Pieces of Me

I don’t really have a history of setting new years resolutions for myself, and on the few occasions I did, I’d approach them only halfheartedly. They’re not really my thing.

I do like the concept of intentions, or choosing a word for oneself. 2020 started out so hopeful and then quickly plunged into survival mode. I entered 2021 with an extremely low bar, and although I didn’t set a word at the time, looking back it was probably something like cope.

I’ve thought a bit about what I want my word or intention to be for this year. I want to keep it realistic and relevant. I’ve decided on self-compassion. It’s high time I give myself a fucking break, stop beating myself up all the time, and start being uber mindful of just how often I cut myself down. It’s almost constant – much more than I’ve been willing or able to admit to myself. The problem is that it’s so deeply ingrained that I couldn’t recognize it until someone else – usually my therapist – would point it out.

I’ve started doing this thing that I’ve done for clients many times before but never got around to doing for myself: I’m focusing on reparenting myself. I have identified a voice within myself and I have personified this being as my inner loving parent, and this person is going to give me all the judgement-free love and encouragement and sensitivity I needed as a kid and that I still need now. This may sound very woo-woo, but please trust me that the work is incredibly impactful.

Often times it helps to personify this part of oneself in order to give it life and body and meaning. It didn’t take any work, really, because two characters popped into my head once this concept was explained to me. For me, my loving parent is two sides of a coin: on one side, she’d Glinda the Good Witch from The Wizard of Oz. She has a huge puffy pink dress and a magic wand and a soft voice and she giggles and calls me honey. She gives the best hugs and reminds me to be kind to myself. I realized later, after I chose her, that she’s also the one who gently tells Dorothy that she had the power to fulfill her deepest wish the whole time. Go figure. The other side of my inner loving parent is Mary Poppins. She’s a British nanny who doesn’t take any bullshit from anyone and sets firm and healthy boundaries. She also sings the best lullabies and makes the world a more fun and happy place to be. She tells me that my inner critic is complete rubbish and has my back at all times. She can also perform magic.

When I told my therapist about the two connected personalities of my inner loving parent, she summarized them as the comforter and the protector, respectively. Nail on the head.

The personification of my inner critic is still taking shape. While I felt like I had to unearth and go find my inner loving parent, my inner critic is always present. She never fucking sleeps. I picture her sitting in a chair in the corner in the dark, smoking a cigarette and glaring at me while I’m asleep in my bed each night. Mary Poppins would tell her to go take a hike. At any rate, the first image that came to mind was Miss Hannigan from Annie, the original one played by Carol Burnett. She stumbles around and yells. She’s a drunk and she’s miserable and she hates kids. But, I also feel like my inner critic needs to have a more cleaned up side. Meaning, my critic takes the form of an authority figure who is rigid, perfect, to the letter. On my better days, I’m able to shove Miss Hannigan into a closet and lock the door because she doesn’t have her shit together. But my big, bad critic has power and is fucking terrifying. I’ll think more on this. (Just had this idea while editing – maybe something like a Miranda Priestly? That’s all.)

At any rate, I’m working through being mindful of who is in charge of my inner dialogue at any given time. Who is driving my bus, if you will. If I become aware that Miss Hannigan is drunk behind the wheel, I’ll call on Mary to put her back in her place and I might call on Glinda to tell me that I’m safe and she’s not going to let the bus crash into a tree.

Again, I know this sounds ridiculous on some level, but even simply mapping out the pieces of me like this has brought me comfort. I plan to go looking for a little figurine of Glinda and Mary to have as reminders. My therapist asked me to draw her as one person, and that should be fun.

All of this is with the goal of being kinder to myself. I already know that that will trickle down to how I treat others in my life. It’s impossible to give out what you don’t have.

And so. Here’s to 2022. I’m going to be more self-compassionate.

You don’t know me

Today I went for a walk.

I reeeeeeally didn’t want to. It’s raining, and it’s super cold. Which is shitty because if it were just a few degrees colder, it’d be snow, and that would make all the difference.

But no. It’s cold and wet and I forced myself outside because I’m told it’d be good for me and because I’m desperate to feel better.

I wake up most mornings these days feeling like there’s a sack of flour on my chest. I don’t know why. It’s become automatic at this point. Sometimes, a lot of the time, I forget what it’s like to feel relaxed. Truly, simply, relaxed. Calm. Peaceful. Content.

It makes me sad. It makes me frustrated. It makes me feel despair. It makes me feel broken.

It makes me feel like my anxiety and depression is my fault. Because I’m type A, numero uno on the enneagram, I like feeling in control (or at least having the illusion of control). And if I’m in control, that means that things are my fault. That I should be able to feel a certain way or not feel a certain way if I want to. That if I can’t feel a certain way, then I must be doing something wrong. Only I’m doing ALL THE THINGS. And I still feel this way. And I’m fucking exhausted.

So, clearly, logically, it’s not my fault. Go figure. I think that’s been the single most impactful intervention my therapist has said to me in the past 6 months. That my anxiety is not my fault. You know what? No one had ever told me that before. I don’t think it had honestly occurred to me until then. Well, shit.

At the same time, the part of me that knows this isn’t my fault wants some more fucking credit for all the shit I’ve been doing. And when a professional implies that I should be doing more, or that I’m not doing enough, I implode. Do you know how hard I’m working?! I want to scream, Don’t you get how much effort I’ve put into getting healthy?!

My therapist asked me if I’m journaling. Fuck you, was the response in my head. You want me to do one more thing? Like I’m not already doing enough? You don’t know me. (Those of you who are Brene Brown fans and follow her podcasts will especially get that last line.)

My psychiatrist wants me to get some kind of exercise every day, if I can. Is that good advice? Yup. Is it always feasible? Nope. Do I want credit for busting my ass to get to 3 classes a week and taking walks in the freezing rain? You bet I do.

I’m realizing that I want to be taken care of. As a mom and a woman, I take care of everybody else’s shit. All day errday. I don’t get people cleaning up my messes or kissing my boo-boos or telling me what a great job I’m doing. And I’ve been seeking that out from paid professionals in my life. In the past 6 months, I’ve employed a physical therapist, a chiropractor, an individual mental health therapist, a psychiatrist, a couples therapist, two yoga instructors, a pilates instructor, and a partridge in a pear tree. That’s me asking for help. That’s me getting the care I need and I deserve.

And through this process, I’m realizing just how closely linked to shame my anxiety and depression are. I’ve never had them stick around so long before, and it’s freaking me out. It’s exhausting. I am depleted. Something must be wrong with me. And I want a parental figure to say I’m doing a great job. Look at all the hard work you’re doing! I see it and I give you credit. It’s such a primordial need; such a young and vulnerable feeling.

I took a walk today in the freezing rain. I closed my rings today. That good enough for you? Am I good enough?

You want me to find time to journal on top of everything else?

Here’s your fucking journal entry.

The Big Reset

I haven’t posted since April, ugh. It’s been the longest break I’ve taken since I started blogging for realz in 2012.

I don’t even know what I want to say now…it’s more that I want to break the silent streak and hopefully gain some momentum from putting fingers to keys and seeing what comes out.

This summer is feeling like a great in-between time. The adults are vaccinated, but our kids are not. For me, getting vaccinated is the benchmark for feeling safe, for getting out and doing stuff.

We’ve been socializing more. It’s been weird. I’ve gone into people’s houses. What?!

Each summer here in the PNW I tend to feel a renewed urge to get out and be active, get fit. In an effort to do that, I fell off my bike and badly sprained my ankle. I think the universe is telling me to slow my roll.

As my depression lifted, and as the world opened up, my anxiety moved back in. Oh hey, look, you have some vacancies to fill. Don’t mind if I do.

I worked hard to find a therapist who 1) had openings – because therapists ARE FULL UP right now, and 2) was willing to see vaccinated folks in person. I knew I’d need the extra support for going back out into the world and processing all the shit we’d just been through. Also, I would like to go back to work at some point aaaaaand I’m gonna need to take care of myself first before I can get back into the therapy office as the shrink.

So far, this has been a summer of patience. Of healing. Of reconnecting. Of deciding on my boundaries moving forward.

This summer is the big reset.

Posterboard versus hand signals

I just got Jenny Lawson’s new book in the mail A DAY EARLY – the postal service must really know what they’re doing when the tracking number tells me my beloved package will be here on Saturday, and since I am a creature whose mental health depends on expectations being met or exceeded, they, well, exceeded them because today is indeed Friday (at the time this was written), a survey of my peers confirmed – and I’ve already dived into it, even though I have a library book that’s due soon and it can’t be renewed and I don’t like to read two books at one time so now I’ve gone and fucked everything up but who cares because nothing matters anymore.

Her book inspires me to write in gauche run-on sentences that include lots of italics and all caps because her writing just speaks to me. She also inspires me to write about my own struggles with mental illness, among other things.

I hesitate to write about depression versus anxiety for a number of reasons. First is that anxiety is my main course and I usually only order a side of depression, and not all that often. Also, depression just seems scarier. More dangerous. When I write about it, I always feel the need to add that I’m not suicidal (because I’m not). Depression is so much more than that, anyway. And it’s different for everyone.

Lately, I’ve been struggling to decide to go to social events because things I try to say come out wrong because my depression manifests as extreme irritability. While I want human connection and know that it will be good for me, my worry is that my depression will say something horribly rude and piss off my friends and I’d like to keep my friends. But, if I stay away from my friends for their sake and express myself only with one liners and emojis via text, I fear they’ll think I’m trying to ghost them and I swear I’m not.

My depression also manifests as a profound lack of energy. If you’re seeing me outside my house wearing pants lately, be sure I’ve used up my energy just getting to that state. Another reason I worry about group events is that I’d rather not burst into tears if someone asks me how I’m doing. See, I’m a horrible liar and I don’t want to lie but I don’t necessarily want to discuss every last detail about how I’m feeling with a group of people – partially because I don’t always know what or why I’m feeling. BUT- I do appreciate people asking. I do. Even if I suck at answering. And if I did burst into tears, it wouldn’t be the worst thing. I also don’t want people to be afraid to ask – again, because I suck at answering – mainly because I don’t want my depression to become this huge, ugly elephant in the room (but not indoors in any room, because covid. the proverbial room). Lastly, I’m extremely cognizant of the fact that I don’t want the topic of my mental health to hijack the festivities. I don’t want to be that sick person who sucks all the fun out of the [metaphorical non-covid-filled] room, but I don’t want to ignore the obvious, either. I’d love to strike a balance between totally ignoring the huge elephant I’m riding in on versus bursting into tears and becoming the focus of an impromptu group therapy session.

Nobody, firstly me, wants to have to tiptoe around the issue of how I might be feeling on any given day. I’ve often thought about how I might cut straight to the chase. I’ll arrive at the please-wear-pants garden party and loudly shout I’M AT A 4 TODAY. I MIGHT CRY. I’M GLAD I’M HERE BUT I ALSO MIGHT LEAVE EARLY. GOOD AFTERNOON TO YOU ALL. But, to be realistic I should probably put all that on huge white posterboard and go through them one by one like the Walking Dead guy does in Love Actually when he’s totally trying to steal his best friend’s wife. (Who does that?!) Cuz if I’m actually at a 4 (out of 10), then there’s likely no way I’d be able to say all that without crying. Either posterboard or hand signals. Hand signals would be more environmentally friendly.

Hand signals it is.

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.

Crafting Words Over the Years

I just remembered, a day late, that yesterday was my blogiversary.

That’s right, folks! I’ve been blogging with WordPress for 9 whole years. Whew, that seems like a lifetime ago now.

I started my first diary when I was 8 years old. It was in one of those Lisa Frank diaries with the scented pages and the metal lock on the side. My first entry was about the trip my family took to drive through the devastation of the Oakland Hills fire. I had never seen anything like this before. I remember seeing ash and debris and a bunch of brick fireplaces where houses should be. Like a budding journalist (or at the very least, a person who enjoys properly documenting everything), I drew pictures of what I saw next to my words. Clearly, it made an impact on me, even if I didn’t completely understand what I was seeing at the time.

Over the years, I continued to keep various diaries, albeit sporadically. I also wrote poetry and songs, and I tried my hand at fiction a few times. No joke- around 4th or 5th grade, my friend and I got together and wrote a full album’s worth of songs about pollution and how bad it was for the earth (spoiler alert- it’s really bad). We even recorded a few that we sang at her house with her family’s fancy equipment. I want to say that we even designed a t-shirt to be sold to help raise money for our cause. We were environmentally conscious and we were going places, you guys.

I kept handwritten diaries through my college and grad school years that were for my eyes only. In looking back through them, I noted that I usually only felt the need to write when I was either angry and frustrated or very, very sad. They made for a very lopsided view of my life, if considered all on their own.

I started my first public blog around 2003, as a way of coping after my cancer surgery. It was with LiveJournal – anyone remember that platform?! I’m pretty sure only my college roommates and a smattering of friends and creepy strangers actually read it, but that wasn’t really the point. While I wanted to get my feet wet writing for an audience that wasn’t an English teacher, the entries were mostly for me. After a year and a half of being independent in college, I was home again and briefly unable to do much at all for myself and I needed an outlet. I needed a way to process what had happened to me, how I felt about it, and how I was gonna deal with it. I made that happen from the comfort of my parents’ ginormous communal desktop computer.

At some point, my LiveJournal career peetered out (I’m guessing college and life got back to being normal and busy) and I didn’t do any online journaling for quite some time.

Fast forward to Fall 2011. I had been out of school for a few years, working as a therapist at my first Big Girl Job. My boyfriend (now husband) had just started his master’s degree while working full time. He was either at work, at class, in the car, or studying, which meant he had zero time to hang out with me. I desperately needed a hobby and didn’t have to think too long or too hard to know what I needed to do.

Fun fact: when I first signed up with WordPress, I named my blog Things My Cat Made Me Say. I suppose I decided that my cat didn’t deserve all that unearned attention. Either that, or the theme was a little too nebulous. Ideally, I wanted an overarching theme for this blog that wasn’t just look-at-me-look-at-me, but still reflected who I was and gave me a sense of direction. At the time, I was living and breathing therapy. I worked two jobs seeing clients, consulting with my colleagues, and working with supervisors. I spent my free time researching weird diagnoses and reading disturbing memoirs of fucked up people. I was in it to win it, and so my blog might as well reflect that.

I searched for the right name, crowdsourcing my Facebook friends and keeping a witty list of Freudian-inspired puns. During one supervision meeting at work, a coworker mentioned the term psychobabble in passing, and I quickly scribbled it down in my notes. That’s it! I thought. It was perfect- psychology themed with just the right amount of crazy.

And I’ve been blogging, more or less, ever since. It’s still, as it will always be, mostly for me. Will it ever lead to a more serious writing gig? We’ll see. For right now, I’m super proud of my growing body of work. I enjoy the community this blog assembles around me and I enjoy using my tiny corner of the internet to express myself, process my feelings, and maybe make people laugh along the way.

Thank you, thank you, to everyone who takes the time to read my posts!


Day 12

Holding My Breath

Like many Americans, I’m having some feelings this week. Lots of flashbacks to the last election.

Four years ago, I was pregnant with my daughter and I was excited. I was so sure my daughter would be born into a world where she’d be able to take a female American president for granted. To me, it seemed like a no-brainer: our country’s most qualified candidate in history was running against our country’s most unqualified, outwardly racist and misogynistic candidate. It should have been a slam dunk.

I believed the polls. I had faith that an overwhelming majority of Americans would not choose fear and ignorance and hate. Needless to say, the outcome was shocking and traumatic. The experience was definitely a loss of innocence.

That election day I attended a goodbye party for another mom-friend of mine. This was a sad occasion for my whole family since her husband was friends with my husband and they were basically the first friends we made after moving to Oregon. This party was also the last time I planned to leave the house for a while, as my goal was to potty train my 2 year old son as best I could before the new baby came.

We had election coverage on in the background while we ate dinner. We had to turn it off while my husband put my son to bed, and I remember sitting in my room on my phone, scrolling. My first indication that something was wrong was when Florida went to He Who Must Not Be Named. After that, we watched with growing fear and went to bed in shock and disbelief.

I woke up the next day in a daze and proceeded with the potty training plan. It was horrible, stressful. I spent a good portion of the day in tears, not knowing what exactly I was crying about. All of the day was spent elbow deep in piss and shit, one way or another.

I remember thinking that my daughter would be ALMOST FOUR before we’d have the chance to vote him out. Four years is a hell of a long time to do a lot of damage. And so much damage has indeed been done.

As I write this, it feels akin to how one might tell a story of where they were and what they were doing when the twin towers fell or when Kennedy was shot. It was a dark day; one I’ll never forget. Looking back, it spun me (us) into a crazy-ass couple of years. My daughter was born. My post-partum anxiety took off like a brush fire. I went back to therapy. I spent a good few years just trying to get ahold of myself and figure out who I was and how to leave the house with pants on. All this with a background of news reports on hate, ignorance, fear, anger, violence. Rolling back progress and denying human rights.

Fall of 2019, I finally started feeling better, consistently better. I, like many others, declared that 2020 was going to be my year. And it was…until the pandemic. And now the election.

So you can see (I hope) how I am holding my breath. I’m white knuckling this. I’m so angry and scared. I want to believe the polls. I want to have faith in people to do the right thing. But frankly, this country is not what I thought it was, and we’ve all been here before, on this abusive rollercoaster from which we can’t seem to get off. I’m honestly not sure how I’ll get through the next few days…or weeks…or longer, depending.

To those in power who are using that power for personal gain and to manipulate and spread fear: we see right through you. You might be fooling some, but you sure as hell aren’t fooling me.

Abusive people use anything at their disposal to have power and control over others. If they can’t control others, their power is gone. Abusive people try to stop others from voting. Abusive people try to sue for votes to not be counted. Abusive people lie and manipulate the system. Abusive people threaten violence. Abusive people intimidate (in this case, by bringing guns to the polls, or by blocking traffic, etc.). Abusive people gaslight others and deny any wrongdoing. All of these behaviors are coming from a place of insecurity, NOT love, NOT protection, because if these people knew they could be fairly reelected in a just, democratic system, then there would be no need for such devious theatrics.

Abuse is not strength. Make no mistake, we are in an abusive relationship and that is an incredibly powerless feeling.

I voted as soon as I possibly could. I even made sure my ballot was received. And now, I wait. Full of dread, fear…and some cautious hope.


Day 2

Short story: Together in the Muck

 

Two times this pandemic, I did something I’ve never done before.

I entered two short story writing contests. And – you guys – I came in second in both. I’m super proud of myself, especially because writing fiction is not usually my jam.

To be fair, the first story I submitted was about 90% fact with some embellishing thrown in. I had originally written it here, on this blog, about being pregnant with my first. The second story I wrote from scratch and it’s based on my experience working as a therapist in a nonprofit. I’m very proud of how it turned out. Here it is, dear readers.


“I know what you’re doing,” she interrupted me, “and I want you to stop it.”

“What am I doing?” I asked, genuinely perplexed.

“You’re trying to make me feel better, and it won’t work.”

I sucked in some air, immediately defensive.

Of course I’m trying to make you feel better! I’m your therapist, for Christ’s sake.

“Look, Madison, I’d like to be able to help you, but I can’t do that if you’re unwilling to answer my questions. I’m curious to know more about the positive things in your life.”

“My life is shit! That’s why I’m here.” Fresh tears made Madison’s heavy black eyeliner streak down her cheeks and disappear into her oversized black t-shirt.

“Your life is not shit. You just told me about your dog who loves you more than anything. Your artistic talent is incredible! That’s not nothing.”

“He’s just a dog! These are stupid doodles! And what do you know about my life?! You’re just a shrink that my mom pays so she doesn’t have to look at me.” Madison started shoving her sketchpad and pencil into her backpack.

I’m losing her, don’t lose her.

“I’d love to know more about your life if you’d let me. I think you downplay what could be sources of real happiness, like your mom. I’m sure she loves y-”

Madison was already standing. Tears had been replaced with fire in her blue eyes.

“I told you to stop it.”

She strode to the door, yanked it open, and stomped down the hall. I slumped down in my chair, defeated. We still had fifteen minutes left.

Session 3. Client presents in a depressed, irritable mood. Exhibits poor eye contact, sluggish movements, intermittent crying. Affect is blunted at times but mood congruent. Resistant and uncooperative in working towards treatment goals – client left 15 minutes early. Next session in 1 week.


The chunky, rough rope cut into her hands, but she gripped it tighter, resolve flowing through her. Feet planted, arm muscles tensed as she held the rope steady. She wasn’t able to pull it toward her, but for now, that was okay.

Just don’t let go.


“So, how have you been?” I gingerly chose my words as Madison settled in across the room. The more sessions we had, the more she seemed to move-in each time. Today I watched as she unpacked her sketchbook, a few pencils, a sweatshirt, and a half-eaten granola bar that she unwrapped and shoved into her mouth.

“Mmruph.

“I’m sorry, what was that?”

She took her time chewing and swallowing. “Hungry. I dunno.”

Sigh. What do I do with that?

“What would you like to talk about today?”

Madison shrugged, then busied herself with sharpening a pencil and turning over a fresh page in her book. Wordlessly, she began to draw.

Not knowing what else to say, and worried I’d say the wrong thing, I asked, “What kinds of things do you like to draw?”

After several beats, “A bit of everything. You know. Animals. Landscapes. People.” She answered me from under a curtain of long, blonde hair dyed purple that had fallen in front of her face.

Rather than respond, I decided to try riding out the silence. Often it felt like I was doing too much work to try and keep the conversation, any semblance of a conversation, afloat. Clearly, she prefers doing things at her own pace. I should try letting her.

Minutes went by, where all we heard was the soft scratching of Madison’s pencil on the paper. Every once in a while, her eyes darted up and back down again as she hunched over her lap, focused. I watched her and waited.

“So do you have kids?” Madison asked without pausing her drawing.

Caught off guard, I robotically gave the classic therapist response they coach you on in training: “What makes you curious to know?”

She bristled while meeting my gaze. “You can just answer the question.”

I made a conscious effort to soften my tone. “I honestly don’t mind answering the question, I just want to know why you’re curious first.”

She paused, evaluating me. “I don’t know. You seem like you’d be good at it. And you’re always trying to get me to talk to my mom more.”

“Well, thanks.” Did not expect that answer.

“…so do you? Have kids?”

“Ha. I don’t, although I would like to someday.”

There’s something here, something she’s mulling over. What is it?

Our eyes met for a moment longer than was comfortable, and Madison hunched over her sketchpad once more. Silence fell for another minute. Wait for it.

“I got into art school. My mom wants me to go.” Her voice was a fraction above a whisper.

“What?! That’s incredible! Congratulations!” My surprise and excitement came bursting out. She deserves this! She’s suffered way too much trauma; it’s about time she had some good news in her life.

“It’s not a big deal. I probably won’t go.”

“What? Of course it’s a big deal! Why wouldn’t you go?”

Madison looked me dead in the eyes. “Why do you even care?”

She’s testing me. What’s the right answer here?

“I-I care about you, and you deserve good things, Madison. It’s okay to allow yourself to feel happy.”

Madison’s eyes narrowed. “…Did my mom talk to you?”

“What? No. Why?”

“Whatever.”

I felt all her remaining energy drain from the room. Mine went with it.

I glanced at the clock on the wall behind Madison’s shoulder.

“We’re out of time for today,” I sighed, “But I would like to continue talking about this next session.”

As she got up to leave, she tore the top page from her sketchbook. She crossed the room and before she turned for the door, she let the paper fall facedown on my desk.

I watched her disappear around the corner and then went back to my desk and turned the paper over. It was the most exquisite portrait of me, down to the mole on my left cheek. I was drawn seated in my cheap office chair, hands clasped smartly in my lap and my eyes gazed straight at the viewer, as if I were desperately trying to win a staring contest.

Session 6. Client presents in an irritable mood, reports feeling “hungry.” Exhibits intermittent eye contact, hunched body presentation. Affect is blunted at times but mood congruent; speech often quiet, slow, halted. Presents as resistant and defensive. Next session in 1 week.


She was being dragged forward, in the wrong direction. Her feet dug into the ground, but it wasn’t enough to keep her from sliding. She wasn’t sure how much longer she could keep this up.


“I need to get outta here.”

Madison was visibly upset, about what she wouldn’t say. She was rocking back and forth in her seat, tugging on her hair (now dyed blue), and if I didn’t intervene soon, she was going to start hyperventilating.

“Of course. Do you want to take a walk?” I motioned towards the door.

She nodded and grabbed her backpack.

As soon as we got outside, her breathing slowed. She seemed less agitated.

“I want to sit down.”

“Sure, let’s go over here.” I pointed to a park bench in the shade.

We sat at opposite ends of the bench and Madison bent over and put her head in her hands. I angled my body towards her.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked. What is going on?! I wonder if her dad tried to contact her again.

“No. I don’t.” Her voice was muffled.

I just want to comfort you! Tell me how!

“Okay.”

We sat in silence for several minutes. I wondered if Madison could hear the birds or feel the breeze. She seemed a million miles away, unreachable.

“My life sucks.” I could barely hear her.

What happened?

You have so many positive things in your life!

You’re the strongest, most resilient person I know.

Your life can’t suck. I won’t let it.

I took a deep breath. “Everything is going to be oka-”

Madison let out a sound somewhere between a groan and a wail.

Stop.

Stop pulling and go to meet her.

Meet her where she’s at.

I sighed and turned my body to face forward, mirroring hers. “You’re right. Life sucks, especially yours. You got dealt a shit hand and it’s not fair. I’m sorry.”

Madison looked up and held my gaze for a moment before looking away.

“Yeah,” she said, “it sucks.”

Each of us dropped our section of rope. I waded into the mud pit to meet Madison, who was already there. I let myself sink down in and the sludge encircled us both.

We sat in silence, together in the muck, for the remainder of the session.

Session 8. Client presents in an anxious, depressed mood, reports “life sucks,” because it does. Exhibits normal behavior considering the circumstances. She’s doing the best she can. We both are. Next session in 1 week.

Quiet, Sluggish Chaos

I’m feeling pretty drained. That’s an understatement.

I’m trying to think of a good metaphor for how I feel that won’t make me sound suicidal – because I’m not. But I have no energy left, you guys. I’m just trying to make it through the days and sometimes I dare to hope and then other days my state gets set on fire or RBG dies and I find myself at a new low that I didn’t know was possible.

Three things happened all at once: summer [weather] ended, fire and smoke made it impossible for me to breathe or leave my house for ten days, and distance learning began for my 1st grader. It sent the precarious balance we had achieved in our household over the summer into a quiet, sluggish chaos.

In 2007 the fire alarm woke me up and my boyfriend (now husband) and I grabbed whatever was in front of us and ran out of our burning apartment building. For months after I would go to sleep and hallucinate the smell of smoke. That thick, putrid, choking scent that makes one’s pulse jump. My heart would race, I’d get a rush of adrenaline, and then I’d have to get up and check to make sure there wasn’t any actual danger. After that, it was pretty hard to calm down and get any rest. It was bad.

I was in my master’s program for counseling psychology at the time and I had started therapy for the first time as a client that previous year. When the fire happened I was on a break from therapy in an attempt to stretch my mental health benefits to last until the end of the year. American healthcare – you suck. At any rate, when I returned to therapy I mentioned the fire and the difficulty sleeping I was having. PTSD, you say? Oooh, crap. So this is what it’s like. It’s always so much easier to diagnose other people. Well, shit.

And, while definitely not as bad, it came back recently. Our sense of smell is so powerful, so tied to our emotions. And the smell of smoke is a warning to everyone – it’s supposed to be. But put that together with absolute terror and it’s a horrible combination.

Plus, the chest pains I was getting from the smoke signaled anxiety to my brain aaand cue positive feedback loop. Sore throat, headaches. I felt physically ill on top of everything else.

With my bucket being pretty freaking empty, I’m struggling to be a good parent, teacher, wife, and friend.

As far as the friend thing goes, I struggle to be social. Being social in person really sucks because I’m worried about Covid the whole time. Being social, while I still enjoy it, often requires energy I’m not sure I have. It’s hard to pay attention and remember details. I find myself so worried about my and my family’s health and safety that it’s hard to be concerned with anyone else’s enough to ask. It’s not that I don’t care- I do. Stress just seems to push everything else out of focus. I’m really sorry if I forget about that thing going on in your life. I’m sorry that I totally forgot to ask how your new job is going. Sorry If my texts come across the wrong way. I feel like my stress and survival mode make everything come out wrong, even more so than my socially-awkward normal. I still love and respect my friends, and I still want to be friends.

I worry that writing about my mental health issues sounds…wallowy, self-centered, whiny. Repetitive. Fishing for pity.

While it might be repetitive (and none of the rest), I decided that talking/writing about it helps me. It’s honest, it’s real. If it helps normalize mental health struggles – great. But this is mainly for me. It’s a journal, it’s documentation, it’s creative expression, it’s cathartic.

In closing, I’ll remind myself that I’m surviving. I’m coping. I’m doing the best I can. I’m just happy to be here.

I’m the One with the Pool

So I haven’t been inside a grocery store in weeks. Not since March 19, to be exact. Until today.

The two main reasons I wanted to go were for items that couldn’t be picked up curbside- for me that meant a giant plastic pool and garden items like flowers and tomato plants. You know, lovely things that make life feel worth living. I was determined to get another kiddie pool because our city announced they wouldn’t be turning on joy the water features this summer (at least for now), and that’s a devastating blow to the well being of my kids and thus my family. My son didn’t cry when school was canceled (and he likes school!) but you bet your ass he cried when I told him the splash pads weren’t going to be turned on. Sigh.

So I had this all planned out. I was gonna go an hour before closing so that it’d be as empty as possible (and freaking hell there were still way too many people in there for comfort!), because I drive by that parking lot every single Tuesday at 2pm for curbside pickup and the parking lot is chockfull like there’s an end of the world party and everyone’s invited.

My anxiety started spiking before I even got ready to go. Uuuuggghhh having chronic anxiety centered around health issues REALLY SUCKS during a pandemic. And trying to control my breathing so I don’t start hyperventilating in an N95 mask is difficult to say the least. Basically, I was using my cart as a battering ram and trying to strong-arm my way through the grocery store to get what I needed and get the hell out.

They keep the giant plastic pools outside of the store, and I grabbed one and brought it inside, only to realize…this is big. and awkward. How the hell am I supposed to shop with this? So the greeter man by the door was super helpful and had me just take a picture of the bar code and he held it at the door so I didn’t have to cart it around everywhere with me.

I did my shopping. I ran into someone I knew! How quaint! Just like the before-times. The staff were soooo nice. Like, not paid nearly enough for how nice they were during a pandemic. And what the nice employee lady told me was that THE GARDEN CENTER CLOSED OVER AN HOUR AGO. Fuuuuuuuuuuck. So much for planning ahead. This will mean that I’ll have to come back at some point and endure this drawn out panic attack again. Covid-19: keeping therapists and big pharma in business!

I wove around non-mask wearing teenagers (WTF) and paid for my stuff and retrieved my pool and got out to my car. My husband’s car, actually. Because while my car is bigger, it has the car seats and the backseat can’t be put down. So I brought his so I could put the seats down and have plllllllenty of room for the pool (I’m so smart!) right?

Yeah no.

My 5 foot diameter pool was clearly not going to fit in this Prius. Even though I tried like an idiot. Several times. Maybe this way? Nope. I hope no one’s watching me. FUCK. I had to take off my mask at this point because I needed to breathe. I was gonna have a panic attack right there in the parking lot.

I called my husband.

Uuuuuh, you’re gonna have to tie it to the car or drive home holding it out of the window.

Thanks. Who do we know with a huge car? OH WAIT! I saw husband-of-a-friend in the store just now! THEY HAVE A SUBURBAN!

I hung up and madly texted my friend. My phone autocorrected “fucking” to “tucking.” I hate that.

Her husband was still in the store, and he graciously responded that he’d be right there. I almost texted back with I’m the one with the pool but thought better of it.

We caravaned home, I got the pool into the yard, said a bunch of thank yous, and then bathed in disinfectant along with everything on my person and set my clothes on fire. I got over the hump with some Xanax-infused ice cream and didn’t end up needing a Xanax, but oh man the panic was real.

I think tonight took about two years off my life, but at least I got the goddamn pool.