Dynamic

Last night my partner covertly recorded us at dinnertime. Our interactions were in the upper range of stressful for our family, but only from an annoyance standpoint, rather than one of violence. Of course, here, I am referring to interactions with my oldest child and the impact of her behavior on the rest of the family.

After dinner, my partner invited us all to listen to the recording. I felt sick with the revelation that we had been recorded—what if there was proof of my terrible parenting in there? My youngest seemed to want to move on to a different topic, but she is not one to press her case. My oldest continued to beep and scream around the house, teasing here, riding the dog there. But I swallowed my fear of exposure and we all listened.

First of all, no evidence that I am a bad parent. In fact, if the recording is anything to go by, I have the patience of a saint (except for when I don’t).

But the overwhelming feeling I got from this—because passively experiencing it is so very different from living with it, managing it in real time—was one of incredible sadness. I felt sorry for myself. How had I lived with this kind of torment for so long? How unfair for my youngest! And then I felt awful for betraying my oldest by thinking in this way.

At several points in the history of our family, things have gotten intolerable. I think we’re at another one. We need help, ideas, suggestions. Her doctor suggests that we are the problem. This is so not what we need to hear after ten years in the trenches and three shelves of parenting books, almost all of which have proven completely useless. In fact, I found Buddhism in my search to be a better parent (early on I believed that achieving enlightenment was the only way I could understand/help my child). No, I do not believe that the problem lies in our parenting (we have another example of a product of our parenting, understand, and she does not behave like this—and even the first child doesn’t behave like this outside the home!). Bad parenting, my ass.

I think the problem is one of dynamics. Relationship dynamics. In particular, the imbalance between my partner’s beliefs, values, and approaches and my own. He and I are at the opposite ends of the spectrum on damn near everything. It is challenging for us to manage our own dynamic—and we are frequently unsuccessful. But for a child who is in desperate need of clear and immovable boundaries, a child who can see only in black and white (at least when it comes to rules about how to behave), and a child who needs a clear understanding of her neuro-difference and what that does and does not mean, to have to manage messages from misaligned parents must be crazy-making.

So, it kind of sounds like I’ve talked myself back around to parenting being the culprit here. But again, I think it is the dynamic between the three of us: elements that the oldest contributes, which frequently trigger differing elements from the parents; elements that each parent contributes that frequently contradict or shift something the other parent had already established. And the end result is that everyone is miserable at least some of the time.

It is ridiculous to hope that my partner will be more like me—although that is the obvious solution to our difficulties. So, we just need to work on our dynamic, and hope we’ve sorted it all out by the time the oldest becomes an adolescent.

But then, even this is just a theory. My doctor once told me that to best mother my first child, I was likely going to have to keep trying new things—for the rest of my life. That there was no single solution that would work. I had hoped then that she was wrong. But she was almost never wrong.

I feel like I have walked thousands of miles on my journey of mothering this child from the moment of her difficult birth. She has been my greatest teacher. No doubt I’m going to need a new pair of shoes if I’m going to have any chance of walking the next thousand.

tepid coffee

I once laughed out loud at a cartoon of one stick figure holding up a teapot and offering to another: “Tea?” The other stick figure, with a straight-line mouth, says: “No.” The cartoon was titled “Anarchy in the UK”. Having spent quite a bit of time in the UK, I found this hilarious. Mostly because it’s so true.

I was back in the UK this past summer, continually trying to soften my Americanness without losing myself in the process. But I think my anarchic spirit shone through somewhat in my request for coffee when everyone else was having tea. A little bit Boston Tea Party, a tad stick-figure cartoon, and honestly me.

The problem with my unintentional strategy was that British folks drink a lot of tea, and I was drinking coffee to match (in between sleep-inducing conversations about the weather, of course). And now I have something of a habit on my hands.

I now find myself drinking a cup of tepid coffee—my third of the morning, but surely not my last for the day—and thinking about addiction: the substances I’ve been addicted to; the ones I’m still addicted to; and a number of angering conversations with drug counselors who insisted that alcohol abuse and alcohol addiction are the same thing.

Maybe it’s ridiculous to split hairs on this point, but I really don’t think so. Folks with a similar neurological makeup to my own (bipolar, BPD, anxiety disorder) are very likely to abuse drugs and/or alcohol at some point in their lives. It’s a way of managing symptoms—a chaotic and ultimately unhelpful one, but a short-term solution to dealing with incredible psychic pain. And to consider us all addicts because of our tendency to abuse is grossly missing the point. For us, abusing alcohol is a symptom rather than the problem that requires treatment. That being said, I think quite a few of us go on to develop addictions.

I wish I could be addicted to healthy things like drinking green tea and doing yoga daily. But my addictions have always been at least mildly self-destructive. I am thinking about this because I want to quit vaping. I took up smoking again (my oldest “friend”) after my dad died, but switched to vaping because it seemed less harmful to myself and others and is certainly less antisocial.

The idea of being addicted to anything disturbs me. There’s vaping, but also coffee and my dragon game. So, I have a crutch (nicotine), an energy booster (caffeine), and a mode of withdrawal (dragons). All because I can’t do these things for myself? Or because I think I can’t?

I’m also aware that any mind-altering substance is considered harmful in Buddhism. So, there’s always that gnawing at the back of my mind. Dropping these addictions would be Right Action. Yes, it would.

I guess what I really want to say is that weeks ago, I selected a date that would be my last day to vape. That day is tomorrow. Tomorrow now looks to be one of the worst days to quit anything if I plan to be successful at it. I have meetings in the morning discussing a child’s learning difficulties, and appointments in the afternoon discussing the same child’s behavior, which has been making our home life beyond challenging. Basically, I know I’m going to need a crutch tomorrow.

So the question is, do I put it off a day and give myself the best chance of quitting? Or will putting it off only give me a pass to keep going until the “ideal” day comes around? And always, always, the real question behind everything is: how strong am I really? Can I manage to live comfortably without outside help for my emotional stability?

Honestly, I’m not sure I ever have.

Hiatus

Summer is over, or, at least school is back in. I’ve been such a zen master these last two months that I have a mind to tell my doctor that I’m cured (as long as he’ll continue to prescribe lamotrigine). But seriously, like many folks with bipolar, summer has historically been a highly agitated time for me. And while my last post was in fact about my agitation, I feel as if it has generally been under control since then.

I mean, there have been the occasional surges of rage—just a few days ago I stopped myself from throwing eggs at my child. Clearly that wouldn’t have been the best strategy for teaching a child to listen to her mother and help out. But the point is, I realized that and breathed until my thoughts were back under control. And we had the eggs for breakfast this morning.

For a couple of weeks this summer we stayed with my parents-in-law, which was a fairly triggering affair. But at each tricky moment, again, I breathed through it, cultivated compassion for the offender, and didn’t have a single outburst. And, yes, that is a record.

So, what’s going on? Full disclosure (which deflates my zen master bubble somewhat), my lamotrigine dose is finally at a therapeutic level. But it makes me feel rather powerless to attribute my successes to chemistry alone. Surely meditation and mindfulness training along with a healthy dose of Buddhist principles are the primary source of my newfound self control? Maybe something just clicked, and all my preparations found a place in my behavior?

I suppose it’s most likely that it’s a little of both: my medication has taken the heat out, so I’m comfortable enough to let things go.  I’m free to be downright cheerful and much less a victim of my own fears. And I’m experiencing something of a personal creative renaissance with big (for me) plans to actively seek out a gallery for representation.

In short, I feel great—for the moment. And I’m trying not to think about the shaky ground I’m on, the fact that my moods can and do regularly pull the rug out from underneath me. For now, I truly do feel better than I have for decades.

Belonging

I am preoccupied with thoughts of my eldest child. But hers is not my story to tell, so I’ll talk about Sunny and belonging—two topics which, on the surface, seem completely unrelated.

Sunny is my most fussy chicken. She’s a fancy French breed with a noisy call and five toes and feathered feet. She reminds me a bit of a country music star—yodeling, fringed, and spangled.

The days are lengthening, so Sunny is trying to make her unfertilized eggs hatch. She has spent three days cooped up in the nesting boxes, taking only a few minutes each day to scarf down some peas, gargle some water, and shout at the other girls, who are not so shaken up by their hormones. Today, I locked her out of her nesting box for the morning, and returned to the chicken yard to find that she had flown the coop—into the children’s play yard.

I can only say that I am incredibly grateful that my fence is so high, so that nobody could watch the spectacle of me trying to round up a temperamental, broody hen. In short, she’s back in the chicken yard, the nesting boxes are open for service again, and I have no idea what I will find when I next make it through the orchard to chat with the chickens.

Hormones make us crazy. I’m sure that’s a loaded statement, but I mean to discharge such a load. Hormones make us so blind to how things really are that we can view a loved one trying to help us as an assailant trying to cause us harm. They can make us obsess fruitlessly until our feathers are dull. They can reveal aspects of our personality that we don’t even recognize as part of ourselves. And all the while, everyone watching from afar knows what it is and that it will pass, though we do not.

I have read and watched many biographies of folks with bipolar, and there are a few common threads among all those fraught stories: namely, the age of the first (albeit, mild) episode and the feeling from childhood of being apart, an alien, or in the wrong family—basically, of not belonging.

I’ve covered the first in my Sunny illustration. The doctors believe bipolar first reveals itself at adolescence. But you ask any parent or sufferer, and they will likely tell you that the turning point was closer to nine or ten. The flood of hormones that occurs at adolescence only amplifies the potential that has been there for years.

The second is significant because I believe you cannot achieve mental health without a sense of belonging to something, someone, or someplace. This is the relational connectedness I talked about in an earlier post. And folks with bipolar seem predisposed to feel that they do not belong—and in fact, our difference unfortunately makes it so in so many cases.

I remember a time a few years back when I was in corpse pose following root chakra yoga. There came a point in the deep relaxation of all of my muscles when the instructor said something like relax into the Earth; know that you are welcome; know that you belong; know that you are home. I burst into an ecstatic fit of tears, grieving for my poor lost self that had struggled for so many years, and elated that I had found my place; I had inhabited my place all along.

That new sense of belonging to this world was crucial for my awakening (or maybe a result of it). In any case, I felt reborn. I had spent so much time fighting against everyone and even myself, and all because I felt I did not belong, that no one wanted me. And once that sense of belonging was intact, I was free to begin building my life, truly, for the first time. Previously, I had been going through the motions, and then regularly tearing down all that I had built. Belonging meant I could now build with stones instead of paper.

My worry is that you cannot bring another to a sense of belonging. Perhaps you can offer her comfort or respite along the way. And hope she doesn’t succumb to oblivion-seeking behaviors in the meantime. But there is no magic word, no perfect touch to help someone realize that she already belongs. I make a habit of saying to my children that they belong to me, to our family, to our community. That they have an important role to play in this world. That they could have come into existence at only one point in the history of the universe, and that makes them magnificent beings with significant work to do here—that we need them. And I hope, with skin-tingling, hand-shaking effort, that those words find their way into their bones.

My eldest child’s struggles are by no means new. But it is the first time she is experiencing them. And it is deeply troubling to come to this point, after decades of personal struggle and suffering, and still not be able to give her what she needs to find her way. We can inherit our parent’s shame, but not their wisdom. It seems that wisdom is something we can only gain through first-hand experience. And with hormones beginning to mold my child into an adult, I once again find myself battening down the hatches in preparation for an incredible storm.

Being

Years ago, before I was a mother, back when depression offered no possibility of joy within the darkness, an acupuncturist from China suggested that I simply fix my mind on positivity when I woke up in the morning. He was treating me for depression. At the time, I thought he was crazy, or that maybe people in China don’t get depressed.

Fix my mind?

But somewhere along the way, perhaps during the period of awakening following my breakdown, I began to understand his meaning. Because nothing is as it seems, everything can be something else. That is to say, my daughter’s rejection of me yesterday was in fact a natural step along her path. It was not a rejection at all for her, but an acceptance of the magnetic pull of the external world. My job was and is to let go.

Fix my mind.

I chose—yes, chose—not to descend. I did make it back to the school to have lunch with my younger child. I deleted my dragon game (all games, for that matter) from my phone. I made it out this morning to collect my meds. I planted out some sad plants that had been crying to extend their roots. I rubbed sandalwood oil on my third eye point. I meditated. I laughed to myself that my doctor—so square he’s a cube—prescribed daily yoga and meditation for me, out of respect for the things that he knows keep me balanced. I opened my heart.

I am fixing my mind on positivity. I am focusing on one task at a time. I will make my children dinner this evening—a dinner that doesn’t involve the microwave or leaving a tip. I am choosing to smack that black dog on its ass, and laugh as it runs, whimpering, back to the shadows.

At least I hope that’s what I’m doing. But if that Chinese doctor is to be believed, if Buddha was really on to something, perhaps it is a simple matter of fixing my mind and seeing things as they really are. Ending suffering by not suffering.

The revolt

My children, the weather, the dog have all turned on me. In my hour of need.

We are in the home stretch of my partner’s absence, and it’s as if the universe is collapsing, just in time for my partner to swoop in and pick up the pieces. Which is completely unfair, since I have been a champion for the last two weeks: making all meals (mostly from scratch); getting my children to and from school and activities with no assistance; sticking to a schedule and getting to bed most nights at a reasonable hour; more or less keeping my house clean, including doing the dishes on an almost daily basis. You know, tasks that are normal for you but Herculean for me. And the thing is, I have enjoyed it. I am finding purpose in pedestrian productivity.

But in the last few days, I suppose the stress has caught up with us all. I have had some visuals and a feeling that my blood is vibrating. The condensation on the inside of the greenhouse has turned my tomato seedlings’ tropical paradise into a refrigerator. The dog leaves me a shitty gift on the doormat every single morning and then expects me to feed her before all others. My eldest refuses to wear a coat because the weight of it prevents her from taking flight at recess, or something.

And the biggest stain on my successful run as a lone parent: On Saturday, my youngest jumped off a trampoline and landed on her forehead. Can’t quite figure out how she managed it because there is a safety net encircling the trampoline. I suppose I should be writing about the pointlessness of safety nets—literal and figurative. Anyway, she couldn’t have helped it, and it really was quite scary for all of us—a concussion, no matter how mild, is never delightful. But the worst part was her insistence that her injury was more severe than it was. It was like she was hoping for the worst-case scenario, claiming symptoms that she expected would land her in the hospital. She reminded me of me. And frankly, that scares me.

But the faultiness of safety nets and the heritability of parental flaws is not under discussion today.

It is the revolt—of human, beast, and nature—the high stakes conspiracy that the universe has orchestrated for my edification—that is the subject of my thoughts. And the fact that I am still standing and even laughing about it, planning to get on with my housework as soon as I rattle this off, is a testament to the fact that I am winning. This long, slow recovery from breakdown—now in its fifth year—may very well be shifting into a new gear, the pace of life becoming more delightfully challenging. I am buzzing with excitement. I have in mind an image of a world-weary woman standing on a hilltop in a thunderstorm, face and arms lifted, laughing hysterically, and challenging the lightning to strike.

That old saying that the universe gives us only what we can handle? It’s true.