Telling a Story is Sometimes the Only Next Thing to Do

image7I don’t talk very much about my kid on the open internet, which is less about how I feel about privacy and the internet, and more about how I feel about both consent and future conversation I may have with my kid about when and how I shared my feelings, and shared their life.

However, my experience as a mother is mine, just as my kid’s life is theirs. My experiences as a mother have revealed important perspectives that I have used to frame other parts of my life. Also, my life as a mother isn’t all about my kid. My kid is just being a kid in that way that they do, where so many experiences are for the first time, and can be sorted into rather larger and rough categories like uncomfortable, joyful, general life information. Not that I believe a healthy and privileged kid’s life is simple, just that it is very present, and not yet as interjected with trauma and fear and the past and the looming future as my life experience feels to me. Mothering, then, mothering from a position largely of privilege, isn’t just about my kid, but about whatever in my life intersects with parenting and how those intersections lead me to make decisions, and to feel.

Even parents who parent within paradigms of racism, for example, whose kids have both the intensity of presence all childhoods do and must be parented to recognize sources of danger, trauma, and inequality, aren’t all about their kids. My sense is, mainly from talking to a lot of parents in my work in pediatrics (and so anecdotal and filtered through all my own filters, but I do spend a lot of time thinking about kids and parents, even if my filters may be faulty), is that even for those very preoccupied with parenting, there is always, always a scrabble to preserve self.

I’ve often reminded myself that healthy parenting requires only three things – resources, respect, and the ability to solve problems. This, I think, is the widest possible gate for the greatest diversity of family units to be deemed healthy. Families that are very different from each other – culturally, religiously, politically, philosophically – can be healthy. Also, a lack of any of those three things can be our fault, as a world, as a society, which may mean that helping some families is a matter of social justice. Many times, when I’ve struggled as a parent, I’m able to think about what it is of those three things I don’t have, or is impoverished, and then I’m able to be kinder to myself.

None of this is a disclaimer for one particular perspective I’ve gained, recently, but maybe why I was so moved and enlightened by something that happened with my kid. Lately, I’ve been thinking and thinking about my three things, and if I’m okay, if we’re okay, and also, I’ve been struggling with self. I’ve been struggling with choices, and if I’m making them to my benefit. I’ve been struggling with what has been choice and what has been fear and trauma and resources and my ability to solve problems.

I’ve been struggling and breaking and mending and then cracking some new and unexpected way.

What I’d say about my kid is that they’re the most interesting person I know, and fierce. Sartorially fascinating, anxious, explosively brilliant, huge-hearted, a genuine hero, and for teachers, challenging. So challenging for teachers, actually, that once, one of their teachers asked me out for a drink because she “enjoyed talking with [me] so much,” except, I had never talked to her, she had only talked to me, at length, every day, at school pick up, venting about my kid such that I guess I felt to her like a friend, like company that felt good because I received and processed so many of her bad feelings.

My experience, as a parent, is that every formalized or even vaguely institutional activity will introduce certain kinds of challenges for my kid and their teachers. It will also, unexpectedly for the teachers, introduce joy and singular experiences such that no matter how they have vented, they grow to love my wilding child and my child’s refusal to accept a world for them and their friends that is less than ideal and storied and engaging. Meeting my child, loving my child, is to find oneself unexpectedly aspirational even while exasperated.

So there was summer ceramics. My kid, fully validated by privilege, had a number of these kinds of camps and classes lined up, in between reckless play and hours holed up with books. I was nervous about Art Camp, including the ceramics portion, because I knew there would be many aspects of it in direct and terrifying challenge to known areas of difficulty for my kid. This was partly why I signed them up, even going so far as to lie on the part of the camp application that asked me to promise my kid could handle this kind of environment, to lie with righteousness, I might add, because how dare they keep fine arts from kids who can’t handle the studio environment! Obviously, Art Camp are assholes.

Of course, after the first morning, inevitable pick-up venting rained coldly down on my righteousness, dampening it, leading me to side eye my child, who looked, as usual, happy enough. Afternoon pick-up, though, ceramics studio pick-up, was different.

I like this kid. “Vented” the ceramics instructor. This kid is interesting. This kid created more than anyone else, and destroyed more than anyone else. Created and destroyed, over and over. Are you okay with that? Because I think it’s cool.

The ceramics instructor thought my kid was cool. My kid was so covered in slip and clay they could have been fired to a glossy hardness, and had no project to show for their day, but also, was cool.

Yes, thank you. I think I said, because I couldn’t kiss him.

The next day, I somehow escaped being pick-up lectured after morning studio, and then, I pranced a little into ceramics studio because I was there to pick up my kid who had this entirely new label of cool. Except, when I ran into the instructor, his forehead was wrinkled. My heart went cold and still.

Today was a struggle. He began, and so I went to that place that I sit in my head where the walls are blank and the chair is uncomfortable and I am receiving bad news. When I looked down at my kid, there were tears poised to fall, over blotchy cheeks.

Fuck. I said inside the room.

Today was a struggle. He started again, and then I think it was a while before I actually heard him. . . . which is a thing, right? Struggling. Tells me we don’t have it all right. I was thinking, maybe, that they’re bored. There isn’t anything here for them, right now, but this clay and new information about techniques, but that’s not enough for someone with such a big story to tell. I was wondering, if for tomorrow, they could come with stories. Not an idea, or some thing they wanted to make, but some story they were excited about, that meant something to them. This is a kid that requires stories, and meaning, and to make things with meaning using a story.

It’s hard not to cry when your kid is really seen. When someone else articulates a sense you haven’t put words to yourself yet, about your kid, or someone you desperately love. Even more emotional is when this perspective is entirely new, and replaces venting and “difficult” and “hard work” with a strategy for school and life and work that is based on play, and process, and meaning.

Which is a big revelation to have in response to a handful of sentences delivered off-the-cuff by a guy who looks more likely to be guiding whitewater rafting trips than teaching studio ceramics, but it was the first drink of water in a really fucking big desert, so his words might as well have been delivered by trumpet and seraphim.

My kid was tearful for a while, having absolutely struggled. I was eventually able to ask them what story they’d like to bring in tomorrow. Though I’d been parenting this kid for eight years, and had tried some epic number of problem-solving ideas, my kid immediately, somehow, knew what I was talking about.

I had that dream last night about letters, and the phases of the moon. I think it’s a story. image4

Then they made a series of posters with the alphabet, and demanded I print out a moon chart, and there was something about space hippos. There was also glee and resolve and anticipation.

After studio the next day, my child was ghosted over with dried clay and beaming. The instructor was beaming, too, and started saying things like focused, hard working, engaged, productive. Things that are true, but almost never at school. They had a story to tell, and it was important. So important, that neither the teacher nor my kid could stop talking about it. That day, and the days after, weren’t a struggle, because my kid had been given permission to tell a story, and telling stories was worthy of work, and process, and productivity, and engagement.

This is the part where I learn something, not so much as a mom, though I learned a lot there, too, but the part where I learn for the self. I said I’ve been struggling. Struggle is a fight, right? A push/pull one way, and then another. Struggles are within and without and are fertile for confusion in making decisions, and reliance on old ways of thinking, and venting, and fear. They rarely feel progressive, but often are, I think. We say, The struggle is behind me, as if it provided some kind of momentum. Or, It will be a struggle, but then I’ll be better for it, as if it were able to burnish the cracks and broken places with gold leaf.

A struggle the way I have been feeling it, the way my kid’s ceramic instructor described it, is more static — or at least, it is a sign, something we’re able to see and feel if we’re not able to act or engage or work. A struggle is one of the first welcome returns on our living – it says, Okay, I get it, we’ll stop here, but where are your resources? Where is your respect? How are you going to solve this problem? 

For me, for my kid, here’s something to say back to struggle: I have to tell this story.

We don’t get very many chances, or time, and our whole world is struggling. We struggle forward, worrying our resources and respect and solutions in our pockets like polished stones. We dream, we insist on our tears, we look at unlikely people, people in cargo shorts and calf tattoos, with new hope.

image5We tell a story, we create and destroy, we’re covered in clay and ashes, ready for the fire.



Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 1 Comment

Another Brick From the Wall

I’ve been having some anxiety lately.

It’s pretty low grade and often amorphous, although I can usually pin down the source eventually. (Deadlines have a way of making anxiety about them supremely clear as they approach.) Most of the time, my thought processes get more obsessive and spiraly. The same two lines of a song will play on repeat in my brain for hours, days. Not like a song that gets casually stuck in my head for a while. More like a song that my brain is holding onto with a tight grip because it’s hoping not to think about whatever else is hovering in the wings, causing my anxiety.

Yeah, I’d rather deal with the stress than listen to the chorus of “Chelsea Dagger” for forty-eight hours, thank you. (Blackhawks fans will recognize this one. My apologies for the earworm I have now given you.)

Mostly, my anxiety manifests in relatively mild ways, although I did find myself hyperventilating and starting to cry out of the blue while walking from the bathroom to the dining room one day this past week, which was unexpected and new.

I’m about the millionth person to blog about anxiety, and far from the first Wonkomancer, but one of the things I’ve figured out in the past decade of raising my kid is that shared knowledge is a force for good. And my story not being particularly dramatic does not mean it can’t be of use.

Besides, I’ve got plenty of drama to borrow from those whose paths have crossed mine.

Aside from my own experience, I’m familiar with anxiety, and its less friendly cousin, panic, from a lifetime of experience with family members whose efforts to manage their anxiety have been more or less successful over the past forty years.

My dad was the first person I knew who suffered from anxiety, although I didn’t learn about that until I was in my senior year of high school. Before then, I’d known him as a relatively peaceful alcoholic whose drinking broke up his marriage to my mom and eventually landed him in rehab. That’s when I learned he’d been taking Xanax to manage his anxiety for going on fifteen years or so at that point. This explained why his nightly drinking generally ended in a quiet passing out, at the bar or at home, rather than the destructive fights and anger I saw playing out in other families, although we had some of that, too.

Detox from alcohol is stressful on the body. Detox from a decade plus of benzo addiction can cause convulsions that hospitalize you. The open-ended prescription given to my dad by the head of psychiatry from a major university in our city was brought to light, explaining why his years of drinking were so subdued compared to the other alcoholics I was hearing about in Alateen meetings.

(Alateen is the youth version of Al-Anon. I found the meetings more horrifying than helpful at the time, mostly due to my own defensiveness and the always present feeling that my problems couldn’t possibly be considered serious compared to those being shared by other people who had real trouble, i.e. kids who were being abused or thrown out of the house or dragged into drinking with alcoholic parents.)

My dad first went to see a psychiatrist about his anxiety at when he was twenty-six, and that began his spiral of addiction, although the alcoholism would almost certainly have existed even without the drugs. Twenty-some years later, another immediate family member started having anxiety and panic attacks at the same age as my dad had started to experience them. A different family member’s panic attacks kicked in a bit later in life, when she was closer to twenty-eight and began falling out of her chair while on phone calls at the office. It took years to figure out that she wasn’t suffering from low blood pressure or an inner ear disorder, but rather having sudden and dizzying panic attacks.

One of the lingering effects of the shitty psychiatrist who wrote my dad a never-ending script for Xanax was a real reluctance on everyone else’s part to take any kind of psychiatric medication.

We’d seen what it had done, and no one was eager to replicate the experience, despite understanding intellectually that various different drugs would almost certainly be helpful.

So although anti-anxiety medication was eventually tried with varying rates of success, most of the people in my family who experience anxiety, myself included, have tried all sorts of other angles of approach to deal with it.

When I realized my son was having crippling anxiety in certain situations when he was as young as four or five, it was, at least, easy enough to identify.

One of the most useful things we have worked on is searching out our own triggers. For my son, it is often the first day of fill-in-the-blank. School. Camp. Spelling bee. Family vacation. Any experience where he’s going to be out of his element at the beginning triggers his anxiety. Figuring this out has allowed us to apply all kinds of tactics, from pre-gaming with rehearsals (drilling for the spelling bee at home using their rules, visiting a new school to figure out where everything is in advance) to taking advantage of the fact that fresh air always makes him feel better.

“Mom, I gotta wait for you outside so I don’t puke.”

This has made the difference between starting camp by throwing up repeatedly in the car on the way there, to feeling nauseous but holding it together with some deep breathing while we walk, instead of drive to camp. (Cars and anxiety do not mix well for my kid.)

One family member has food and drink triggers. Caffeine and alcohol in particular can send him to the ER with a panic attack that he knows isn’t a heart attack, except he’s pretty sure he’s definitely dying. Another family member gets them while driving over bridges or climbing mountains, a little bit harder to avoid when you are a mountain climber who drives across country to do so. Counting and breathing exercises have helped there.

I’ve read a hundred articles about anxiety and panic. Acquiring information is one of my self-soothing tactics. One of the best things I learned was how neural pathways are formed every time you have a panic attack, leaving a record in your brain of both the physical symptoms and the mental ones. After enough incidents, that pathway is strong enough that instead of being triggered by anxiety, the panic can be set off by physical triggers alone. This explains people who can wake up out of deep sleep in the middle of full-blown panic, because their sleep apnea creates heightened CO2 levels that the body reads the same as those you get from hyperventilating.

Research, research, research. For some, knowing these details might lead to more, heretofore unconsidered anxiety, but for me, knowledge is soothing. Recognizing what is happening, whether it’s to myself or to someone I’m with, gives me a better chance at managing my reaction.

I am not always super successful at this, or so logical in my behavior, alas.

One of my bad habits is manufacturing crises in order to relieve my anxiety. I am great in a crisis. I mean, I am rock solid, the person you want at your side when shit falls apart. Have you just landed in a foreign country, only to get pickpocketed within the first two hours leaving you with no driver’s license, money, passport, visa, or work authorization documents, two weeks after terrorists from your home country bomb your adoptive country’s embassies, where you will now need to present yourself for assistance? I’m your go-to girl, cool and collected and ready to fix the problem. Unexpected injury gushing blood in dizzying fashion? Steady as a rock.

Being needed, being useful, is not stressful for me. I get very calm and competent and it’s almost a relief to be able to focus so intensely on someone else’s problem, while forgetting about whatever problems I have of my own for a blissful period of time.

My apologies, friends of mine, for having been so happy to be involved in your crises. I hope I was, at least, helpful.

On the other hand, give me a potential problem of my own, one that doesn’t exist yet, but might come to pass? I can spiral into a cycle of anxiety and self-sabotage that actually brings the problem about, rather than simply letting it pass me by. Creating crises in other areas of my life has been a less than successful coping strategy for me. But if I have one manageable, actual crisis to focus on (even if I had to force that crisis), I can leave off worrying about the rest of it, so I find myself turning to this strategy far too often.

I’m trying to learn from my family though, and to apply the same kind of sensitivity and awareness to my own problems that I bring to bear automatically on my son’s. I am also, as so many of us are these days, although not enough, yet, trying to talk about it more.

The best thing I have done for my son so far, I believe, is to educate him as thoroughly and calmly as possible on how anxiety works, as far as I understand it and as I’ve seen it in action in our family. As opposed to the seventies and eighties, when no one in our family spoke about any of this, my son and I discuss this openly. And that means both when it’s just the two of us at home, and when we are with other family members or friends or teachers or coaches. We talk about the physical signs that let us know we’re heading into trouble, our coping mechanisms, anything we can think of. We let those around us know what we need from them when we’re in trouble. We share stories out the embarrassing and the frustrating situations we’ve found ourselves in because of our anxiety. And we remind ourselves that we get through it, every time.

Because I’m a storyteller, all of this stuff works its way into a book, sooner or later. Alcoholism showed up in Nothing Like Paris, and I found myself working anxiety issues into my upcoming holiday novella, Real World. I’m sure I’ll continue to work out on the page all my own issues

I needed a Wonkomance column for today, and I wasn’t sure what to write. But this is what I’ve been thinking about lately, so this is what you get. I like to think that every time someone shares their story like this, no matter how insignificant it may seem, it’s one more brick pulled out of the wall of silence that surrounds those who most need help and understanding. I’d love to see that wall crumble into dust someday.

Posted in Formative Wonk, Life & Wonk, Writing Wonkomance | 3 Comments

Be Your Own Heroine and Hero

I have all these theories about why readers want romance heroines to be such good people. My most recent is this:

A writer friend told me recently that all romances are hero-centered stories—we read them because we want to follow the evolution of the hero from wounded and incapable of love to healed and fulfilled. If that’s true—and the more I think about it, the more I believe it—then the heroine, although she has some arc of her own—functions more as the hero’s prize for self-actualization than anything else. And okay, if someone is going to be our prize for doing the hardest things in life, they’d better be good. Or, you know, perfect.

There’s this thing people say about romance, that you’re meant to fall in love with the hero and be best friends with the heroine. Makes sense to me. But let’s just stop for a second and think about the dynamics there. If you’re in love with your best friend’s man—which is what I just said—then she’d better treat him well, right? Because the instant—the very first second—she slacks off, you’re going to feel really angry at her. In order for that feeling not to kick in, she has to be better than you. Every time she acts, you have to feel like she’s doing what you would love to believe you’d do in that situation. And not just what you-you would do. What you—your better self—would do, on your very best day.

So we don’t only hold heroines to high standards—we hold them to the way-too-high standards that we hold ourselves to (but rarely actually meet).

And about that. I have this wonderful new friend. I once asked my husband what traits all my friends have in common, and he said that I am drawn to women who (like me) deliver their the contents of their heads in unfiltered fashion. This was a way nicer way of saying what he meant than “All your friends have diarrhea of the mouth” but I got the picture. Anyway, my friend and I get along splendidly because we tell each other all the goopy pointless stuff that no one else wants to hear and help each other make sense of it so we can exorcise it from our overfull brains.

One of the things she has told me is that she has really bad self-esteem. And while she was talking, I pretty much just nodded and said, “Yeah,” a lot, because I knew exactly she meant. You can’t see it by looking at either of us. We hold our heads up high, smile a lot, make friends easily. On paper we both know we’re doing okay—haven’t killed the kids yet, put food on the table an average of three times a day, work hard at something important to us and, by most measures, kick occasional butt, have families who love us. And yet we spend a weirdly disproportionate amount of time picking on ourselves. Like, Oh, GOD did I really say that? And, Shoulda…wish I’d…why do I always…?

I know not all women do this, but I also know many who do. And so I’ve started to suspect that maybe we are only subjecting our heroines to the same scrutiny, holding them to the same unmeetable standards, as we do ourselves.

This post isn’t a call to us as romance writers to write bigger, wilder, pricklier, nastier, ornerier, more damaged heroines, although I love those heroines and I do always welcome them. It’s a call to us as women to notice how must we expect from ourselves and from the other people we judge against those same standards. Just notice. How many times a day you notice what’s still on your to-do list instead of what you’ve already accomplished, how many times a day you pick on the one thing you said wrong instead of marveling at all the things you said right, how many times a day you compare yourself to someone who’s done it better instead of to the way you used to do it, before you got as good as you are.

If you notice enough times, you might find that it finally starts to get old. And then you’ll notice yourself starting to dismiss the self-criticism as just noise.

Because it’s a good thing to want to be a better human being, but it’s a great thing to know you’re lovable, in all your warty splendor—no matter what plopped out of your mouth, what you shoulda or shouldn’ta done, or what wish you’d thought of at the moment.

And you don’t need a romance hero to tell you you’re already a heroine. You can be your own.

Posted in Writing Wonkomance | 3 Comments