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.

Stress

My stress level is dangerously high. I know this not because I feel it—I generally have no sense of how anxious or stressed I am until I find myself hyperventilating behind a mannequin in a shopping mall. This time I know I am stressed because I have broken out into a rash.

My first explanation for the rash was the Lamictal—my doctor is easing me into a therapeutic dose slowly so as not to cause the rare but fatal rash that some folks get from the medication. So, of course I thought that was the cause. But I prefer Lamictal to lithium so much that I searched for and found another potential cause: that new soap I used for the first time that morning. Or maybe it’s the weather—like living in an armpit. Or lack of sleep—my partner has been away again, which always throws me back into mama sleep (up every hour or so to check on things which seem completely unimportant the next day). Or perhaps dehydration.

But only later, much much later, I remembered that time before my first solo art exhibition. Everyone had remarked on how serene I seemed, and I felt serene too. But the day of my exhibition, I woke up with a nasty full-body rash. And then I knew that I was not at all serene, but falling apart from the inside-out. Very much like I am doing now.

I was surprised to discover that the extended family dramas I have been living in for weeks and months, one of which is now coming to a head, could have turned me upside-down. I felt in control. I had things under control. Didn’t I?

I think I have talked about and worked on little else than these two big family problems for the last two weeks. It’s like an emotional seesaw: one day, the problem of alcoholism and abuse preoccupies my thoughts and engages my actions, and the next day the problem of child abuse and neglect and a teen pregnancy (coming to term today) requires my deepest consideration.

I have been making lists of ways to help out with the first crisis and working through the list one item at a time, and mediating between warring factions of my family for the second (I will be traveling with my sleeves rolled up in less than a week to get to work physically on this last one). Not to mention the psycho-spiritual crisis I have been having about how to love unconditionally folks who behave in detestable, life destroying ways. It’s so much easier to push these people out. It’s so much easier to hate. I am immersed in the most challenging of human emotions on a daily basis.

I have not been feeling triggered, particularly, but I think I have established how little my apparent feelings reflect what my mind is experiencing. So, when all is said and done with my extended family crises, no doubt the hauntings will begin afresh.

The only way I can think of to manage my stress in the meantime is through meditation. So, today I set out on a path of intensive daily meditation. When I can’t sit for 30 minutes, I do active meditation for as long as I can when I am alone. (I’m sure there’s a fancy name for it, but I don’t know it. Basically, I go about my business, but slowed down so I can mentally acknowledge every action–turning on the tap; taking the soap; washing hands; rinsing; etc.) It’s been a few hours of that now, and my mind is quieter. Also, it has taken the place of my talking to myself, which is an unexpected but welcome side effect. I shudder to think of how many hours a day I waste in one-sided conversation.

I’ve written before about the intimate relationship between stress and mental health. I am glossing over how my stress level recently has impacted my mental health. But it undoubtedly has. That too was unknown to me until my children started looking at me differently. Children are a great barometer, more sensitive to subtle changes in a carer’s mood than most adults. Anyway, now that I know, I can protect against the potential for a bipolar/borderline episode. I can be more aware of where I allow my thoughts to go and how they impact my behavior towards my nuclear family.

This mess would have been a whole lot messier (at least from my side) had I not had Buddhist teachings to fall on. A long-standing atheist, I could not have known how immensely grateful I would be to have this spiritual structure to lean on, to guide me through these difficult interactions. But the work is still mine to do. And I will do my best to achieve Right Speech and Right Action in the process, rash or no rash.

The right path

There are certain sects of Buddhism that believe that karma binds us more to some of the people in our lives, to the extent that those bonds continue throughout various reincarnations.

I have uncomfortable feelings about reincarnation, but the idea of having a greater karmic connection with some folks sees obvious to me. I believe that all things in our lives play a role in our awakening. They are our teachers, unwittingly offering the challenges we need to develop into our true selves. In my experience, they return us to our path when we’ve meandered. And our meandering most often has to do with the challenges they’ve given us in the first place.

My point is, you start out on what you think is your path with the best of intentions: I will be this kind of mother; I will be that kind of wife. Then the folks you have chosen to walk that path with reveal to you bit by bit—or sometimes in much more significant ways—that you were never on your true path to begin with. They reveal yourself to you, and slowly you discover your footing on the right path.

I find that the most basic lessons take the longest to understand. And by understanding, here, I mean that kind of knowing that feels knitted in your bones—the kind of understanding that makes you realize the truth has always been with you, if only hidden from your view. So, things like how to love unconditionally, the significance of loyalty, the grace of self-sacrifice, the relief that comes with compassion and kindness (both giving and receiving). All the things the sages and prophets have shown us through the millennia, the things we know by heart (but not by bone). These are the fundamentals that take a lifetime to master but that life seems to be all about.

I discovered that for myself one day, trying frantically to unlock the mystery of enlightenment. You see, I had come to believe that the only way I could know how to help my oldest child, the only way I could know how to behave properly to best support my youngest, the only way I could truly be a good partner was to become enlightened, to become a buddha myself. Obviously, I am not enlightened, but these are some of the things I have come to understand from my seeking:

  • There are certain basic concepts that I will struggle to stretch my mind to understand until I realize I don’t need to understand them. I plant the seed, and eventually my understanding will grow in its own time. I think that is the “faith” that most belief systems refer to. It’s a kind of letting go.
  • Enlightenment is not an epiphany; it is the path, the daily practice of being. Like most things of universal value, enlightenment occurs by degrees, almost imperceptibly, through behaving as one who is enlightened.
  • The concept of the not-self is fundamental—there is nothing more distracting from my true path than my ego, my will. This, I think, is also a cornerstone of all belief systems, but one of the most difficult truths to fathom. Because, after all, how do we remove the self-interest from ourselves?

All of this started today with my children arguing—the oldest being mean to the youngest. Half of my cucumber seeds not germinating. Me feeling like an inadequate parent. Waking up to dog shit on the doormat. The potato plants flowering too early. Me uncharacteristically wanting—no, needing—social interaction—like, with people.  Sunny still sitting on her unfertilized eggs.

I more or less violently reject all of these things. I am attached to my idea of how all these things should be. But these things have something else to teach me, I feel, and I can only learn their truth by letting go of my ego, my own thinking about what is right, and recognize that there is something much larger at play here, something that I cannot see all the parts of.

I am fighting with myself about publishing these thoughts, partly because of my irrational fear of exposure, partly because I may be wrong, and partly because I may feel differently tomorrow (and somehow we have come to the strange conclusion that inconsistency is a bad thing). I am having to remind myself that the whole point of this blog was for me to catalog some of my thoughts and experiences before my cognitive functioning disintegrates entirely as part of the fallout from my neuro-eccentricity. I wanted proof, documentation, that I had thoughts, was capable of thinking. I wanted my children to see more than grocery lists for bologna and vodka, like I discovered in my father’s apartment after his death. There is more to us all, and to have only the litter of our choices be our legacy feels incredibly empty to me. But I am fighting with my ego here again. Ultimately, living a good life would leave no trace. Neither Buddha nor Jesus left any writings. So why my preoccupation with leaving evidence that I once had a mind?

Maybe that’s not really my goal. Maybe my goal is to outsource my memory so that in the darkest times to come, I can read this and remember the seasons, my preoccupations, the suffering and the beauty, my humanity. Maybe I am writing in celebration of and to remember living.

Or maybe it’s all more immediate than that. Writing helps me organize my thoughts. It helps me put names to feelings that might otherwise disrupt my mood. Writing for an audience requires me to frame things more positively or, ideally, with humor, and my final thoughts on a subject are then colored by that positivity.

Yes. I like the sound of that one best. I am not having an ego or attachment crisis—just making sense of some of my experiences. And in the process of writing this, it has been revealed to me that all those things that I so violently rejected this morning are simply the stuff of life. Accepting those things and dealing with them with compassion is, in fact, my path.

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.

Connection

When practicing manipura chakra yoga today, I received a message of the three things that make me feel confident and most myself—three sources of personal power. They’re so basic that it seems silly even to write about them, and certainly to refer to the realization as a “message.” But that is what it was: one of those blindingly beautiful moments in which you see past your own illusions to the truth. A flash of Enlightenment, perhaps. Or one of the many benefits of neuro-eccentricity. Who knows. Point is, I now know with certainty that painting, strong relationships (primarily with my partner and children), and practicing Buddhism are the three things that make me feel most confident. When I am in alignment with these things, I am comfortable in my skin.

            This rather overtly feeds into a working theory I have about mental illness—not to be confused with what I call neuro-eccentricity. We are all capable of mental illness—neuro-typicals and neuro-eccentrics alike—though perhaps the latter are more susceptible due to their sensitivities and proclivities, which often land them in compromising positions with far-reaching, soul-destroying consequences (also, the stigma associated with being neuro-eccentric is suffocating). But there is nothing a neuro-eccentric experiences that is not squarely on the spectrum of human experience. Perhaps this is what frightens neuro-typicals most of all: their own potential for mental illness.

            So, my theory of mental health is, simply put, that connectedness is central. Specifically:

  • operational connectedness (the work we do is fulfilling and meaningful to ourselves and the community);
  • relational connectedness (the central relationships we have are supportive, loving, and engaged, and require the same from us); and
  • spiritual connectedness (the rituals and practices we engage in enable us to feel compassion for other living things, help us to process our past and understand our place in the universe, and inspire us to serve our community).

Folks in the psychiatric community say that caring for our physical needs is also central to mental health, and to a great extent I agree. The thing is, we will naturally be in tune with our physical needs when our occupational, relational, and spiritual selves are connected. So, in a way, mental health and physical health are achieved by the same means: connection.

            I have witnessed mental illness in neuro-typicals too many times to count because at least one of the afore-described holy trinity was not functioning properly. Bad job? Acrimonious relationship? Hollow faith? Then, mental illness will already be shutting down your ability to be effective. Mental illness looks different in everyone, and may not meet diagnostic criteria in the DSM. But you will know that you are not healthy mentally when you struggle to feel content much of the time.

            For me, it’s really that simple. And the prescription is just as straight forward—which is not to say that it is as easy as taking a pill.

In contrast, a neuro-eccentricity is a description of a particular constellation of thinking, behavior, and gifts (as well as the electrical fallout that accompanies such gifts). Neuro-eccentrics can experience mental illness, and no doubt do at higher rates than neuro-typicals. But we are also capable of mental health, and the prescription is the same. We may need a little psychopharmacological help, depending on the circumstances, but even that will not have a meaningful impact on our mental health without connection.