One of the things I’m loving about teaching is that it takes every fiber of your being to do it well. It takes your creativity, your intellect, and your physical input. There’s no way to half-ass it and have any worthwhile outcome. One of the things I love about the place where I teach came as a bit of a surprise to me. During our orientation, the different presenters emphasized the importance of self-care for teachers and caregivers at our school.
All of the students at our residential come to us because of an emotional disturbance due to some sort of complex trauma.. Being affective with the students means being present, and, often, it means hearing stories that, when you get home, bring you to tears. it means having kids yell at you as they vent their frustrations with life and remembering not to take it personally. It means thinking about the people who have done these kids harm and trying not to become hard because becoming hard means you can’t be there for those kids.
I haven’t gone to an hour of the school organized group self-care sessions, but, about a month ago, not knowing why exactly except to save money on health insurance, I decided to start going to a gym. I hit the big 5O back in April and knew that keeping bone density up means doing some resistance training, but the desire to work out was something else. It wasn’t until this weekend that I realized what it was.
I’d behave myself all week, hitting the gym for each of my routines every single day before going home. Sometimes that means getting home a bit late, especially on the days when we have professional development after classes. It also means feeling a little guilty that, in focusing on self care each day, I’m not doing right by one of the two kids who is the most important in my life. I get home feeling more relaxed, but I’m spending less time with him to do so.
This weekend my husband, Thing2 and I have been stacking wood. we have a pretty good system of me carrying logs from the wood pile to a wheelbarrow where Thing2 hands them off to the Big Guy for stacking the way he likes. Ferrying logs, two and four at a time, is it pretty good workout. normally I’d be pretty tired and ready to quit after 15 or 20 minutes. Yesterday and today, however, I was able to keep it going until the boys are ready to quit, and I was happy not just for being able to keep up but because it was another hour each day that the three of us had to talk and joke and sing along to the Beatles albums that were playing as we stacked.
When we finished up for the day a little while ago, we looked at the work we’ve done and then at each other and said to each other, “We done good.“
and I realized that self-care isn’t just about being able to help the kids at school every day, it’s about making sure that when I’m home with my kid, I am really present.
Even after 49 years, I can still take surprisingly long time to recognize when a manic episode is starting. It’s not telling every person in town I’ll be happy to come over and answer that computer question after work or even right now. It’s not acceding to all of Thing1’s needs and wants for college and groceries. Nor is it when I’m googling every graduate program and trying to turn the lemons of a stable but unsatisfying day job reality into a Tom Collins of academic and professional success by planning a succession of degrees at schools I could never afford and which would have dubious value for a middle age Hausfrau who already has too many responsibilities and dreams.
No, usually it’s about the time I look at my bank balance and say, “Oh shit,” that I realize mania may be in full swing.
Today I was in the shower when I realized I my flight was ending, sending me knocking at the door at the back of my mind. That door is the place I go when the world becomes my demon, often made worse by maniacal flights of fancy. It’s a gateway to a vast, rich fantasy world as layered and complex as the ‘real’ one everyone else lives in. Sometimes I crash through it as I fall out of the stratosphere, other times, I slink through it.
There’s usually no logical reason for the flights and falls. The wrong screw is loosened, and then up and down and up I go until I find a way to pound my octagonal peg of a personality into a round hole of life.
Over the last few years as I’ve become better at managing mania and depression, a few cobwebs have grown over the door. I may peek through but don’t really go inside. That morning in the shower I rinsed the soap from my eyes and found myself fully on the inside, peeking out, but realizing the kids, my husband and my job require active participation in that outside world.
The lifeline back to the other side, this time, came from an unusual source — common sense. It took the form of a small, almost unrecognizable voice in my head.
“Let go,” it whispered.
Those two words were so simple and clear, more meaningful than just saying no to the drug of trying to do everything because it sounds good. Don’t just fly after every idea. Learn to fly with one or two dreams in a single direction.
So the next morning, I looked at all the creative projects I’ve started over the last year.
The words ‘I have an idea’ can strike fear into the hearts of husbands and resignation into mentors. My sun-singed ideas languish in half-filled notebooks and devices. An almost-finished children’s book marinates on my iPad as I view yet another video on how to write children’s books. Another waits to move from the rough sketch book to the painting table. The pages of still another non-fiction book have started forming. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to explode into the sky and catch every idea for a novel or comic book that flutters chaotically over the fields and mountains, often following their trajectory until I’m blinded.
And then, “Let Go” echoed again.
It reminded me that chasing every dream, soaring towards the sun, may make it hard to tell the difference between the glow of opportunity and a goal going up in flames. Letting go means nurturing a few meaningful the ideas that may already be getting off the ground.
So I’m letting go of the degree research and lining up the writing projects so that I can more easily follow one at a time and stay on course. I hope it means I’m learning to fly in formation.
Food and I go way back. Almost fifty years now. We’ve had a great relationship. I mean, don’t all great friendships include an all-controlling dominant half (food) and a sycophantic lickspittle (me) or, in my case lick-whatever’s-left-on-the-plate?
I have started to question that relationship in the last few years. I’ve tried to take the upper hand by counting calories, cutting out certain kinds of food colored chocolate with labels like ‘Abandon all self-control here, ye of little self-respect’. A few years ago, I started to dominate the relationship to the point where I’d lost fifty pounds, which helped my five foot three frame look more like a short pear than a cantaloupe.
I controlled intake. I exercised. It lasted a few months.
A broken foot knocked me off my fitness routine, and soon I was back on the Bernaise sauce. And the steak and asparagus. And don’t forget the garlic mashed potatoes. Oh, yeah, that’s the stuff..
Last week I had an inkling a depressive phase might be setting in when the mental call of the country store round table took on a decidedly fried sound. My day of work and deep-fried self-medication wasn’t the first over-indulgence, but as I got home feeling sick from over-eating and somehow still willing to eat more to feel ‘better’, I realized, my relationship to food was more like an addict’s to a pusher.
Yesterday, online, I caught the headline of an article in the Guardian about not just changing the relationship with food, but breaking up with it for a few weeks. By taking it out of the equation.
After read the first few paragraphs (always a good idea when making a healthcare decision) about using traditional meal-replacement shakes that have been around since the 60s and 70s to turn food from emotional balm into pure function, I knew what I have to do. I headed out the door to our favorite British-style diner for a last supper.
Okay, maybe today will be the real last supper.
But I didn’t have to read the rest of the article to know that this sounded right. I need to break up with food. I need to get the upper hand and find another, more constructive emotional outlet like writing or painting (I hear some people swear by it).
So today, like the dozens (maybe hundreds) of Sundays before every diet I’ve ever broken, might be a free-for-all (okay, it will be), but tomorrow, we’re breaking up. I’ll make sure the calorie count is sane and that a bottle of multivitamins is handy, but for the next eight weeks, food won’t be what’s for dinner or for celebration or inebriation.
Food, I’ll call you in a couple months, and if you want to be friends, things are going to have to change.
The Big Guy has been fasting after lunch each day, so I text him early in the day to see if he wanted to break his fast to go to hibachi for dinner to celebrate two kids with honor roll and a full week of no hospital visits. He texted back ‘Zes’, in the mangled affirmative that had emerged with Thing1’s first words 16 years ago.
It was my last day off during the kids’ spring break (the term Spring is used very loosely in Vermont to describe a mythical concept based on the absence of snow). While the Big Guy got done with work, I played Monopoly with Thing2 so Thing1 could drive himself for the first time since his anemia was diagnosed and treated over a week ago to see SuperGal.
The morning felt normal, but normal doesn’t mean permanent.
I was still recovering from a bad property trade with Thing2 when Thing1 got home. He was pale and weak and complaining of pain that had all the hallmarks of a resurgent flare up. The Big Guy had arrived, and we debated staying home, but Thing1 insisted we carry on with our dinner plans.
“I have to eat,” he said. It was true, but his earlier excitement for a meal of celebration had devolved into determination to not surrender a favorite meal to his condition. The Big Guy and I voiced our concerns about his endurance, but he answered, “I just don’t care anymore.”
I have no doubt that’s true on a lot of recent days, and when he’s too tired to care, we know it’s our job to account for the deficit to get him through. As we packed everyone into the car and headed to the restaurant, however, in the rear-view mirror I could see his eyes close as he rested his head against the top of the door frame.
A worried crease appeared between his eyebrows, and I knew I was seeing a kid that is losing hope. I’ve seen that expression before. Usually I promise him we’ll keep searching until we find the right drug, but last night, as we drove, all I could do is promise him a delicious meal where we would all have fun.
We did have fun, and, for two hours it was a good drug.
When we got home, Thing1 had enough energy to crawl into bed. I went to the bottom of the stairs to his room several times during the night to make sure his breathing was normal, wishing I could give him my healthy organ.
It’s 6am as I write this, and we’ll head down to the hospital shortly for blood draws and more phone calls.
A lot of days I look for the silver lining. Thing1 has grown wise beyond his years. We have all gained empathy for people with long-term illnesses and appreciation for the privilege we enjoy in being able to seek out treatment option. This morning, however, I am focused on the lessons.
I’ve written a number of times about my own issues with mental illness and about the depression that invades life independent of any events, but what I’m feeling — what Thing1 has expressed he is feeling — is not that. There is an ongoing event.
This is not depression. This is understanding the new normal and its impact now and on the future. This is sadness. Last night, even when we were celebrating, it was grief.
There have been many times over the years when the only things keeping me from literally throwing away my life were Thing1 and Thing2. You can convince yourself that the adults in your life would survive and even thrive if you died, but no one can honestly tell themselves that a child would be better off with the knowledge that a mother willingly abandoned them.
So I’ve picked my battles with life, even when I didn’t really want to, and, even when life was awash with depression, it was worth it.
As I’m learning to understand the gulf between sadness and depression, I’m also learning that even if Thing1’s battle has to be fought indefinitely, I will fight it for him for as long he needs us to because he gives my life meaning.
So much is written about happiness these days. There are the happiest countries and the best paths to happiness. Life doesn’t have to be filled with happiness all the time to be worthwhile, however. As I’m slowly learning, filling it with meaning may be more sustaining in the long term.
I about 15 or 16 the first time I realized that everyone else in the world did not walk around thinking about suicide at least once a day. The revelation came after a school assembly on the subject when our class was herded into separate rooms where intimate groups of 50 or so giggling, super-sensitive teenagers were invited to play a quiet game of True Confession.
The assembly leaders asked us if any of us had ever contemplated taking her own life, and I raised my hand. I was only one dumb enough to do it. My candor earned me a private session with one of the leaders who assured me I wasn’t normal and offered me a pamphlet to a nearby church. I decided not to tell him about the coupon for the box of sleeping pills that I carried in my backpack every day. I decided not to tell anyone because I already had a few labels at that school – ugly, strange – and I wasn’t excited about adding loony tunes to the list.
A few years and suicide attempts later a shrink helped me pin the manic-depressive (as bi-polar disorder was more commonly called back then) label on myself, but it wasn’t something I wore around in public. I was worried about being able to get a job. I was worried if I ever had kids, I wouldn’t be allowed to keep them. And I worried I’d be put on some kind of government list.
Now the State of Vermont is getting ready to do just that to people with mental illness. Under the guise of gun safety and protecting people from themselves, they have pushed a law through the senate that will put people with mental illness who have been deemed (by a court) to be a danger to themselves or others on a special FBI ‘pre-crime’ watch list of people who are not allowed to own guns , even though mentally ill people are rarely violent and many may never actually go to buy a gun.
I got a little nervous when I read this.
I’ve been out about my bi-polar situation for many years. It was harder to hide it than be honest about it, but as anyone whose stood at the kitchen counter, gripping a knife during a manic episode and seeing visions of their own amputated wrist can tell you, being a danger to oneself kind of goes with the manic-depressive territory. I called a shrink the last time that happened, knowing I would find help and a medication adjustment. I do know that one thing, however, that would keep me from walking into his office and talking openly about an urge to hurt anyone (myself or anyone else) is the fear of getting on some government list. It might keep me from going at all.
Now, I’m not saying that if I walk into my shrink’s office next week and tell him that voices from the planet Crapulon have told me to kill everybody whose name ends in ’s’ that he shouldn’t report me and take steps to prevent a clear and present danger to someone else (which, by the way is already the law). He should probably help me get into an institution at that point which would certainly keep me from getting a gun.
I don’t think, however, someone who has never actually committed a crime should be put into some national pre-crime database simply because they are mentally ill and because they might one day buy a gun.
You can call me paranoid to worry about a government that has never passed a law data to prevent crime or terrorism that ended up drag-netting the private communications and records of thousands of innocent citizens into databases that kept them from getting on planes or had them erroneously detained without counsel before, if they want off the government watch list, requiring them to prove their innocence (and nobody is innocent) because they’ve been assumed guilty, but in my addle-pated mind, nothing says stigma like putting a mentally ill person into a national FBI database.
Never mind that this doesn’t keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people living with mentally healthy people – unless we want to add them to the list. It also doesn’t keep hands out of the hands of mentally ill people who don’t seek help because they don’t trust shrinks – unless we just want to add a random 5.3 million people to the list to be on the safe side (Do you feel safer?). But it does do something. By creating a special database just for mentally ill people at the nation’s largest crime investigation organization, it is taking the first step toward classifying them (us) as criminals. Excuse me, pre-criminals. I’m not sure if that’s much better.