Saturday, January 7, 2017

My Internal Voice is No Longer a Jerk

Roughly 25 years. That's how long it's been since I first stepped into a therapist's office. And today was the day that it dawned on me how well it's worked.

I cashed in on a gift certificate for a massage my husband gifted me for my birthday. Massages became my favorite indulgence the moment I discovered them, which is a shame, because they're tough to afford on a teacher's salary. So I usually only get one once (at the most twice) a year.

And while I always try my very best to turn OFF my internal monologue and relax, my internal monologue won't have any of that. She's got a lot to say, and she's not going to let some aromatherapy and acupressure slow her down.

So, I just let my thoughts flow today, and at some point it dawned on me how nice my internal voice was.

She was very complimentary about the massage and the massage therapist, of course.

Yes, thank you. Get that knot. Knock it right out of there. Lord, you're gifted. Do people ever tell you that? Thank you, yes, a hot pack on my forehead absolutely makes me want to propose marriage to you, which I'll just keep to myself.

But the crazy part was how nice she was to me!

At this point, I need to back up her and give you an idea of what my internal monologue used to sound like, back when I first started getting massages, just so you can understand the drastic shift.

Ugh, I should have washed my feet before I came in here. She's going to be grossed out by the smell. CRAP! I didn't shave my legs! She's going to cut her hand on my stubble. She's going to be disgusted out by how fat I am. How will she ever even get to the muscle, with all this fat on top? I want to leave. I'm so embarrassed. Why can't you just lose weight and be normal, you idiot? What right do you think you have to get a massage, when you're so big. I'm never doing this again.

It's awful, I know. But this mean little voice in my head was constant. Every thing I tried to do, she was there to tell me I was going to fail. She constantly told me that nobody loved me, and when friends and family tried to prove otherwise, she'd tell me they were lying. She told me I'd be fired from my job, that I would die alone, that my writing sucked, that I looked stupid on stage and should stop performing, that my life was a waste. Even when I looked confident and happy on the outside, she sulked inside my brain, reminding me that none of the stuff in my life that seemed good would last, that I simply didn't deserve any of it.

The first time I went to therapy, it was court-ordered. My dad had beaten my mom up so badly that he could have killed her, and the court decided (wisely) that my sister and I might need to talk to someone. Instantly, I loved it. It unburdened me, it helped me feel less alone. But when my dad and mom reconciled, Dad cancelled therapy, thinking it was some vast conspiracy against him.

The second time I went to therapy, it was because my angel of a college roommate made the appointment for me. My first love had just revealed he was gay, my sister fell pregnant at 16, and my mom had had a heart attack - all within a few months. I kept pretending everything was fine outside of our tiny room, but Katie watched me cry my eyes out night after night, drink too much at frat parties, and say horrible, horrible things about myself. I was so embarrassed that she thought I needed help, but instantly, it made me feel better. Honestly, it saved my life, as I'd begun to formulate serious suicide plans right around that time.

I can't count how many therapists I've seen in my life. They haven't all been winners (like the animal hoarder I visited in Brooklyn who complained incessantly about her neighbor and told me I should leave Dave because he wasn't doing his fair share of the dishes), but I can assure you I wouldn't be here without them.

And the three I've had since we moved to Louisville have had the largest effect, probably because I've been diligent about going since we arrived. They've helped me face my troubled past, helped me reprogram my knee-jerk reactions, help me learn to experience emotions less dangerously, helped me to truly love and value myself.

And so, today, as the massage therapist worked wonders on my body, my internal monologue was like a sweet girlfriend, sharing a glass of wine with me.

Honey, you deserve this. Yes, relax, breathe deeply. You've got so much going on, but you're doing so well with it all! Look at you, parenting and teaching and storytelling and writing and still taking a little time for yourself. Mmm...that lavender and rosemary is just delicious, isn't it? Helps all that stress just melt away. Feel her work those knots out of your legs - your strong legs that walk miles around your classroom daily. Feel her rub away the tension of a back that lifts up a three year old for a kiss each night. You deserve this. Enjoy it.

OK, yeah, she's a bit cheesy. But I'll take a cheesy internal voice over a bully any day.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Anxiety Monologues

You see a cute family on the subway. I see a woman whose internal monologue sounds something like this: "Is that guy looking at my kids funny? What if Stella doesn't get off in time and the doors shut? Did somebody leave a backpack behind? I'm seeing something, SHOULD I SAY SOMETHING??? What if the museum is closed today? I should have checked. Did I pack extra pants for Sam? What if he has an accident? I can't believe we traveled so soon after his cold. What if he gets a massive sinus infection? OR WORSE? WHAT IF HE GETS SOMETHING WORSE? What if the train gets stuck? What if..."


I am in the middle of the sidewalk. Hands covering my ears. Kneeling, nearly in the fetal position. Screaming and rocking back and forth. "SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP!!!"

Except not really. What everybody else sees is a haggard mom, irritably nudging her daughter along the street, gruffly telling her husband to stop pushing the stroller so damned fast. I seem somewhat normal, somewhat together, but inside my head, I am losing it.

A lot of people don't really believe me when I say I have anxiety. "Sure, don't we all?" they reply, smiling knowingly. Or, "You seem to be doing alright."

Yes, I know I seem that way, but do you realize how much effort that deception takes?

We just got back from a trip to the New York City metro area to visit my in-laws and spend some time in Manhattan. All the work I've done in therapy trying to cope with my triggers was put to the test, as I was triggered about 4,000 times per day.

A 3 hour delay to Newark with a 3 year old and and an 8 year old on the spectrum. Lots of arguing over the iPad. Lots of child-free folks looking warily at Sam as he repeatedly lost his cool and slipped from our grasp. Sam looking at me seriously for a moment, saying, "Mama, the plane will crash and there will be lots of fire!" All while waiting for a plane that was having technical difficulties to be repaired.

The car rental place took over an hour to get us our car. We were late for dinner with my in-laws, and I HATE to be late. The only car seat they had for Sam (because I couldn't stand the idea of travelling another time with his clunker of a car seat) was decrepit and had a broken strap, meaning we had to secure it with the seat belt. That would have been OK, except Sam kept messing with the seat belt, causing it to come loose, causing me to envision a car wreck that would have sent him flying.

The hotel didn't have a pack and play for Sam. They only had an infant crib, which is way too small for Sam. The room couldn't fit a rollaway in addition to the two queen beds. Stella began to howl when we suggested that she share a bed with someone, because her autism spectrum disorder was already challenged in 101 ways by all the travel and changes to her routine. So Dave and I shared a little bed with our 3 year old, who sleeps like a dolphin trying to free itself from a trap, and was only interested in my side of the bed. Have I ever mentioned how crucial sleep is for my mental health? Well, it is. It really, really is.

Speaking of Sam, he's going through some sort of developmental phase that makes him want to crawl back inside my womb. Instead, he settles for being on my body 99% of the day. Eating meals on my lap, climbing on me like a jungle gym, squeezing my butt cheeks or pinching my thighs. He's rough and doesn't know his own strength, meaning I get physically hurt at least 25 times a day. We give him time outs and rewards for gentle behavior, but it doesn't seem to help.

New York City itself is one massive trigger for me, which is part of the reason we chose to move. Pushing a stroller down crowded sidewalks filled with people who automatically hate children puts me on edge. A constant barrage of loud noises. An insanely long wait for every single thing you try to do (eating, getting into a museum, going to the bathroom, checking out with your purchases). Kids who tire of walking after the first 5 miles. And dinner in a restaurant with no kids' menu and about 4 inches of space between the back of your chair and the next table, with waiters who won't split the check 5 different ways and who really want your kid to stop trying to be Ringo Starr with his chopsticks.

Trying to carry on a conversation with family you barely ever get to see while your threenager climbs under the table and sticks his hand up your shirt and tries to sling your hot food around the table. The embarrassment that comes when your mother-in-law, who's paying the bill, thinks she was accidentally charged for two glasses of chianti and you must explain that, no, the second glass kept you from losing your you-know-what in front of your in-laws who've rarely had to witness your dark side.

We got home Wednesday, after another series of delays. Sam wouldn't stop climbing on me and getting in my face, Stella wouldn't stop suddenly needing me to get something for her the moment I sat down. Our dog - who'd been well-taken-care-of in our absence, needed to live on top of me, and our cat wanted to make sure I knew how personally offended he was by our absence. And Dave, though trying to help in any way possible, couldn't seem to do what I wanted him to do, probably because I had no clue what I wanted him to do.

I shut down. I stopped responding to anyone. Sam became upset, Stella became a little freaked out. Dave, who's had a more intimate view of my anxiety that anyone one this planet, became wary.

"I love you guys, I really do, but I have to take a break," I declared. I felt myself march upstairs, draw a bath with the Lush bath products my friend Alex had gifted me, and put myself to bed at 8pm.

And, according to my therapist, that was exactly what I was supposed to do. What I really wanted to do was scream and break things and run out on the street and tell everyone how freaking impossible the past few days had been. I wanted to smack Sam's little hands when they got in my face and yell a swear word at Stella when she asked for a glass of water that she can get herself or scream bloody murder when Dave sat looking at his phone while our children swirled around me, acting as if he didn't exist.

I fought that urge. I checked out and took care of myself. And I feel almost normal now.

Still, as happy as I am that I've always functioned quite well in the world despite my anxiety, sometimes I wish I had the courage to let people see it. Maybe, if it could seep out slowly, I wouldn't have these massive build ups that mainly my poor family must endure. If I could admit to the general public that I need to go to the bathroom for 15 minutes to get away from the noise or to let myself cry when I find myself in a space so crowded I can barely move, maybe I could feel better.

Instead, I smile and make jokes, or get somewhat irritable, then save the worst stuff for the safety of my home.

But I'm making progress. Slowly, yet surely. And for that, I am truly grateful.

"Those people are really annoyed with us for taking up so much space while taking a picture. I hope nobody snags Sam in his stroller while Dave is taking the picture. Is this magical for the kids? I HOPE THIS IS MAGICAL FOR MY KIDS, DAMN IT! Why is that guy looking at us funny? THERE ARE SO MANY PEOPLE I CAN BARELY BREATHE. What time is dinner? What if the people who said they're coming bail on us? What if nobody likes us? What if..."

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Trick or Treating at the Trump House



My neighborhood takes trick or treating very seriously. Some neighbors give out full candy bars. Tons of adults (including yours truly) dress up in costumes right alongside our kids. One house gets fully decked out in a theme every year. This year it was The Wizard of Oz - with all the characters and beautifully detailed decorations, and even a white screen with the film playing on it. One woman dresses as a gorgeous witch each year and serves "witch's brew" (aka hot apple cider) in cups to all who visit, warning them to watch out for errant eyeballs.

And many, many of the homes around here had Hillary signs out front. In fact, seeing a Trump sign in our neighborhood was so rare that my daughter even joked that the one we pass each day had the spookiest decoration of all.

On Halloween night, my kids and I reveled in the warm weather. We strolled from home to home, prompting my three year old to say "trick or treat" before greedily gathering his candy. I felt, once again, so lucky to live in this magical place.

And then we approached "The Trump House," as we'd started calling it. I noticed the residents - our neighbors - had moved their sign from where it once stood to right next to the house, out of the way. I also noticed that many, many trick or treaters started to go up, saw the sign, and then just kept walking.

But then, worst of all, I noticed my neighbors' faces. This elderly couple, sitting on their chairs, looked sad. Really sad.

I prayed that Stella wouldn't see their sign. But if she did, I was prepared with a speech. "Honey, in America, we have the right to disagree on politics. We may not agree with them as to who should be our next president, but we can still celebrate Halloween with them."

But Stella didn't notice. She happily skipped up - with Sam right behind her - and sang, "Trick or treat!" They smiled and gave her candy. And we moved inches closer to my kids' yearly late-night candy binge.

My family and I didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things when I was growing up, but I was raised to care about people. About people who look and act like me - and about people who don't. I was raised to love with an open heart, fully accepting that that will bring pain, and will often not be reciprocated. It was these lessons that I learned at home and at church that resonated with me - people matter. All people. Judging others is stupid, because you've got your own issues, lady. Just love people. Help people. Support people. And don't expect anything in return.

I don't know how many people know this, but when Dave and I made the decision to move to Kentucky from New York, it was partly so I could teach at a rural school. I told Dave that I wanted to teach kids who grew up in similar situations to mine. I wanted to be the spark that would ignite their passions, like the many incredible teachers I had who helped me become who I am today.

And I got a job in an area right outside of Louisville that seemed perfect. While not quite as rural as my home town, it was very economically depressed and was culturally VERY southern. The student population was nearly 100% white and Christian. My kids had rough home lives, suffering homelessness, unemployed parents, malnutrition, family members with drug-addiction, and many, many other atrocities. These kids looked like me, and they gave me flashbacks to my own youth and the issues my friends and I faced way down in Hardin County.

I loved them. They were funny and sweet. They liked my lessons, and while sometimes it could be hard to motivate them to work (a common issue when working with kids who are dealing with trauma and have their minds on issues bigger than school), once they caught on to my lessons, they often wow'ed me with their work.

But certain things happened that challenged me. Right after the Colorado movie theater shooting, a boy wore a shirt to school with an AR-19 on it surrounded by blood spots. After the Newtown massacre, a boy yelled out that Sandy Hook was a hoax to try to take away everyone's guns. When one group of kids found out (not by me) that I was Jewish (I converted), they started drawing swastikas on the desktops and drew nasty caricatures of the "Short, Fat Jew." Obama was called a terrorist. A kid wasn't allowed to study Greek mythology because it "conflicted with her religion."

I took deep breaths. I explained how a blood-stained shirt went against our dress code. I lovingly asked for factual evidence to support claims that Newtown was a hoax. I worked with the school to have someone from the board talk to the kids about harassment, and accepted their apologies for their anti-Semitism.  I explained that Islam is an ancient and beautiful religion that President Barack Obama doesn't follow. I allowed the Greek mythology girl to do alternate assignments.

And I loved them. They were complex creatures, as wonderful as they were trying. One year, a boy wished me happy Hanukkah on the first day - a perplexing date that he had to have researched on his own. One kid performed a slam poetry about how gay people should have the right to marry (before they actually did). Many kids were shocked and outraged to find that marrying someone outside of your race used to be illegal.

But still, that pervasive ideology prevailed. Beware of education. Don't listen to the media - they're too liberal and they lie. Yet believe everything some radical conservative talk show host says. Be scared of those who are different - they are threatening your way of life.

I had to leave. It was so hard to see kids start to become independent thinkers, start to open up to a new world that's more diverse and less fearful than their parents' world, only to spend a weekend or vacation at home and come back more xenophobic than before.

I love where I work now. It is truly the most diverse school I've ever seen. And I don't experience the same frustration of watching a culture constantly tear away all the work I do.

Don't get me wrong - I love my culture. I love quilts and sweet tea and chocolate pie and porch swings and hospitality and (arguably) the best storytelling in the country. And while xenophobia was there when I was a kid, too, I guess that other lesson - the one of loving the holy hell out of people - always just, pardoned the term, trumped all that for me. I fear that it doesn't work that way for everyone.

Wednesday, the day after this historic election, one of my Hispanic students came up to me and said, "Well, Ms. Skaggs, are you happy or sad about the outcome?" His face was crestfallen, and became even more so when I told him I couldn't tell him. One of my Muslim students, usually the class clown, was ashen and quiet. One boy told me it was nice knowing me, but now he was going to have to move to Canada. And when the Pledge of Allegiance came on, half of my home room remained seated.

I love them. I love every one of them. The ones who look like me, the ones who don't. The ones who worship like me (if there are any), and the ones who don't. The ones who speak the same language I do at home, and the ones who don't. That's how I was raised.

And I love the Trump people, too. Even if they don't love me back. Even if they elected a man who incites hatred and fear. A man who's used terms that make me and my friends feel degraded. A man who's inspired such hate from some people that I and many of my friends fear for our own safety and the safety of our children. Because I was also raised to know that loving people can be complicated and hurtful, and often not reciprocated.

A few days after Halloween, I told Stella that she'd trick or treated at the Trump house.

"I know, Mommy. I saw their sign."

"Oh, I didn't know that. I thought you might be afraid to go up."

"Of course not. They're just people. We don't have to agree on things."

"That's right, Stella. That's so right."

"And besides, I wanted more candy."

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Train of Emotion

Dan sent me this picture the night before he left for college. It's me - a college girl myself - holding his little preemie body way back in 1997. Despite how unflattering this photo is of me (I mean really, that cannot be overlooked), it stirs up about 4,000 emotions and made me cry like an idiot.

Yesterday evening, while sipping a fancy cocktail at the Seelbach Hotel and discussing Girl on a Train with my book club, I received a text.

"Hey Aunt Randi, can you talk now?"

It was from my nephew, Dan. Dan had just moved into his dorm room at his college, and I was excited about going home after book club to stalk all his college pictures on Facebook. Seeing his text concerned me.

I called him the minute I left, sitting in my car with the windows rolled down in a parking garage in downtown Louisville.

Dan was fine. He's a bright, competent, capable, wonderful young man, so of course he was fine. But it was his first night living on his own and he wanted to hear a familiar voice.

Through my iPhone, I could hear his words reverberating around his empty walls, not yet plastered with posters of his favorite movies or ironic sayings. (Wait - do the kids still do this?) It's early to be on campus - he had to arrive early because he's in the marching band - so his roommate isn't there yet, nor are scores of other people. I could imagine his sock-covered-feet pacing the floor while he surveyed his new twin bed, his new comforter, his new desk, his new life. I imagined the chilling loneliness that could come from suddenly being alone after so many years living among parents and a sister. I could imagine the petrifying fear of realizing that life - from this point forward - would never be the same.

It was a good conversation, and as I clicked "end," I knew with certainty that this chapter of Dan's life will be an exciting and fulfilling one for him. I can't explain it, I just knew that it would be great.

And yet, I cried all the way home.

My emotions have been so close to the surface lately. I feel so much better after my summer of depression, due in large part to eating nutritious food, exercising, getting enough sleep, and carving out time for myself (in addition to going to therapy religiously, of course). I'm back at work, and although the pace of that is rapid and the hours are long, the strict schedule and frequent interaction with sweet kids and smart colleagues is very good for my soul.

But it feels like my empathy-trigger is just way more sensitive than it has ever been. If a student shares about a hard time at home, I'm crying. When a homeless man asked us for some money today, I started crying. When my nephew texted me on his first night of college ever, I started crying. You should probably go out and buy some stock in Kleenex.

Here's how the train of emotion and/or anxiety (depending on how you define it) traveled through my brain.

1. Oh, sweet Dan. I know how scared he is. This is such a big deal! College will be a wonderful experience for him, but I wish I could hug him!

2. It feels like yesterday that he was a skinny little preemie, cradled in my arms. I was so worried about how he would turn out - physically, emotionally, you name it. Now look at him! At college! I'm so proud.

3. But oh! My poor sister. It has to be so hard to deliver your child to a school, drive away, and pray that you've raised him well enough for him to take care of himself. She must be proud, but this has to be so hard on her. I wish I could hug her.

4. Oh my God, in just 10 years, Stella will go to college. How can that be? Wait - I can't do this. What if she gets there and she has trouble making friends? What if she sits alone in her dorm room every night while everyone else has fun? Or what if she makes bad decisions and drinks too much and has to get her stomach pumped? Or what if some angry student gets a bad grade and has mental health issues and has unfettered access to military-grade weapons and goes on a shooting spree? Or what if we can't even afford college because the tuition by that point is $4.8 million a year in state?

5. But I did OK at college, and I had an awkward, difficult, lonely time all through high school. In fact, college was four of the happiest years of my life. Oh, college! Sweet Centre College. Those dry erase boards where we would leave messages to tell people where we were because we didn't have cell phones. Those long nights of lying on a friend's dorm floor, talking about boys and assignments and eating cookies we sneaked out of the dining hall.

6. I miss my friends. Jeez, those were good friends. Why the hell do we have to be so scattered across America? Why do we have to be so busy that I barely even see the few who live locally?

7. Funny, I remember thinking I would never be friends with those women. I remember meeting them that first week - these girls from all across America living on my hall. They seemed nice, but I was sure we'd have nothing in common. Certain they'd all be too cool to want to hang out with some goofy idiot from the sticks. Afraid they'd be mean or uninterested in me. By the end of that week, we'd made somewhere around 100 trips to Walmart together, had a couple of meals at Fazoli's that made the restaurant question their unlimited breadstick policy, and had soul-baring conversations in our PJ's while cramming ourselves sardine-style into one dorm room.

8. I also remember sobbing my eyes out on that drive to Danville when I was first moving in. My best friend and my mom were in the car with me, helpless and confused as I sat there and cried so hard I couldn't even respond when they asked me if I was OK. Why was I crying so hard? It's still unclear. I was excited about college, but I'd just gone through so many changes, so much turmoil. My dad had been so abusive to my mom he'd nearly killed her. My parents had almost divorced, but ended up staying together (much to my chagrin). My best friend had lost her father tragically the year before, and we'd grown apart a little bit as she struggled to cope with her unthinkable trauma and sadness. I was terrified of college. Terrified of not making friends, terrified of not being smart enough, terrified of not keeping my scholarship and having to leave, terrified of my dad killing my mom in my absence, because my magical-thinking-prone-brain had convinced me that my sheer will was preventing my dad from finally snapping to the point that he committed homicide.

Mind you, all of these thoughts happened in a rapid cascade that lasted probably ten seconds. So many overwhelming, neurotic, emotion-fueled ideas pounded on my brain and I just had to sit in that parked car in that parking garage and cry like a crazy person for a solid five minutes.

Empathy is a good thing. It makes me want to make the world a better place, it helps me be the kind of teacher (most of the time) who can treat her students gently and kindly, even when that's the opposite of how they're acting toward me. It makes me want to speak out on issues that matter to me. It makes me love my kids with a passion that could rip through mountains.

But it also makes me cry. A lot. And I guess the biggest change that's occurred in me is that I'm no longer fighting it. I may be a woman who "feels too much," as Anne Sexton described it, but I'm working to channel that, not fight it.

So, if you ever see me read a text on my phone and start crying, don't worry. My brain just went from A-Z in 2 seconds and I experienced every possible emotional along the way. I'll be OK in a minute or so.


Train of Emotion

Yesterday evening, while sipping a fancy cocktail at the Seelbach Hotel and discussing Girl on a Train with my book club, I received a text.

"Hey Aunt Randi, can you talk now?"

It was from my nephew, Dan. Dan had just moved into his dorm room at his college, and I was excited about going home after book club to stalk all his college pictures on Facebook. Seeing his text concerned me.

I called him the minute I left, sitting in my car with the windows rolled down in a parking garage in downtown Louisville.

Dan was fine. He's a bright, competent, capable, wonderful young man, so of course he was fine. But it was his first night living on his own and he wanted to hear a familiar voice.

Through my iPhone, I could hear his words reverberating around his empty walls, not yet plastered with posters of his favorite movies or ironic sayings. (Wait - do the kids still do this?) It's early to be on campus - he had to arrive early because he's in the marching band - so his roommate isn't there yet, nor are scores of other people. I could imagine his sock-covered-feet pacing the floor while he surveyed his new twin bed, his new comforter, his new desk, his new life. I imagined the chilling loneliness that could come from suddenly being alone after so many years living among parents and a sister. I could imagine the petrifying fear of realizing that life - from this point forward - would never be the same.

It was a good conversation, and as I clicked "end," I knew with certainty that this chapter of Dan's life will be an exciting and fulfilling one for him. I can't explain it, I just knew that it would be great.

And yet, I cried all the way home.

My emotions have been so close to the surface lately. I feel so much better after my summer of depression, due in large part to eating nutritious food, exercising, getting enough sleep, and carving out time for myself (in addition to going to therapy religiously, of course). I'm back at work, and although the pace of that is rapid and the hours are long, the strict schedule and frequent interaction with sweet kids and smart colleagues is very good for my soul.

But it feels like my empathy-trigger is just way more sensitive than it has ever been. If a student shares about a hard time at home, I'm crying. When a homeless man asked us for some money today, I started crying. When my nephew texted me on his first night of college ever, I started crying. You should probably go out and buy some stock in Kleenex.

Here's how the train of emotion and/or anxiety (depending on how you define it) traveled through my brain.

1. Oh, sweet Dan. I know how scared he is. This is such a big deal! College will be a wonderful experience for him, but I wish I could hug him!

2. It feels like yesterday that he was a skinny little preemie, cradled in my arms. I was so worried about how he would turn out - physically, emotionally, you name it. Now look at him! At college! I'm so proud.

4. But oh! My poor sister. It has to be so hard to deliver your child to a school, drive away, and pray that you've raised him well enough for him to take care of himself. She must be proud, but this has to be so hard on her. I wish I could hug her.

5. Oh my God, in just 10 years, Stella will go to college. How can that be? Wait - I can't do this. What if she gets there and she has trouble making friends? What if she sits alone in her dorm room every night while everyone else has fun? Or what if she makes bad decisions and drinks too much and has to get her stomach pumped? Or what if some angry student gets a bad grade and has mental health issues and has unfettered access to military-grade weapons and goes on a shooting spree? Or what if we can't even afford college because the tuition by that point is $4.8 million a year in state?

6. But I did OK at college, and I had an awkward, difficult, lonely time all through high school. In fact, college was four of the happiest years of my life. Oh, college! Sweet Centre College. Those dry erase boards where we would leave messages to tell people where we were because we didn't have cell phones. Those long nights of lying on a friend's dorm floor, talking about boys and assignments and eating cookies we sneaked out of the dining hall.

7. I miss my friends. Jeez, those were good friends. Why the hell do we have to be so scattered across America? Why do we have to be so busy that I barely even see the few who live locally?

8. Funny, I remember thinking I would never be friends with those women. I remember meeting them that first week - these girls from all across America living on my hall. They seemed nice, but I was sure we'd have nothing in common. Certain they'd all be too cool to want to hang out with some goofy idiot from the sticks. Afraid they'd be mean or uninterested in me. By the end of that week, we'd made somewhere around 100 trips to Walmart together, had a couple of meals at Fazoli's that made the restaurant question their unlimited breadstick policy, and had soul-baring conversations in our PJ's while cramming ourselves sardine-style into one dorm room.

9. I also remember sobbing my eyes out on that drive to Danville when I was first moving in. My best friend and my mom were in the car with me, helpless and confused as I sat there and cried so hard I couldn't even respond when they asked me if I was OK. Why was I crying so hard? It's still unclear. I was excited about college, but I'd just gone through so many changes, so much turmoil. My dad had been so abusive to my mom he'd nearly killed her. My parents had almost divorced, but ended up staying together (much to my chagrin). My best friend had lost her father tragically the year before, and we'd grown apart a little bit as she struggled to cope with her unthinkable trauma and sadness. I was terrified of college. Terrified of not making friends, terrified of not being smart enough, terrified of not keeping my scholarship and having to leave, terrified of my dad killing my mom in my absence, because my magical-thinking-prone-brain had convinced me that my sheer will was preventing my dad from finally snapping to the point that he committed homicide.

Mind you, all of these thoughts happened in a rapid cascade that lasted probably ten seconds. So many overwhelming, neurotic, emotion-fueled ideas pounded on my brain and I just had to sit in that parked car in that parking garage and cry like a crazy person for a solid five minutes.

Empathy is a good thing. It makes me want to make the world a better place, it helps me be the kind of teacher (most of the time) who can treat her students gently and kindly, even when that's the opposite of how they're acting toward me. It makes me want to speak out on issues that matter to me. It makes me love my kids with a passion that could rip through mountains.

But it also makes me cry. A lot. And I guess the biggest change that's occurred in me is that I'm no longer fighting it. I may be a woman who "feels too much," as Anne Sexton described it, but I'm working to channel that, not fight it.

So, if you ever see me read a text on my phone and start crying, don't worry. My brain just went from A-Z in 2 seconds and I experienced every possible emotional along the way. I'll be OK in a minute or so.


Thursday, July 21, 2016

Worthy of an Eye Roll

This is what depression looks like.

A lady rolled her eyes at me today.

Normally, I'm too busy to notice this kind of thing. Normally, I'm too secure in myself to care.

Not today.

How do I know she was rolling her eyes at me and not some unrelated situation? Well, let me set the scene. I was at the library. It was a failed attempt at story time.

What's a failed attempt at story time, you ask? Well, it looks something like this:

I take my nearly 3 year old to our closest library for an 11:15am story time. When we get there, there's a massive gas leak, with 3 fire trucks on sight to let me know just how terrifying the situation is. When I suggest to my son that maybe we should go to a playground instead, he cries hysterically.

"But Mommy! I need a story time! I need da LIBERRY!"

Sure, I could use this as a teachable moment, show my little man that life doesn't always go as planned, that you have to roll with the punches.

But good God is it hot and humid outside. I wanted to go to the LIBERRY, too.

So I drive us across town to another, more popular story time. We're about 15 minutes late, and when we walk in - it's packed. Wall to wall toddlers and women. The air thick with sweat and milk and organic snacks. Writhing limbs like a mass of maggots on a rotting steak. All with a "Wheels on the Bus" soundtrack pounding shrilly.

I am ready to tough it out, to hurdle over little bodies and find a 1'x1' square in which to squeeze myself, but Sam sternly says, "NO, MOMMY. DAT'S TOO LOUD!"

So we go to the kids library to peruse books and play with communal toys instead.

And it was fine, it really was. Sam was happy pulling books off the shelves and playing with ratty toys and plopping in my lap periodically to give me sloppy and delicious kisses. Then he found the computer - the damned computer they put at the kids' level so then the kids beg to use a computer the whole time instead of looking at analog books - WHICH IS THE WHOLE REASON YOU BRING YOUR KID TO THE LIBRARY. And the threenager emerged.

I didn't bring my card, so I couldn't log him on. I'm also still drowning in a sea of depression, so I can't do things like muster up the gumption to go ask a librarian to look up my library card number for me. I just wanted him to drop it, to move on. But toddlers are not know for their ability to just go with the flow and accept change.

So, the tantrum began. He threw himself all over the place, and even banged his little leg on a chair. I was calm. I didn't take it personally. I didn't get angry at him. If anything, I felt bad for the poor guy. He wanted to go on the computer but his sad mom couldn't help him with that.

So I let him get it out, and then I opened my arms. "Need a hug, Sam?"

He did. He crawled into my arms and bawled. He clung to me and shook with the anger and frustration and misery that come with being a toddler.

And as I snuggled my nose into his soft, sweet blond hair, I felt eyes on me.

I looked up. She was tall, thin. Had on a nice dress and full makeup. Her tiny daughter clung passively to her skirt hem. She held a stack of age-appropriate picture books in her well-manicured hands and she rolled her eyes at me. Like, literally at me. Like a stone she was hurling. There was no mistaking that the rolling of her eyes was directed at me. And it stung.

I guess it's easy to roll your eyes at me right now. First, I have a toddler throwing a full-on tantrum on the floor of the library - the place that insists on quiet. And if you didn't know my sweet little guy, he might look like a brat. A little tyrant who screams when he doesn't get his way.

She has no way of knowing what an extraordinary little boy he is. How easy he's been in so many ways. How he hugged me and said, "Mommy, I love you so much" when I started crying at breakfast this morning. How he's coping not just with adapting to this crazy planet I brought him into, but doing so with a mom who lately has next to no energy yet a surplus of emotions.

Also, there's my appearance. Yoga pants, t-shirt, flip flops, hair in a messy bun (and by "messy bun" I mean unkempt and oily, not sassy and sexy like the celebrities). I look like a lady who does't give a crap about anything - not my appearance, not my kid's behavior, certainly not the regular use of shampoo. I'm a caricature of the exhausted mom who's given up.

I almost felt like standing up, linking arms with her, and saying, "Yep, I'm a slob and crappy mom, aren't I? I'm inclined to agree with you."

But I didn't. I sat there and thought about all the things she couldn't see. The fact that her one and only child is mellow - hasn't yet hit a difficult patch. That she may feel pretty secure in her parenting skills at this moment, but all it would take is another kid or the terrible two's to knock her confidence down a peg.

That my outward appearance is a mirror of the inner sadness and stagnation I feel. That I've struggled with depression all summer. That my personal life is about as messy and complicated as it's ever been, and I don't know what to do about it. That dragging myself and my son here today was a huge accomplishment, and I'm frankly mad nobody threw a ticker tape parade for me.

I just closed my eyes and reminded myself, for the hundredth time today, that this is temporary. That things will get better. That I'll figure it out. That just because this woman thinks I deserve an eye roll doesn't mean she's right.

And, of course, I have no idea what she's going through, either. She looks so put together, so with it. But she may be struggling, too. She may go home today with her placid little tot and cry into her coffee over a thousand problems nobody can see.

In fact, that may be why she so openly judged me in the first place. And normally, I'd have compassion for her.

But not now. Not today.


Sunday, July 10, 2016

Admitting Defeat

I surrender. I can fight no more. It's time to admit that I'm right smack in the middle of a real depression.

I've felt it coming on for a while, I've resisted it like hell. But too many external factors ate away at my resolve.

A summer that started off with a miscarriage.

Anxiety that was under control for a while now skyrocketing due to mass shootings, news stories about children in precarious/deadly situations who remind me of my adventure boy Sam, the threat that Trump could actually become president, the thinly-veiled misogyny that parades around whenever Hilary Clinton's name is spoken, the horrific deaths of black people in the news, the sniper in Dallas, the hatred spewing forth from folks who don't want to admit that America has a massive problem with institutionalized racism. My anxiety broke free of its reins and has pulled me into sleepless nights and food binges and panic attacks and too many bad moods to mention.

Stella's symptoms becoming more intense this summer, leading me to think she's further on the spectrum than I'd thought. Trying not to feel embarrassed when my tall-for-her-age 8 year old has a meltdown in public over a restaurant not serving chicken strips. Trying not to scream when she begs for sugar or screen time 100 times a day because she has an obsessive and addictive personality. Trying to show her kindness and love when I really want to curl up under the covers and cry, because I do not feel qualified to parent any kid, much less one with different needs.

Sam's preview of threenagerhood, being a sometimes violent jerk who screams his head off to keep us from having conversations and yells for 1 1.5 or 2 hours before finally going to sleep. Regressing from his potty training, relishing pooping in his diaper then sitting in it so it's harder to clean.

Combining both my kids' rough phases in one tiny hotel room on the beach, each one making the other progressively crazier, trying to enjoy the beauty of the crystal clear water and powdery sand, wanting nothing more than to parasail far away from everyone to my own private island.

Feeling like I've alienated everyone around me to the point where I have only one person I can call when I feel this bad - a geographically distant best friend who's got enough of her own crap to deal with that she can't constantly keep picking me up.

Not to mention that summer is my prime season for seasonal depression anyway. Unlike most people who get the blues when winter comes, summer reminds me of endless childhood days stuck in the house with an abuser, trapped in a small town with nothing to do, watching too much TV and eating too much junk food and thinking seriously dark thoughts, praying for fall to come so I could get my in-dire-need-of-structure butt back in a school building.

I drug myself out of bed this morning at 10am. Dave let me sleep in, and I didn't want to leave. I had to pee, I was stiff, and I didn't want to move. The thought of walking to the bathroom seemed far too strenuous to imagine.

The kids were restless. Sam wanted to go to the Science Center, Stella wanted to go to the pool. Dave suggested we split up. I wanted to say, "How can you expect to put myself in a bathing suit, much less be responsible for keeping my daughter safe?"

But this is my kids' summer, too. And I refuse to make them suffer because my mental health is crappy.

So we went. The sun was too bright, the pool was too loud. Immediately, I saw several people I knew and I wanted to hide. The thought of making small talk when all I want to do is blurt out "I'M REALLY FREAKING SAD" just seemed impossible. So I avoided almost all of them, seeming like the rudest person possible, I'm sure. These were people whose kids I taught during my stint as a preschool teacher, adorable children whom I miss, whom I'd love to hug and chat with, were I feeling normal. Instead, I clung to Stella and acted like I didn't see anybody.

It hasn't been this bad in a very long time. I hate even talking about here because well-intentioned fixers will advise me to seek medication or exercise or herbs or yoga or meditation or counseling. They won't know that I've been in therapy for over 20 years (and still go regularly), that I've tried roughly 6 different anti-depressants with no luck (because clinical depression isn't my diagnosis, by the way; occasional depression is a biproduct of PTSD and chronic anxiety), that eating well and exercising are things I do most of the time, things I'm trying to do now, things that help but do not solve.

Stella and I were playing with her mermaid Barbie when two sweet kids approached us. Between gulps of air and amidst much splashing, they said words in a foreign tongue.

One that I understood.

They were speaking French, and they were talking about Stella's doll. "C'est une sirene!"

Without even thinking about it, I replied, "Oui. Elle aime les sirenes!" (Yes, she loves mermaids.)

And we began chatting. They told me they were on vacation from France, visiting their grandmother. They love Louisville, they love America. It felt easy and natural to speak with them.

Stella hugged me close and said, "Mommy, what are you saying? It's so pretty."

And I remembered. I remembered the Randi that lived half a year in Strasbourg, France. The bilingual world traveler. The woman who also wrote and produced plays in New York City. The woman brave enough to even move to New York City by herself. The one who got her ass to a pretty great college with scholarships and financial aid and loans that she had to pay until just a couple of years ago. The woman who shares her quirky life on stage. The public middle school teacher. Middle school, I tell you.

Remembering that I've been brave, that I've overcome my limitations to succeed in life gave me the first relief I've had in a while.

It'll be OK. Not right away, but it will. But if you see me and I act like I don't see you, I'm not rude, I promise. I just have a cloud passing over me right now. Check back in a month or two.