed of all through high-school, it's not going well. In her own very quiet, understated way (and that's part of the problem) she's never been a quitter and she won't quit this one either. But it's taking its price. She's wound up to high C inside and her body is giving her signals that it doesn't like it. Three times cystitis in the past two months along with two strep throats. Sleeping badly. No appetite - and as a 19-year old who can fit into size 34, that's always a background worry. Her mother (my ex) providing unhelpful comments. At least she lives with me, not with her.

    Last week, the potential car-crash. Her first work-placement trainer suggested she should think about doing something else and indicated she wouldn't give her the assessment grade necessary for her to pass this year. I had to deal with the wreck that came home that day.

    The trainer is wrong - and that's not just the father speaking - she's seen too many of the problems (without helping her to deal with them) and not enough of the potential. Luckily I was able - still - to do the efficient Dad thing (maybe for the last time), get on the phone, play a contact, call in a personal debt and get a new work-placement organised, starting the next day. In moments like these all my principles about interfering, using undue influence, etc. fly out the window. It's my kid, for chrissakes!

    It's early days yet, but it looks like the change is positive, has started to work. Her new trainer is supportive and the self-erected blockades are starting to come down. And, maybe more important, she has seen the need to do some therapy stuff - she's got the first appointment next week.

    It's the powerlessness as a parent that's so hard. Watching them suffering under stuff that a kiss and a cuddle don't make better. Giving them room, respecting their right to adulthood, knowing that they have to learn to deal with their own problems if they are going to be able to survive in a world that can be very hard. Finding the balance. Remembering yourself at their age - the chaos you couldn't talk to your parents about any more, the fuck-ups you had yourself and the ways you dealt with them.

    From what you've written, I think you're dealing with the situation well, Lisa. And I want to say thanks for your post - for giving me the consolation that what my daughter (and I) are going through isn't uncommon and thus helping me to spit some of my own stuff out.

  32. You are a good mother. And a great writer. ((Lisa))

  33. Because I like to try and fix things (even though I often can't), I was wondering if meditation training might be helpful.

    It might help her find the pause between the thoughts and hopefully lengthen the pause. And of course, having her home and seeing the doc is probably a relief for all of you.

  34. *hugs to you* I am often the incompetent one... I want to fix things too. Somehow life has surrounded me with crazy people so I can learn the lesson well, that the best we can do is love them no matter what--make sure they know that, and be willing to pick up the pieces sometimes. I think you're doing great. I hope your daughter gets some answers... or at least gets some help defining the questions.

  35. what a beautiful post.. it's like you felt her pain. I can't imagine what this must have felt like.

  36. So sorry I missed this yesterday. Glad you went to go get her and were able to be there for her, and how brave of her to call you when she needed to. Growing up, all those broken places, it sure does hurt at times.

    Sending good thoughts and prayers your way.

  37. this post so moved me, i did not want to comment right away but rather thought it best to WAIT and see how things went...i was so relieved she was able to go back and get with her life again....my daughter went to UC and had a nervous breakdown and tried to commit suicide...with a subsequent 9 visits to a mental institution for suicidalality, for lack of a better word, over the next year following this hellish event-- probably the worst pain and heartbreak in my lifetime...god, i so hurt for her and i heard the pain in your words....blessings to you and her as well, may she have a wonderful college experience, learn from her pain and know how blessed she is to have you in her life. xoxox

  38. "You step lightly, trickling out questions, letting her guide the conversation. This is the part of parenting that stumps you. You want to fix things. You like clear water. This choppy stuff highlights your inadequacies. How could you have been so arrogant to think you could be a good parent?"

    Now that we also have one away and on her own ("all grown up and saving China," as we like to quote from Mulan) we have many of these feelings too. Nothing this scary has happened (yet) but so many things strike us hard and we don't know what to say or what to ask.

    But while it FEELS like we are inadequate, I know that's not what's really going on. What's really going on is that they are now themselves, and no longer really ours to "fix." The direct part of parenting is over, and now we have this weird indirect role to play - still our child, but no longer a child... So now what? Even if I could clearly discern what I would want MY parents to have done for/to me in the same situation, it may not be the right thing for my daughter/son. So we have to wait a lot, let them signal what they want (if they know) and love them, love them, love them.

    And it's damn near impossible. I can hardly breathe. I never could have imagined how much it hurts to have a grown up child hurting or in peril. I would not have believed it if someone had warned me.

    The darkest period in my life was during my Sophomore year at college. I think we all have personal demons to face - that's when I faced many of mine for the first time. In a way, that's when I really started to grow up... My thoughts are with you and your oldest - whatever is happening.

    And as for the "inadequate" word? I think you changed your spots in order to do the right thing for her - rather than doing what you needed or wanted for your own sanity or comfort (the "brick thrown through a window"). Impressive. The loepard can't do it - but you did. Sounds like good parenting to me.


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