My latest for parents and teachers who work with teens is here. Once you know how to spot anxiety, the next trick is to figure out what’s triggering it.
It feels surreal.
I realize that I say that so often now. That I experience things that I have a hard time accepting for one reason or another.
The fact that my mom doesn’t know who I am; that feels surreal. As though in some parallel existence my real mother exists and she is still able to take the train up to visit me, sit and talk to me at the kitchen table about how crazy it is that my oldest daughter is a senior in high school. And so every time I see her sitting in her living room, watching Bonanza reruns and asking me over and over again where I live, who I am, why I’m there, it is as though I’ve been cast in some absurd play without ever having auditioned.
The fact that my oldest child is a high school senior is also surreal. Is it possible that I’m old enough for that? That she is? Even though it feels like I’ve been a mother forever – it almost feels like I’ve never NOT been a mother – it couldn’t possibly be accurate that Eve is almost 18, that this year we will visit and apply to colleges, that next year we will move her in.
I haven’t imagined these moments, I guess. Maybe that’s what it is. I haven’t sat and wondered what it might feel like to be without a mother or to be without my daughter. Is it that, because I can’t picture myself here, because I haven’t turned these scenes around and around in my head, tried them on for size, pulled them off and tweaked them a little bit and put them back on that I am having trouble believing they’re real?
I don’t ever remember feeling like anything was surreal as a kid. I don’t really remember imagining how things would turn out, though. Maybe as a kid the world seemed so unpredictable, so full of possibility or so fully out of my control that I couldn’t begin to compare reality to what I had expected. Even as things happened that were unexpected or unwelcome, as a kid, I simply accepted what came and tried to figure out how to respond. Ignore? Run for cover? Adapt and move forward?
I wonder if it has something to do with the way the child brain works – that it is concrete and so just takes what comes. Adolescents develop the ability for abstract thought, and as we age, we also begin to believe that we can control things in our lives. Maybe “imagination” is the wrong word. Children have spectacular imaginations that are often unbounded by any sort of reality. But as we get older, the kinds of things we imagine center more around ourselves and our desires and our expectations. So maybe surrealism comes as a result of life looking significantly different than my expectations – especially when what I’m presented with is difficult emotionally or something I wouldn’t have chosen to spend time thinking about or planning for.
The seduction of the surreal is that it doesn’t beckon me to spend much time there. At least not in these two scenarios. I am not fully present when I experience these things because I don’t truly want to be there, so perhaps it’s a trick of my mind that is trying to tell me I can deny it by labeling it that way.
There have been other moments in my life that feel similarly dream-like that were exhilarating and pleasant, and while they had the same qualities, those were moments that I bathed in, savored, chose to fully experience. Several years ago, Lola and I paraglided off the top of a mountain in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. The ride lasted about 15 minutes and from the second we strapped in and started listening to the instructions, I felt as though I were outside myself. As the wind caught the parasail and lifted my feet off the side of the mountain I pulled my consciousness back inside, tethered it, and focused on each breath in an effort to capture the experience as deeply as I could. I knew it was going to be over before I was ready, and I was determined to pay attention. I will never regret doing that because it remains one of the most amazing things I’ve ever had the good fortune to do and I’m thrilled that I really took the time to be there while it was happening.
Maybe I need to do the same during other times when I feel as though I’m out of my element. As painful as it is, choosing to be fully present with my daughter and my mom during these moments that I couldn’t have imagined or prepared myself for emotionally could mean the difference between simply enduring them and finding some grace in them.
It started when I saw a meme (I know, memes. Ugh. But sometimes…) that said: It doesn’t matter whether the glass is half full or half empty. Remember, the glass is refillable.
I was struck by how easy it is to get trapped into the idea that there are only two ways to see that glass. So often, we convince ourselves that there are only opposing ideas – black or white, right or wrong. We are all familiar with the sayings that begin with “there are two kinds of people: those who….” I liked the notion that the glass was refillable. I adopted it. I wrote it down. I told my kids about it.
To be certain, there are times when we want to fill that glass up higher, and when it makes sense to do so. When one of my daughters does poorly on an exam or school project, I want to remind her that there is always time to do better, that she can move beyond this difficult moment and learn from it and grow. She can be sad that the glass seems half empty, acknowledge it, and then make an effort to create a different scenario next time.
But yesterday, while my mind was wandering, I bumped up against the limitations of that metaphor. I am someone who struggles with control-freakishness but I have learned to use mindfulness to lower my anxiety levels and my need to fix things. I realized that thinking about the glass as refillable moves me away from acceptance and creates the often false assumption that whatever situation I find myself in has to be changed in order to be tenable. I don’t want to lose the power of being in the moment with the glass as it is because I really believe that, often, this is where the magic of growth and learning come from. When we quickly try to move beyond our disappointment or discomfort with the current situation we find ourselves in (ie. racing to fill up that glass), we aren’t giving ourselves the opportunity to practice acceptance and really honor our experience in the present moment. Beyond that, there are unfortunately some things that can’t be altered or ‘fixed,’ and then what do we do with the glass?
My mom has Alzheimer’s and, as these things go, she is in need of constant care taking. That glass isn’t refillable. There is no way to reverse or fix what is happening. But, that doesn’t mean that I have to choose between seeing the glass as half full or half empty. Truthfully, it is both at the same time. It is half full and half empty. Yes, she unable to be independent and take care of her daily needs. AND, she has an incredibly loving husband who cares for her with love and affection and works hard to make sure that she is safe and comfortable. For now, that is the metaphor I want to embrace – the simultaneous existence of lack and abundance and their very reliance on each other in order to exist.
It occurs to me that our bodies and minds weren’t made to hold on to emotion. Nor were they made to reject it.
More and more, I think that the best method of experiencing emotions is the same way our bodies were made to digest food. We take it in, let it trace a path through the body where the pieces we need to utilize for repair and sustenance are extracted, and the rest is eliminated.
Too often, we treat emotions as something that we need to control and manipulate, but I think we’re going about it all wrong. At least, most of us are.
Lola has the right idea. She is a natural at simply ‘digesting’ her emotions. She lets them come, acknowledges them, sits still while they make their way through whatever process they go through, and extracts what she needs from them – whether it’s something she’s learned or a closeness she feels with someone important.
There are others in my life who I see become constipated, holding on to the emotion or the story it conjures in their heads, letting it affect them in ways that are profound and lasting. They either wall off the emotions and prevent themselves from seeing the benefits, or they gain some of the benefit, but then become embittered and embrace a victimhood that allows the unpleasant, dysfunctional parts of the situation to remain without being removed.
And there are still others who are bulimic – rejecting certain emotions or situations violently by purging the emotion or denying the feelings conjured up. In this scenario, the individual is ultimately denying themselves the learning and growth that comes from processing difficult emotions and coming to a deeper understanding of hurt and struggle and their place in it.
Without allowing our bodies and minds to fully process what we are feeling in any given situation, we fail to learn that, in every challenging scenario, there is a beginning, a middle and an end. There is a way to walk through pain and struggle, sadness and grief and suffering, and come out the other end a stronger, wiser person. But not if we become constipated or deny the reality of the situation altogether.
I am absolutely guilty of doing both of these things from time to time, and even if I do my best to process emotions like Lola, I can find it hard to not try to drive the process and make it fit my own timeline. But I’m learning that, like digesting my food, my body and mind have their own way of working with what I’m presented with, mining it for the good and letting go of the rest, and it is in my own best interest to simply let the process happen. I admit I’ve struggled a little with what that might look like, and the best conclusion I’ve come to thus far is to simply be mindful of the feelings and hold space for them, knowing that I can’t possibly predict how long it will take or how impactful it will be.
The older I get, the more complicated Mother’s Day seems to be. As a kid, it was all excitement and anticipation – making crafty gifts in class with glue and construction paper and flowers and hearts. I couldn’t wait to watch Mom open her one of a kind present and exclaim how wonderful it was.
It was about experimenting in the kitchen to make her breakfast in bed or plucking flowers from the neighbors’ yards on a walk to make a spontaneous bouquet.
In my teenage years, Mother’s Day was more of a reprieve for both of us; a day to set aside the petty frustrations and disagreements and have 16 hours of peace and appreciation. I’m sure, more often than not, by the time Monday came around, I was back to rolling my eyes in derision while the flowers stood tall in the vase on the kitchen counter.
When I became a mother, it was about excitement and anticipation again – waiting to see what my girls had made for me or chosen for me at the store with their dad. But it was also a revelation.
Motherhood is about soft snuggles in bed, the smell of a baby’s head, and it’s about bedtime routines that lasted for hours and often ended with me screaming into a pillow after tiptoeing out of my child’s room.
It is about smiling in pride when my children do something amazing and the stark fear that they are somehow in danger and it’s my job to protect them every moment of every day.
Mother’s Day is about recognizing that my mother is a human being, that she had to try and hold the tension between caring for me and preserving her Self, and that she didn’t always do it the way I wanted her to. It’s about realizing that my daughters feel the same way sometimes. It is about appreciating the evolution of my relationship with my mother – from feeling smothered and policed to feeling appreciated and honored. It is also about the evolution of my relationship with my children – from overwhelming responsibility and endless repetition of tasks to stepping back and watching as they do things I never dreamed they would do and knowing that we will always have this bond in one way or another.
Mother’s Day is about widening that circle to include every woman who ever mothered me, the teachers who took an interest, women who mentored me or listened to me or encouraged me. It is about honoring mothering in all its forms – gentle prodding and sideline cheering and bandaging wounds and holding space for my grief. It is about watching my childhood friends grow up to be mothers and realizing that we all had it in us somehow, somewhere, this ability to believe in something bigger than ourselves and the desire to protect it so that it flourishes.
Mother’s Day is the ultimate exercise in opposites, the feeling that you’re part of a tribe and that you’re in charge of it; the joy of watching your children grow up and the nostalgia of your own childhood; the gratitude of being recognized and the knowledge that you would do all of it even without that recognition. But since mothering is an exercise in opposites, that seems fitting. From the moment our babies are born, they begin moving toward independence, stretching that distance between us and them and we are tasked with helping them accomplish that while simultaneously mourning the loss of that connection.
I’m coming to realize that Mother’s Day is simply the distillation of the biggest lessons in my life. It is a day that reminds me that grief and joy live together in every moment, and that my job as my daughters’ mother is to help them figure out how to hold both of those things simultaneously, honor them both, and keep moving forward. Whether you are mothering children of your own or you are a mother-figure to other children, whether you have a mother or you’ve lost yours, may your day be restful and full of peace. May you find the strength to hold all that is present in your life today, or have others who will help you hold it. May you feel mothered.
One of our house rules* is that we all agree not to do something for someone else that will make us angry. It seems obvious, but it’s amazing how many times I’ve done things as I’m knee-deep in resentment and fury because it feels like there’s no other way or because I simply can’t think straight in the midst of all that strong emotion.
What I know is that when I do things like that, often somewhere in the back of my mind, I’m keeping score. There is a part of me that is saying, “ok, now this person owes me one” or “I get to bring this up the next time they claim I never do anything for them.”
What I also know is that the longer I hold on to that chit, the heavier it gets. And as I’m doing the “selfless” act for someone else, I am enraged, and neither of those things makes me feel good about myself.
It’s tempting to blame the object of my actions for even having the audacity to ask for such a thing, or (as in the incident that occurred this morning) lash out at them for emotionally blackmailing me. And I’m sad to say that I have done both of those things far more often than I wish I had, but ultimately, I made that one of the house rules for a reason: because it is powerfully easy for me to slip in to a space where I do these kinds of things more and more and it becomes easier in the moment to just capitulate than it does to explain myself or assert my reasons for declining. And then I get resentful and feel like a victim and it affects my relationships with the people I love the most.
So here’s to self-awareness and posting house rules in a conspicuous place as a reminder to act in accordance with what I know is good for me and those whom I love.
*These rules are not my creation. I heard about them from a friend a few years ago and adopted them because I think they’re so fabulous.
My girls are getting older and now that Lola is in high school, I’ve really been hit with the knowledge that they are strong, capable young women who are reaching for independence. It’s a delicate balance for me as their mom, to let them stretch themselves and to keep reminding them that I am here if they want me – for adventures or to vent, as a shoulder to cry on or just someone to hang out with on the rare evening they don’t have other plans.
I remember that desperate need to be on my own, to prove that I could do it myself, to peel off from my family and firmly attach myself to my friend-tribe. When I left for college, I came home so rarely, convinced that the new family I had created was so much better, so much more fun and supportive. And in some ways, they were, but there is something powerful about that other tribe – the one that shares my history, that remembers who I was all those years ago (and loves me anyway).
Last weekend, Lola and I traveled to the central coast of California to hang out with that tribe, my mom’s siblings and their spouses and kids. And even though Mom couldn’t be there with us, it felt like coming home. Looking around the table to see faces that are so familiar, hear laughter that I remember deep in my bones from years past, was grounding in a way I can’t really describe. I loved the opportunity to remind Lola that she is part of this group whether she wants to be or not. There is a special mix of nurturing and support, loud hilarity and not-taking-ourselves-too-seriously that has been there ever since I can remember. This group has weathered major storms over the years and come out smiling because they do it together. No matter the brand of tragedy, there is a set-your-jaw-and-roll-up-your-sleeves mentality that doesn’t back down and doesn’t forget that in the midst of all of it, there is joy to be found. This is a group that doesn’t shy away from the full range of emotions available to us (sometimes swinging from one to the other with dizzying speed), all the while holding on tightly to each and every other member of the family. And it’s a group whose definition of family extends beyond bloodlines to include others who are deeply loved and abide by the rule of having each others’ backs.
While I really wish Eve had been able to join us, I came away knowing that we will do this again soon and I’ll bring her along because I think that this is the perfect time for both of my girls to be reminded that there is a strong, smart, compassionate, funny-as-hell group of people who will always be there for them, who are rooting for them as they spread their wings and head out into the world to do whatever it is they decide to do. I know that I have always felt grateful to be able to rely on the absolute bedrock of this family to both hold me up when times were tough and make me laugh until I pee – sometimes simultaneously.
throughout her life, perhaps choosing a career as a writer wasn’t the best way
to go. Writers, especially freelance writers, experience far more rejection
than the average person.
adolescence and brain development, I discovered several studies on the power of
gratitude. When I was really wrestling with darkness, mornings were the most
challenging time for me. I woke up, opening one eye at a time to gauge whether
that semi-truck of pain and longing was heading for me before I swung my feet
out of bed onto the floor. Often, before I could get both eyes open, my mind
would begin to race and my heart would pound as I anticipated what the day had
in store for me. After reading about the way gratitude shifts our thinking
patterns and affects our brain chemistry, I decided to start each day with a
short list of things for which I was truly grateful. I envisioned it as a sort
of shield against that truck hurtling toward me.
not because I don’t have many, many blessings in my life, but because I have an
innate tendency to qualify them. As soon as I think of one, I either compare it
to someone else and feel guilty that, say, my kids are healthy and I have a
friend whose kids aren’t – which effectively soils the gratitude – or it feels
trite and petty, like being grateful that I have enough money to pay my bills.
Even in my gratitude practice, I found myself wanting – either for more ‘pure’
things like love (which feels a little too nebulous sometimes, to be honest) or
for deep, profound items on my list that really resonated in my bones. I am
nothing if not stubborn, though, and motivated by the fervent desire to keep my
depression and anxiety at bay, I kept going despite the sometimes pathetic
nature of my lists. Every day, I thought that maybe tomorrow I could come up
with something beyond gratitude for my soft, warm bed, my kids, and my husband to
be grateful for.
starting high school, I encouraged her to start a gratitude practice to see if
it could help her. Every night before bed, I would text her three things for
which I was grateful and she would text me back right before falling asleep. My
hope was that if the last thoughts she had every day were ones that filled her
up rather than dragging her down, perhaps she would wake up with optimism for
the coming day instead of dread. Her lists began much as mine had. She was
grateful for a full belly and a soft pillow and a roof over her head. But over
time, she was able to open up and recall specific things that had happened
during the day that were positive – a friendly smile in the cafeteria, being
picked by a classmate to partner on a project because she is so organized, to
appreciating a trusting relationship with a special teacher. Her perspective
shifted over a period of weeks and she went from finding excuses to stay in bed
to getting up and tackling each new day and its challenges with a feeling of
competence and groundedness.
come to understand what it is about this practice that has been so effective
for me. In the beginning, I often attempted to come up with things by starting
with, “at least I’m not….” What I discovered is that if I am comparing my life
to someone else’s (as in, “at least I’m not part of this oppressed group or
that oppressed group,” or thinking about all the ways my situation could be
worse such as, “neither of my kids is terminally ill and I’m not homeless,”),
I’m not really being grateful. That’s just another way my anxiety is telling me
my life could run off the rails at some point, so I should really be cautious.
Instead of helping me feel calm and centered, it is really reminding me that
one or more of those things could potentially happen and, for now, I’m just
dodging a bullet.
in my life as compared to the number of “bad” things, that is also not helpful
gratitude. Weighing them against each other in a sort of balance sheet is not a
positive step. The fact is, both things exist simultaneously (and are often
intertwined with each other) in my life and in my mind, but gratitude is about
the ones I consciously choose to pay attention to. It doesn’t make the
challenges and difficulties in my life disappear, it simply allows me to notice
that there are many positive things in my life, too.
sabotage, and find the things that need ‘fixing.’ This isn’t always a bad thing
– often I am happy to know that there is something I can do to make things
better. But unless I take the time to really engage in a gratitude practice, I
won’t notice the things that are absolutely right and lovely in the world all
around me. I might notice the pile of unfolded laundry lying on the couch, but
I can also choose to see that the dishes are all clean and the dog is fed and
happily snoozing in his bed and an essay I was working on this morning is coming
though, because when I am in the zone, it truly isn’t. When I am really tuned
in to the goodness and abundance in my life, the list of things for which I am
grateful grows quickly and easily. For me, the key to gratitude is to simplify
things. When I am frustrated and irritable, the best thing for me to do is stop
and look around. I see my computer and I am grateful for the ability to write
and connect with people who are important to me online. I catch sight of a
glass of water on the counter and appreciate clean water and a cupboard full of
dishes. I note my sunglasses on the table next to me and close my eyes and
thank goodness that I can so often feel the warm sun on my back. When I can
keep myself from trying to create stories or context, I can find simple, pure
gratitude and suddenly, there is more air in the room.
right in my life means I am activating the parts of my brain that produce
serotonin and dopamine gives me hope. When I started that gratitude practice
all those years ago out of desperation, I was beginning a process of rewiring
my brain to more easily find happiness. Sticking with it, I realized that it
does become easier over time to recognize and appreciate simple things that
give me joy. While I still struggle with anxiety (and rejection), I am more
able to see it as a part of this messy, glorious life I am living instead of
letting it keep me from getting out of bed in the morning.
I had thought that, since I lost one parent already, there would be a sense of familiarity, of deja vu, of “been there, done that” when I lost the next one. Not in a dismissive way, just an “ok, I’ve got this, I know what to expect” kind of way.
Dad was diagnosed with lung cancer. He told me early on, I was there to listen, I went down when he had surgery to remove part of his left lung and some lymph nodes, I let him bounce ideas off of me for future treatments. We weren’t certain of the timeline, but we knew he was sick and he was absolutely honest with me about how sick he was. It was excoriatingly, skin-flayingly, teeth-grindingly painful in the last week to watch him suffer. He knew me until the minute he died in my arms.
But Alzheimer’s or dementia or whatever the hell this is that Mom has is a completely different animal. She isn’t having some diseased cells cut away. She isn’t calling me to tell me about the latest drugs or therapies her doctor has offered. She might live for six months or six years. She has no idea who I am.
This one-sided relationship is teeth-grindingly painful in a completely different way. When Dad took a turn for the worse, it was obvious. Over a period of several days, he began having pain in his legs and hips and when they took x-rays it was clear that the cancer had spread to his bones. An MRI showed it was in his brain, too – the cancer cells lit up like the night sky I once saw in the middle of nowhere, New Mexico. From that point forward, we knew there was no rallying, no bouncing back.
Mom’s slide has been gradual except when it seems to leap forward, and there have been many times over the last year when she was almost able to snap out of it and recognize me and have a conversation. The cruelest part of that is that it gave me hope. It made me wonder how we could capture those lucid moments and prolong them, whether there was some magical drug that she could take that would clear the way for a return to herself. Those moments, when they are gone, are all I can hope for and envision, but they are much fewer and farther between and I know I won’t get a signal that tells me I’ve seen the last one. I didn’t get a sign the last time I spoke to Mom on the phone that said it wouldn’t happen again. I didn’t get a warning the last time she called me by name and knew I was her daughter so that I could savor it.
There is a part of me that wonders if I am a little bit narcissistic in my grief. A part that thinks maybe it shouldn’t matter so much whether she knows who I am, that tells me to just get on with caring for her the best way I know how without worrying whether she remembers I’m hers. Because somehow, I want to be special. I don’t want to be just one of another cast of characters who comes through to visit and smile at her. I want to be her daughter, not for any sort of recognition of my efforts, but because I mean something more. There is something about the reciprocity of a loving relationship that makes it feel whole. When I sat with Dad during his last days, holding his hand and telling him stories, even though he couldn’t speak, there was a familiarity. He squeezed my hand and his eyes danced during the funny parts, and his rough, calloused thumb rubbed back and forth against mine when I was being serious. We had a history that was fully intact until the moment he took his last breath and when I grieved for him, I grieved for all of it simultaneously, the loss of his body, his Self, and our relationship.
This time, I am grieving in stages. While there are parts of Mom’s Self that are still fully intact – her sarcasm and playfulness comes out sometimes with her husband – I have lost the history of our relationship as mother and daughter. She knows I am familiar, but she doesn’t know why. Our inside jokes now belong to me, even though she is physically still here. When we sit together, I can’t tell her stories about my kids or my husband because it confuses her – she doesn’t know these people, why am I talking about them? We can’t reminisce or look forward to sharing family holidays together or significant moments in the future because she isn’t coming to my girls’ high school graduations or weddings. There is a quality of suspended animation to it all, a sense that I am walking without a foundation beneath me.
I wish I had a succinct ending to this post. I usually am able to close the loop with some sort of insight, but maybe the fact that I can’t this time is an apt metaphor for how all of this feels right now – loose and unfinished.
Yesterday, Jennifer Pastiloff’s site, The Manifest-Station, featured an excerpt of my memoir-in-progress on their site. I am thrilled to have this process begin. You can find it here.