We’ve Been Here Before

I’ve been feeling a weird sense of deja vu the past few days.

Here in the Portland, Oregon area we’ve finally had some smoke settle into the valley. I say finally because we’ve had a large wildfire burning southeast of us for a while now and we’ve been fortunate to not have the smoke-filled wind heading our way until a few days ago. Oh hello. I’ve been expecting you.

Last September, a windstorm blew smoke into our valley that stuck around for 11 long days. For a time, we had the worst air quality in the world. The sky was orange, the sunsets were bloody, my kids didn’t leave the house, and smoke seeped into our house as we tried in vain to tape up every source of air leakage. Covid had made my home and the outdoors the only safe places, but airborne ash and soot were able to reach every crevice where Covid had missed. My safe space had gotten so small, I was ready to start crafting a cocoon. The only thing left to do was to hibernate and hope the time for butterflies would come sooner rather than later.

Schools are getting ready to open again. A few weeks ago, we got an email saying that masks would not be mandated. Before this announcement, a survey was sent out to parents asking if we planned to send our kids to school in person if masks weren’t mandated because personal opinion trumps science now. I was prepared to send yet another letter to the superintendent urging her to hear reason over the deafening cries of anti-mask, anti-vax parents. Thank goodness our governor came through with a K-12 mask mandate sooner rather than later.

Last summer, I remember getting an instant injection of anxiety-dread each time a new email was sent by the school district, principal, office, whoever. Every new change was a jolt to my system, a new adjustment in expectation, another calculation of perceived safety needed. There were many. It was overwhelming.

And so, a year has gone by. I’m so tired. I suppose a better word for it is weary. Traumatized.

The major positive difference this year is that the adults in my life are vaccinated. While that’s not nothing, it’s also not enough. When my husband and I got our shots, family members commented to us that they were so glad we could relax now. We rolled our eyes. Relax, you say? These were not people raising young children during a pandemic, and it showed. Yes, we’re all in the same storm, but only those in this boat containing tiny humans (controlling for all other sources of privilege) know the special hell of the last 17 months. And it’s not even close to being over.

But I digress.

While the alarming rise in Covid cases, smoke, chaos preceding the upcoming school year, and still-unvaccinated children gave me that sense of deja vu, it also feels different this time. My response has been different.

I can’t quite decide, but it’s either that I’m so traumatized that these now seasonal stressors are not surprising, and even expected – right on time, just like the arrival of pumpkin spice – or it’s that I’m stronger this time. More prepared. We have air purifiers. N95s. We’ve done the whole distance learning thing and we rocked it and we know we can do it again. We’ve been here before. Oh hello.

Or maybe it’s a little bit of both. Either way, we’ve done this before. We will do it again.

Wrinkle Cream and Lounge Wear

What a year this has been. Holy freaking cow.

I like to blog and take stock of my life on my birthdays, but this year I don’t even know where to start.

I usually get a massage on my birthday, but that didn’t happen. (There is a part of me that just wants to say fuck it and go do whatever I wanna do, but the rule follower part of me won’t allow that fantasy to become a reality.) Even though holy crap I could really use one because I can literally feel the weight of junk that’s been collecting and that I’ve been dragging around with me. After said massage, I usually go and sit in a Starbucks where I drink coffee without kids and I blog and read. As I type this, I’m sitting in my car in the parking lot of a park overlooking a river. I have my Starbucks and I just inhaled a birthday donut. At least it’s quiet and there are zero kids in the vicinity.

Usually, my birthday evokes feelings around my long-ago cancer diagnosis. This year, I have some (because how can I not), but mostly I’m struck by how covid/the pandemic/quarantining has shoved my cancer history to the back burner. Comparatively, it’s made my cancer feel more like a distant memory than ever before. Not sure how I feel about that.

It’s been exactly a year since I’ve had a date night out with my husband. I haven’t seen my parents in 15 months. I haven’t seen my brother for even longer. I can’t count how many face masks I own now. It’s good to acknowledge loss and take time to grieve, and I do that from time to time, but….how do I keep doing that when the trauma isn’t over? And this is me, who’s specifically trained to help heal trauma.

I often wonder how time and perspective will shape how I feel about this experience, this season in my life. How will I remember it? What stories will I tell? How and when will this all end? How will this shape how I live the rest of my life?

I’ve realized that it doesn’t take much to make me happy. Or content, at least. In a time when I’ve been stuck at home and can’t have nice things, it’s been the little things that have gotten me through. Kickball with my kids. Watching disaster movies with my husband. Reading really good books late into the night.

At the same time, I feel like it also doesn’t take much to trigger my anxiety. I anticipate having to retrain myself what safety feels like once this is “over” and we decide we can be social again. (Notice I didn’t say “normal,” because life won’t go back to the way it was before. In many ways, we’re forever changed.) About 3 years ago I went back to therapy for severe postpartum anxiety and in many ways I feel like the progress I made then has been shredded by covid. Covid is my anxiety’s best friend. Fuck you both.

I’m getting to the point where I am craving human contact and mentally crumbling under the cumulative weight of this crisis. Two of my peers lost their fathers recently, one to covid and one not, but both can’t grieve the way they want. I still don’t know anybody personally who’s died from covid but it’s getting closer and closer to home. It’s unsettling and I don’t like it.

I’m getting so sick of my family. I love them, but we’re always together. I have no opportunity to miss them. It’s a blessing and a curse because I wouldn’t have it any other way, but sweet baby jesus I’m ready to travel and go to the movies and hug my friends and have more personal space. I have never wanted a shot in the arm so badly in my entire life. I still have hope, of course, but what I need is some relief.

I know that many can identify with me that this year of deprivation has lit a fire under my desire to get my adult life started as soon as this is over. Life is short, and I want to go back to work. I want to see the world. I want my kids to build lives of their own, apart from me. I realize this will all happen in good time, but right here, right now, we can’t do it and I’m getting tired of waiting.

This morning, instead of a massage, I bought wrinkle cream and lounge wear on the internet.

So. I’m weary, I’m anxious, I’m hopeful, and now, I’m 38.

The World Is Not Ending

I’ve realized I need to remind myself that the world is not ending.

Somewhere along the way, I figured all the stores are closed and school is closed, so I should be too.

This is it. Accept it. We don’t get nice things anymore.

But then I hear other people are going out.

Having experiences.

Seeing people.

Doing things.

Living their lives.

And then I remember. Huh. Maybe I should too?

Staying home is nice.

Safe.

Warm.

Comfy.

But is this what I want?

I’m so tired.

Weary.

Sad.

Numb.

But is this what I want?

Sometimes I don’t know what I want.

Oftentimes I change my mind.

Or my mind changes me.

Just remember, self: the world is not ending

And neither are you.


Day 22: Pepper Day!

An iceberg in the path of our ship

I wrote the following letter to Kate Brown, the Governor of Oregon, because I can’t just sit here and do nothing when I know there’s an iceberg in the path of our ship.


July 15, 2020

Dear Governor Brown,

I am writing this letter to urgently beg you to move Oregon schools to online only education for at least the remainder of 2020.

As I write this, teachers and administrators are scrambling to do the impossible – to continue giving our children an in-person education amidst a global pandemic. It’s impossible to ensure the health and safety of our students, teachers, and staff, and ultimately the families and community members all of those people go home to each day.

Please, don’t make the mistake of waiting until our classrooms are overrun with positive cases and people start getting hospitalized and die. Please don’t wait.

Cases in Oregon, like the majority of the country, are spiking. If businesses and institutions continue to open, there’s only one direction in which we’re all headed. If indoor gatherings are capped at 10 (ten!), as per your current guidelines, then schools should be no exception.

Opening schools is not worth the risk. It’s not worth losing lives.

Be brave. Do the right thing and save lives by taking preventative measures.

We’re all in this together, and your policies should reflect that.

Urgently,
Melissa Lastname
Community member and mother of two


If you’re so inclined, write a letter to your representatives.

Here’s the link for Oregon, and here’s one for California, or search for your home state.

Be well.

 

Rage. fear. desperation.

My little girl was almost hit by a car today. Almost.

We were on our way home, crossing a busy street. My son was on his bike, my daughter on her scooter and I was on foot. We looked left, we looked right. No cars. We were in a crosswalk. We did everything right.

To the right of the crosswalk is a traffic circle, and I saw a car whip around and it wasn’t slowing down. By this time, I was halfway across, my son was behind me, and my daughter was ahead of me.

I screamed, STOP, [HER NAME], STOP!!!

My girl started to slow down and I lurched forward, groping for her, even though she was still out of reach. I later told my husband that we’d both have been hit if the driver hadn’t slammed on her brakes.

If there was ever a time when I felt like a crazed, full-blown Mama Bear, this was it.

JESUS CHRIST!! I screamed at the car.

SLOW DOWN!!! I bellowed as I threw my arms wide in rage, fear, and desperation. I’m sure my eyes were red and smoke puffed out of my ears. Certainly, adrenaline was pumping through my system.

The driver gave a gesture that I interpreted as apologetic, but it all happened so fast. I just wanted to get back home where we’re safe.

This is several hours later, and I’m still trying to shake the rage. fear. desperation.

A similar incident happened a few months ago, but I was able to shake that one off much sooner. The differences: we weren’t in a pandemic, and I didn’t feel so constantly vulnerable, thinking about health and loved ones and safety and loss. That time, I was close enough to her that I grabbed her hood and yanked her back. Even if the car had continued to run the stop sign, I had successfully pulled her out of the way. Lastly, everyone was moving slower: me, my daughter, the car. It was far less scary, in a far less scary time.

Also a contributing factor: I’m currently experimenting with different cold brew ratios/recipes/techniques and dear baby jesus, I think I made this last batch way too freaking strong. Today I’ve been jittery and strung out. My husband says I’ve been talking a mile a minute today, buthowisthatpossibleIdon’tknowwhatyou’retalkingabout.

Not to mention that I’ve had two nightmares in the past week, one of which was technically a nightmare within a fucking nightmare (so I guess that makes it three nightmares in all). I shit you not, I had a nightmare and in the dream I went to sleep, had yet another nightmare, “woke up,” BUT WAS STILL IN A NIGHTMARE. When I woke up for realsies, you’d better believe it took me a hot minute to be quite certain that I was conscious and the world before me was indeed real. I think it’s high time I made myself a totem, BECAUSE HOW DO I KNOW I’M NOT BEING INCEPTED?! Leo?! JGL???

As a surprise to absolutely no one, I’m also knee-deep in a violent dystopian novel. My choices amaze even myself.

Soooooooo there you have it. Too much, too often I feel like the world is burning and I have a front row seat. I can feel the warm glow on my face and I can see the ash falling from the sky.

Everyone, just please do me a favor and SLOW DOWN when you drive. Check the crosswalks. Then check them again. Thanks.

And go easy on the cold brew.

 

We’re all doing the very best that we can

This is getting hard. It’s taking a toll on me, and what’s worse is that it’s taking a toll on my kids.

We’re currently toeing the line of social interaction, and my kids desperately want to be normal, and I desperately want to let them. I really, really do.

They beg me and I explain, one more time, that we can’t get too close and we can’t share toys and it’s all because of this nasty, tricky virus. They blame me, and say I’m mean and that’s okay. I don’t expect them to understand because how in the world could they? And who can blame them when they see other kids playing together, other kids sharing toys? I just keep telling them that it’s my job to keep them safe and I am doing the very best that I can. And then I die a little inside. Am I making the right choice? Maybe we should just stay home. Would that be easier or harder?

Today, once we got home my older kid was off playing by himself so I took a moment to thank him for handling the situation so well, because he really did. It’s not easy hearing your mom say no again and again. I hate doing it. But he didn’t yell, he didn’t throw a fit. He disagreed with me and expressed his feelings like someone years older, and then went to sit in the car. I’m so proud of him, and I told him so, and yet, my heart breaks for him. This is not how it’s supposed to be. This is not normal and this is going to get harder before it gets better and I’m so sorry.

I’m sorry I’m sorry I’m sorry.

We’re all doing the very best that we can.

Asking For a Friend

I’m good at following directions, and the goals of shelter in place are straightforward: stay at home, don’t go near people, wash your hands, pee in jars. Pretty simple.

I visualize safety precautions on a spectrum. Way over here is pre-covid, when we went everywhere and my kids licked all the things. Way over on the other side is what we’re doing now. We aren’t going anywhere, we aren’t in direct contact with anyone, and all licking is kept to the bare minimum.

But as businesses and humans start to open up, we enter this super messy gray area where I already know I’m going to have a hard time, as a human and as a mother, deciding what is safe for us to be doing. How much contact is safe? How much risk is acceptable?

I’ve already felt this odd phenomenon where I don’t feel safe – I feel vulnerable. scared. hypervigilant. – but at the same time, I am safe. I have food, water, clothes, shelter, my family. In the same way, we’re all supposed to behave as if we are sick – staying away from people, wearing masks, washing hands – in an attempt to not get sick or get anyone else sick. Or, maybe we are sick and we don’t know it? It’s both. It’s Schrodinger’s sickness, in the same way that it’s Schrodinger’s safety. We’re both safe and unsafe, sick and well, all at the same time.

Now let’s spread a thick, bitter layer of anxiety over this delicious dumpster fire. Staying home makes me feel safe. Well…safer than I do out in the world. I can control my surroundings here and there’s a very limited amount of exposure we have to the outside world. As we open up, of course that gets much harder to control and, if I know myself, anxiety will increase henceforthwith. But, anxiety is a tricky devil, and there’s also the thing where tapping into my social support network – in person – decreases my anxiety. Dude, I miss hanging out with my friends. Like, a lot. So, again, as we open up, I’m going to have to constantly decide: how will this social engagement increase my anxiety due to my exposure to others’ germs? How will it decrease my anxiety because social interaction is healthy for humans? Where shall I hide all these jars of urine?

You see the constant, ever-present dilemma. I’m already exhausted.

Another factor that’s tough for me is not having an end date. All the uncertainty is difficult and I’m for sure gearing up for a marathon, but even the runners who sign up for a race know exactly how far they’ve gotta run. I have no idea how to pace myself. Shall I freak out all at once, or would it be better to space out those panic attacks? Asking for a friend.

One realistic (I hope) goal I have for this summer since all the things have been canceled is getting to the beach. Any beach. With the least amount of people possible. It’s the best place I can think of to go during a time like this: it’s low risk, high fun, outdoors, and free. I don’t care if it’s raining on a Wednesday morning, if that means we can go and be safe(r), then we’re fucking going. Get in the car. We’ll be like backpackers – we’ll carry in everything we need to survive and we’ll carry it all back out with us – food, water, plastic potty, and whatever waste is deposited therein. We won’t stop for nothing. You need to pee? Here’s a jar. You want ice cream? Fucking churn it yourself.

This is gonna be the best summer marathon ever.

 

My anxiety is finally shared

I’ve dealt with anxiety at varying levels throughout most of my life. Since having cancer, a good portion of that anxiety has been directed into health-related junk. A recurrence. Infertility. Surgery. Passing it onto my kids. Illness in general (who knew I’d have to worry about cancer at age 19 – so what ELSE do I need to be worried about?!). Not knowing when I should worry and when I shouldn’t. Death. All of the above.

The Bloggess, who is so bravely and beautifully candid about her struggles with mental health, said it best.

“Some of us even feel somehow better during this time. It makes sense though. With anxiety disorder you’re constantly afraid and feeling dread for something that isn’t real. Now with something real to focus on it can be a sort of relief. The rest of the world has joined us and the cognitive dissonance you feel for feeling so terrible when there’s no reason to feel terrible is gone.”

This hit the nail right on the head for me. About 4-5 weeks ago, the crisis was finally here, and I was scared out of my mind, but I was ready. I remember on Friday, March 13, as soon as I had both my kids home from school and safe, I felt so much better. We had toilet paper and wipes and hand sanitizer. We buy hand soap in bulk normally anyway. A friend had just dropped off groceries because the stores were being ransacked. I had just filled my car with gas a few days before, by chance. We were home, safe, and scared yes, but my fear was finally directed at something real and, the biggest part, it was shared. It wasn’t just in my head. It was on TV and splashed all over Facebook and it was on the faces of the people in Target. My fear and dread were validated, and that feels…not exactly comforting, but relief in knowing we are all in this together and that I’m not crazy.

Plus, staying home is something I’m good at. I feel safe at home. I can control my home, for the most part. I can wipe it all down and spray the shit out of it. I’m really good at following rules. You want me to stay home and stew in my anxiety? Done and done!

Unfortunately, that’s also what I worry about. I worry that this experience will change me for the worse. In a deep, dark, scary way. And the longer this goes on, the more I’m concerned. This is all starting to feel a little too normal. I wonder if I’ll feel weird leaving the house in the future. Shaking hands. Passing money. Going out to eat. Going to the movies. Getting on a plane. I wonder and worry that my mild OCD tendencies will fester and metastasize during this time, that they’ll grow into something too big to contain once it’s time to get outside and get dirty again.

I don’t feel like I have control over my anxiety. It’s always there, just changing shape and color as I move through life. Are there more panic attacks in my future? More insomnia? Will I develop agoraphobia? Worse yet, how will all this affect my parenting, my kids, my relationships? Will I go through life just waiting for the next disaster? Will everyone else?

In the beforetime, I was operating with my usual amount of social anxiety and general awkwardness. But now, forget about it. In my effort to physically distance myself and my kids, from friends and strangers alike, I no longer know how to act. Do I say hi? Run and scream? Cross the street? Wave? Smile? Hiss at my kids to GIVE PEOPLE PERSONAL SPACE BECAUSE WE DON’T WANT TO GET SICK. SOME WEATHER WE’RE HAVING! HA-HA. I wonder what it will be like hanging out with people again. What I will be like. Will I hesitate? Will I worry? Will it be like nothing ever happened? All of this feels like a very odd fever-dream, not knowing if I’ll feel like me when I wake up.

Right now, I’m okay. I’m just watching my anxiety, wondering what it’ll do. What is it planning? I don’t know. While this blog post may make it sound like I’m spinning out – I’m not actually, not now. Not yet. This is just how my anxious brain works. If I’m not currently worried about something, then I’m worried that I am forgetting what I should be worried about. Sounds nuts, but it’s true.

I’m just concerned and curious. And worried.

Period. Full Stop.

I’m here to tell everyone – all parents really – that you have permission to set boundaries for yourself and your kids in reaction to everyone, anyone, for any reason and at any time. Period. Full stop.

And unless you’re being abusive to your kids, then nobody gets to tell you that your boundaries aren’t valid. Like, ever. I mean, they can try, but they will fail.

Because guess what?

BEING THE PARENT MEANS YOU GET TO DECIDE WHAT IS BEST FOR YOUR KID.

Not a stranger on the street. Not a neighbor or a friend. Not your cousin or sibling or parent or the babysitter. None of them are the parent or legal guardian, so it simply ain’t their job.

This is such a simple concept that it blows my mind when people don’t understand it.

And then, because I’m a therapist, I take a step back and try really, really hard to understand why someone may not understand such a simple boundary of how the world works. From my experience, people who either don’t understand boundaries or perceive them as unkind are people who did not grow up with firm boundaries and/or were not taught how to set healthy ones.

To be specific, boundaries are some form of communication or action that communicate a limit or expectation for how that person wants to be treated. Boundaries have two parts: the first part described above, and then the second part is the consequence – what the boundary-setter plans to do if that expectation is not met.

(I just wrote the above off the cuff, but I’d like to add the Wikipedia definition I just looked up because it’s much more succinct: “Personal boundaries are guidelines, rules or limits that a person creates to identify reasonable, safe and permissible ways for other people to behave towards them and how they will respond when someone passes those limits.“)

Imagine someone grew up without these. Imagine that person could do whatever they wanted growing up and had no consequences. For a kid, that sounds like a pretty scary, lonely, and unsafe place to be. Not being taught how to act with respect and integrity must land a person in some confusing and frustrating situations growing up. A common reaction is to blame everyone else for these problems, because the alternative is often too painful to entertain.

Now imagine that that same person has grown up and is being told how to act or what to do by another person, and is being given consequences to boot. Especially if this new boundary-setter is not perceived to be an authority figure, the reaction probably wouldn’t be positive.

There’s often backlash, or an attempt at manipulation, or accusations that the boundary-setter is being mean and controlling, or simply ignoring the boundaries and blowing right through them.

[Side note: my above growing-up-without-boundaries scenario was the kindest, most benefit-of-the-doubt explanation I could think of. Worst case scenario when a person blows through your boundaries is that they are being abusive. The simplest red flag for abuse is when the perpetrator does not hear you say ‘no.’ When a person ignores your ‘no,’ it means they are trying to control you or the situation. And gaining power and control over another person is what abuse is all about.]

Even though I get it on a conceptual level, these people are so fucking hard to deal with.

How do you explain to someone that boundaries aren’t mean?

And yup, they are about control, because I have control over myself and my life and my kids – AND YOU DON’T.

It’s one thing having to set a boundary one time with someone who is a reasonable human being: “Oh crap, you don’t like when I do that? I’m so sorry, I won’t do it again.” Best case scenario, right? Because it’s quite another thing to have to set the same boundary with someone who is boundaryless again and again and fucking over again.

Setting boundaries, like raising children, is exhausting. It’s having to stay firm and respectful and consistent in following through with consequences. Again and again and again until forever. It’s teaching little people how to behave in the world and it’s teaching big people how you, as an adult, wish to be treated (or how you wish your children be treated).

And when I’m setting boundaries on behalf of my kids – that’s where the stakes are high. My bitch mama bear comes out and I take no prisoners. No, dude on the street, my kid does not have to smile for you. No, lady at the park, you cannot touch my baby without asking me first.

My kids are depending on me to protect them until they can protect themselves. And they are learning from my example. They learn bodily autonomy and the value of consent when I say, Do you want to give _____ a hug? Because you don’t have to if you don’t want to. And if someone gets mad about not getting a hug, then that is their problem (and also a huge red flag!). Not mine, and sure as hell not my kid’s.

I’m setting the boundaries for them now so that they can do the same for themselves (and their kids) in the future. Because I don’t want my kids to grow up without boundaries. It’s dangerous and scary!

And for those adults who might recognize that they have negative reactions to boundaries being set – instead of writing off the boundary-setter as mean, you might want to take a look at exactly what is being asked of you. Is it truly unkind, or are you just not used to hearing “no”?

At the risk of rage-filled rambling on forever, I will wrap this up. While this may read as a tutorial for an audience, it’s actually directed at myself. It’s my way of reminding myself that I’m doing right by myself and my kids; no amount of negative and manipulative reactions to my boundaries will steer me off course because they [the reactions] aren’t mine to carry, deal with, or worry about. Period. Full stop.

_________________________________________________________________________________

Do any of you out there have trouble setting boundaries with boundaryless people?

What are your coping strategies?