Sunday, February 28, 2016

My Insides Clash with My Outsides

My memories from junior and senior year of high school are cloudy. We had so much family turmoil that my brain basically ran on fumes, in survival mode, and consequently, I don't remember too much.

But I remember this one day, senior year. My grandfather was in the hospital, dying. My parents were in the midst of the worst period of their marriage - the one when Dad nearly killed mom and screaming and crashing and threats were a daily occurrence. One night, we got back very late from the hospital, where I'd spent time watching Beavis and Butthead rather than looking too much at my gaunt, withering, incredibly-beloved grandfather. The minute we got home, a nasty fight erupted, and I ran to my room to listen to showtunes and cry.

But then I remembered something. My poetry project was due tomorrow. The big final grade for the semester. The "please, class, I beg of you, don't put this off until the last minute" project that I hadn't even started yet.

I felt the world crash around me. I had trouble breathing. My chest hurt so badly I thought I was having a heart attack.

This was one of the very first panic attacks of my life.

I dried my tears and scoured the home for construction paper and markers and Elmer's glue. I sneaked down into the basement - my dad's evil lair/apartment - where the only computer we had was located. I lugged the library books I'd checked out a few days ago with me (because this was 1993 - pre-internet - and I had to do things the old-fashioned way). I forced myself to put oxygen in my lungs and expel it. Over and over again.

And I did that whole project while the family slept.

The Four Seasons Poetry Term Project. Directions: copy at least 12 poems that illustrate each season by various poets. Then write one poem of your own, per season. Finally, put it all into a nice, neat book, complete with illustrations. This is worth 1/4 of your final grade.

Emily Dickinson. Robert Frost. Edna St. Vincent Millay. Randi Skaggs. I typed and typed and typed. I pulled poems out of thin air and tried to make them rhyme. I corrected mistakes before pressing print, because the printer was SO LOUD. I cut and pasted and drew sketches of falling leaves and blooming buds and snowy hills and a bright, beaming sun. I tried to let the pages dry fully before binding them together (with a hole punch and yarn), but I didn't succeed. I had to rip apart the pages that had dried together and try to scrape off the parts that stuck together before I turned it in the next morning.

I got maybe one hour of sleep that night. I got up, got dressed, ate my breakfast bar, and drove my Ford Taurus at break-neck-I-can't-believe-I-didn't-crash speeds to get to school on time. I turned it in, certain it would destroy my grade. My grade that mattered so much because I was right at the top of my graduating class. But I ended up getting an A, and nobody ever knew what a spectacularly horrible night I'd had.

I tell you this story to illustrate a point. That 23 years later, I haven't changed all that much.

Anxiety is a part of my life. Through therapy, I've tamed it and contained it to a point where it rarely intrudes on my life. But when it does, it's horrible.

Last Tuesday night, I had a horrible, horrible nightmare. It's so bad, I won't share the details, because it might give you nightmares. But it involved Stella and a terrifying, despicable man who was doing untold things to young girls - and Stella was next on his list.

In the midst of my failed attempt to protect my daughter, I was awakened by none other than... my daughter. Stella stood by my bed, pale in the pitch black.

"Mommy, I had a nightmare," she said, crawling into bed with me.

And I felt it happen. I felt anxiety actually creep up from my toes and settle into my chest. And that's where it's been ever since.

For almost a week, I've pretended to be normal. That's the only way I can put it. I feel like I'm a terrified, skittish actress who finds herself winging it, playing the role of a competent, confident teacher, wife, mom, and storyteller. I've fulfilled all my obligations - picking up kids, taking kids to appointments, making dinner, kissing booboos, joking with adolescents, keeping adolescents on task, smiling at coworkers in the hall, even performing at an open mic at my school's family night. But all the while, I've been crumbling inside.

When I was in high school, I realize now, I could have gone to my teacher and asked for a moment to talk to her. She was a really nice person. I could have confided to her about how rough things were for me. I could have asked for an extension. I was a straight-A student who'd never so much as seen the inside of the principal's office, a kid that teachers were constantly begging other kids to emulate. If I'd been a bit vulnerable around her, not only could I have avoided pulling an all-nighter and stressing myself out, I might have actually received some much-needed help and support for all the crap I was trying to deal with.

I'm trying to ask for help now, but it's hard. I've set up my life in such a way that I'm a caregiver for many. 120 amazing adolescents who are a joy to teach. A seven-year old girl and a two-year old boy who are the apples of my eye. A new dog who showers me with unconditional love. Two cats who try to act aloof but rarely succeed. A husband I love with all my heart but who has trouble with scheduling and organization. All blessings, but all creatures who need my support daily.

My email inbox and Facebook private message box and text message log are filled with people asking for my advice or input or feedback. People who respect my opinion and whom I'd love to help - if I were normal. People who - unless they read this entry - have no idea I'm struggling.

And I realize that I might still not seem like I'm struggling. I've written a coherent blog post, after all. I took Stella to Panera and ran errands at Target. I chatted with a sales rep at a local parenting store. I haven't missed a beat at work, and the laundry and weekly menu/grocery list were completed right on time.

But just like high school, my insides don't match my outsides. My most recent therapist hit the nail on the head. "You present well," she said, meaning that I seem totally with it, together, normal. But don't let me fool you, kids. I could really use some kindness. Some support. Someone to pick me up and take me to the couch and wrap me in a blanket and get me a cup of tea and take over that poetry project du jour, whether it's taking a kid to the pediatrician after work or cooking dinner.

Dave is trying, but he also has a job and kids and pets to manage. And I realize that, ultimately, it's I who must swoop down and save myself. It is I who must set up boundaries to protect my time and put myself so high on my priority list that I can no longer get lost in the shuffle.

And I need to stop worrying about seeming fine on the outside long enough to show people what's going on on the inside.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Martyr Mom

Sure, sometimes a lack of boundaries can be sweet.

I've been really proud of myself lately. Not for the things I've done, but for the things I haven't done.

What haven't I done? I haven't gotten up and fetched a snack for my kids every time they said they were hungry. I haven't run around after every living member of this house, cleaning up their messes for them. I haven't cooked a home-made meal every single day. I haven't let my son sit in my lap at dinner and pick up all the food I'd planned to eat with his fingers. I haven't tried to remedy my daughter's hurt feelings when I tell her it's time to turn off the TV.

Consequently, I also haven't lost my you-know-what on my kids over the smallest things.

It took me a while to realize I'd become a martyr mom. I mean, how could such a fervent feminist be a martyr mom? But I was. I had zero boundaries with my kids. They climbed all over me (literally - I have the bruises to prove it) at the end of a long day of work. They took food off of my plate without asking and demanded second meals when the first one I slaved over didn't meet with their approval. They threw fits when I didn't spend every single moment dedicated to them and their needs.

But much of my martyrdom came directly from me. How I'd rush from work to pick up Sam, even though sometimes I really just wanted to chill out for 20 minutes with a latte. How I hung out with them all weekend, rather than go off on my own, because of the gnawing, persistent guilt I felt for spending so much time at work. How the sound of their whining or crying triggered something deep inside me, a crippling fear that I could lose them at any moment and that I'd never forgive myself for every saying "no" to anything they asked of me.

So, most of the time, I was there. I was present. I played, I picked up small bodies, I got on all fours so I could be a horse, I cooked, I cleaned, I tucked in, I hugged, I answered questions. And then, after days of this, days of saying nothing but "no" to my own demands, days of slaving from the time I woke up (5:30am most days) until the time that the last child when to bed (8:30pm most days), working with my body and mind and soul with barely any time to even pee, I eventually erupted. I screamed and stomped and stormed and sometimes even threw things, all in frustration that NOBODY EVER TAKES CARE OF ME!

Until I finally realized that it would never occur to anyone to take care of me if they never saw me taking care of myself.

So now I say "no" to others a lot more, and "yes" to myself a lot more. On Thursdays, I work as a middle school teacher from 7am to 3:45pm, leave to pick up Stella, take her to her occupational therapist, after which we pick up Sam and come home. The minute we get home, I take our new dog Sweet Pea for a walk, with the two kids in tow. By the time we get back from her walk, it's 6pm and I'm ready to collapse. Can you believe that for the longest time I made a home-cooked meal after all that? Not anymore. Some days, I pick up dinner for the kids at Subway while Stella's in therapy, some days I pop some frozen ravioli in boiling water, other days it's leftovers or pb&j. Not ideal, I know, but my mental health thanks me for it. Today I refused to get up and fetch my 2nd grade daughter a snack moments after she finished breakfast. I told her where the snacks are located and granted her permission to go get one, then I ignored her whining and pouting while I stayed on the couch and pet the dog. I've learned that I can, in fact, endure a two year old's wrath when I refuse to carry him up and down stairs he can easily walk on his own. And right now I'm writing a blog entry on the couch during our snow day while Stella vegges out on episodes of "Strawberry Shortcake" and Sam naps.

I've realized that, just as my love for my kids isn't conditional, neither is their love for me. I'm not going to lose my babies because I didn't play horsey one day after school, and I won't send them into therapy simply because I made a batch of chili for dinner, knowing it's not on my daughter's preapproved list of three things she'll actually eat.

What I might do is teach them that it's important to care for yourself as you love others. It's important for the kindness, respect, and tenderness you show others to first be modeled to yourself.

And I'll show them that it's far preferable to have a mom who sometimes says "no" than one who sometimes explodes.

Besides, I'm sure they'll find other reasons to go to therapy later.