Old Habits Die Hard…

For those of you who don’t know me, I’m an avid reader.  I know, big shock, right? My husband refers to reading as my “habit” – saying it in a way that clearly implies he feels I could benefit from a 5-step program and a sponsor.  I found this amusing as hell, images of me locking myself in the bathroom so I could just get a quick fix… well, okay, he may have a small point.

Anyway, moving on.  I read a lot, and I’m not all that picky about what I will read.  I have my favorites, and I’ve got some preconceived notions about certain genres you’d be hard pressed to change my mind about.  But overall, I’m a pretty open-minded reader.

Usually, I’ll have four or five books going at a time so I can flip back and forth depending on my mood.  Take right now, for example. I’m in the middle of three different books on my Kindle, two hard copies from the library, one I bought from the used bookstore Tuesday, and two audiobooks.  And not one of them is the same genre.  For the sake of honesty, two of them are Stephen King books, but one is nonfiction, so they don’t count.  Which is irrelevant anyway. The pile of books I'm currently reading that dominates my nightstand.

The point of me telling you this is so you don’t roll your eyes when I tell you that I’ve become kind of a self-help book junkie.

Don’t get me wrong.  If the first chapter of a book tells me that my road to inner peace is paved with affirmations, I’m out.

I don’t need to waste my time reading books that are going to tell me all about the power of positive thinking.  We all know, on some basic level, that negative self-talk can be a buzzkill at best, and deadly at worst.  But we also know, or at least, I  know, that people who walk around all day shitting sunshine and happiness without fail are creepy and unsettling.  There has to be some bad in there to balance it all out.  Otherwise, how could you genuinely appreciate all of the good?

Over the last couple of years, I have become somewhat of a connoisseur of self-help books.  From the ones that don’t really seem to have any intention of actually helping the reader, to the ones that scream “You are amazing and your imperfections are amazing, and you eat that second brownie because all of that amazingness deserves to be rewarded!” at you.  Actually, I’m convinced some of these books are actually designed to give you new, different problems, so you have to go buy new, different books.

See, it goes something like this:

I am going to love myself for who I am, warts and all.  I do deserve that brownie because I am amazing.  I am my best friend, and I don’t judge myself!

Then, two months later, after your doctor has told you that you’ve gained 17lbs, and you are putting yourself at risk of diabetes if you don’t stop eating brownies every time you feel the need to remind yourself how much you love yourself, you re-evaluate, and pick a different book.

God, I need to stop eating my feelings!  I’m going to start confronting my problems, and being the stronger, more assertive me!  I will no longer suppress my feelings with food, I am going to say it like it is from this moment forward!

Then, two months later, you may have lost a few pounds because you are no longer eating your feelings, but you’ve probably also lost some relationships along the way too.  Because nobody likes it when they’re merrily going about their own lives, and you suddenly show up with the most dominating opinion in the room.  About them.   Without any acknowledgment of your own issues.  Because you are too busy telling them what their issues are.  So, another book gets picked up.

Why am I so determined to self-sabotage?  Why do I drive everyone away?  I need to look at what motivates me!  Forget feelings, I need to focus on my actions!  It’s time to start doing more things for me! 

So.  First, you filled yourself with love in the form of brownies. Then, you swallowed your feelings in order to tell everyone else what their feelings were. Then, you decided the best way to prevent yourself from sabotaging yourself was to only focus on yourself.  Annnd you’re likely back to square one.  It’s baffling!  The cycle just goes around and around. A million variations of the same damn dance.

It’s like one of those walking escalators they have at Disney World and overcrowded airports. You get on it, and you’re going and it’s all good, and then you step off and the whole world feels disorienting for a second because your brain forgot what it’s like to stand still and just be there.

That’s what depression feels like, to me, anyway.  Like I forgot to show up and exist.  I could see all of the people moving around, going about their lives, but they were all too separate from me for me to reach.  And once I finally caught up to them all, nothing would come into focus.  It’s a bizarre and unsettling feeling, especially in the context of my life.  Which brings me back to all the self-help books.

Sometimes, I’ll read one, and think to myself Holy shit!  That’s amazing!  It’s so simple, why didn’t I think of that?  And other times, I’ll read something and think to myself Do people really buy into this BS?  Because really, it’s all about what connects to your life, and your experiences.  The things that feel relevant to me could very well seem trite and ridiculous to you.  Which left me to wonder about a lot.  Is there a point to reading these books?  Yes, I think there definitely can be.

Honestly, sometimes it’s just to know that someone else’s head may be a bit more screwed up than my own.  But more than that, they serve as a reminder that there is no solution.  There’s no big answer.  No giant computer is going to tell me that 42 is what I’m looking for so I should just sit down, shut up, and be happy with it.

I want to explore the ideas more.  The main, consistent themes that pop up in these books.  I’d like to play a few games of comparison with them.  What is the difference between self-care and self-preservation, and at what point does it make you selfish?  When is it perfectly reasonable to be angry?  How angry is considered reasonable?  Where is the line between working on myself, and focusing on other people?  Does the hamster really need a second ball to run around in?  Oops.  Not that last one.  Bit of a slip up there.  We’ll talk about Jerry on another day.

The point is, there’s no universal system here.  No one-size-fits-all psychobabble found in a pretty package.  Hell, maybe you’re a perfectly adjusted person with no reason to feel anything but complete contentment and satisfaction with your life.  If that’s true, well… honestly, though, that’s just a bit weird.

For the most part, we all have our hang-ups.  We all have the things about ourselves that we’d like to fix, or change, or maybe just dust off and bring out to show around a bit.  And why isn’t that okay?

My husband and I got into an argument the other night about something inane, and in a moment of genuine frustration, he said “God!  You’re just so self-destructive!”  I sat there for a minute and just blinked at that.  Because, well, he’s not wrong.  I mean, he was wrong right then.  At that point, I was being self-righteous, which is totally a different thing.  But in my life, I have been known to be self-destructive.  And I sat there thinking, why?  I mean, what the hell is the point of it?

If you’re hanging on here for the answer, you’re going to be disappointed.  Because the truth is, I have no freaking idea why I do some of the stupid shit I do.  But I am becoming more aware of it as it’s happening.  And that counts for something in my book, because it’s a hell of a lot more than it used to be.

All these books have gotten my head circling around a lot lately, about the contradictory messages we are all fed by the world about ourselves.  Love yourself, but be skinny!  Don’t compare yourself, but be better than that kid!  Be frugal, but make sure you’ve got the latest phone with all the newest tricks!  It’s a joke.  Well, actually, it’s not.  It’s a terrifying reality.  We are living in a world full of push and pull, and there’s no resting time given.  There’s no time allotted to make up our own minds about our own feelings and that’s not okay.

Every day when I lay down for bed, I run through a list of all the things I didn’t do that day but wanted to, and I discard every excuse I gave myself for why I didn’t do those things.  Because in retrospect, in my mind, no excuse is good enough.   It doesn’t matter that I had severe cramps and wanted to crawl out of my skin and hide somewhere dark and quiet with a bottle of wine and a bowl of chocolate.  I should have taken a few extra minutes to talk to Mason about the story I was 99% certain he had completely made up.  Or, who cares that I only got a solid three hours of sleep and felt like my eyes were going to fall out of my head, I should have made a real meal for my family.  Not. Good. Enough.  That’s what it always boils down to.

When does this shit stop?

Probably never.  I don’t know that I’ll ever fully be rid of the running dialogue in my mind, the one that gets so much worse when the world is quiet.  But the only way to find out is to keep trying.  So, that’s what I’ll do.  And in the meantime, I’m going to start tearing these books apart so I can find the candy centers.

Or is that Tootsie Pops?  Damn, I could use a brownie.

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Walking Back to Happiness

Earlier this morning, as I was sitting on my porch working, Mason (my 7-year-old wildlife lover), made an exhilarating discovery.   I was startled to the point of nearly falling out of my chair when he started bellowing for me to “Come here!  Right now!  Bring your phone!  Hurry!”  Now, I figured this had something to do with some form of backyard wonder, since already today he had captured and studied a snail, a roly-poly, a few ants and a slug.   I was not, however, expecting his enthusiasm to be over a pair of mating lizards, furiously going at it on the screen enclosure.  He frantically waved me over as I got closer, like some manic supporter at the finish line of a marathon.   “Look!” he practically screamed at me, finger outstretched and pointing to the lizards.  “Look mom!  He’s smiling!  Take a picture!”  As I attempted to open my camera app while holding back my laughter,   he said one more thing that would bounce around in my head for hours.

“He’s just so happy!”

Lizard Love

Well isn’t that just the damn truth.  From the looks of it, the little guy had plenty of reasons for the big smile on his face.  But it got me thinking.  What is happy?  What does that mean?  The answer is likely different for everyone.  Theoretical physics makes Kaleb (my 10-year-old going on 20-year-old going on 5-year-old science nerd) happy.  It does not make me happy.  Instead, it makes my head hurt and my eyes feel like they’ve just gone for a run through the clothes drier.

Seriously though, what defines happiness?  How do you measure it?  Can it even be measured?

A couple years ago, after the reality awakening experience I wrote about the other day, I picked up a couple of self-helpy type books that focused on habits and happiness.  One of them was Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project”.  It was a good read.  Insightful, funny, and full of ideas about how to perceive and improve your own happiness.  I enjoyed it immensely and vowed to work on my own happiness.  But I did so with a narrow focus, and no real inner rumination past the point of one goal.

I had decided that my key to happiness was paved with college courses.  That if I could just go back and finish school, I could finally be what I was supposed to be, and that new level of self-sufficiency would make me happy.  I wasn’t entirely wrong.  But I was nowhere near right either.  I looked at one tiny corner of my great big life, and decided it was going to be the thing that saved me.

Nevermind that I wasn’t happy with my health, especially after having quit smoking, thus eating my cravings and steadily putting on weight in all the wrong places.  Nevermind that I felt like I was juggling the kids and the house on my own with little to no support.  Not that I ever said these things to my husband, for a variety of ill-conceived bullshit excuses.  I don’t want to start a fight.  Maybe I’m the problem.  This is how relationships are supposed to be.  I’m not holding up my end of the deal.  So on and on the cycle continued.

I figured I would go back to school, and everyone else would have to step up to help me.  They wouldn’t have a choice, because I’d be too busy to do it all on my own.

Let me just tell you, it did not work out that way.  Shocker!  I know.   Instead, I ended up juggling a full-time school schedule, a 30 hour a week job, and coaching Kaleb’s tennis team so I could adjust the schedule to fit around Mason’s baseball practice.  All while doing the shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, and the resentment building.  Man, I mastered the art of that last one.  I may never be America’s Next Top Masterchef, but I could win some pretty intense awards for hanging on to anger and resentment.

So, the whole time I’m doing this thing for me, and in the long term, my family, I’m secretly getting more and more angry.  It doesn’t take a genius to realize that is probably not the most effective path to happiness.  In the meantime, my husband was sitting on the other side of this grand new endeavor I had taken on, stewing in his own resentment.  Because I had no time.  I don’t have time to talk about your day, I’m sorry.  But I’ve still got two hours of work to do, a ten page research paper due in two days, I have to leave in fifteen minutes to take one kid to one sport or another, and I can’t remember the last time I ate.

In short, I did not find my happiness, or improve my life.

Do not get me wrong. that doesn’t mean I gave up.  Instead, I plowed forward with all of the stubbornness I could muster.  I put my head down and I worked my ass off through three semesters of school, all while dealing with the boys’ school stuff, work, birthday parties, holidays, and the chaos that came with buying our first house.  And then I took a break.  I took the spring semester off, so I could work on taking our new disaster, oh, um, I mean house, and making it our home.

And still, all of this time slipped by.  All of these warning signs, meltdowns, problems, and cries for help slipped right past me.  Because I was doing what I said I would do with a single-minded focus.  And tunnel vision.  See, I still hadn’t broken out of my fog.  I’d just… expanded it a bit.  Until the fateful yoga class (thank you leaking-firehose-breather for keeping my mind present and helping me to find my moment of clarity).

I still don’t know how to define happiness.  Is it writing this right now?  I can’t say that dissecting all of my flaws and past mistakes is an exercise that makes me happy.  But it makes me feel better.  And isn’t that kind of the same thing?  Does working on a manuscript or reading my book make me feel happy?  Yes.  But they’re also distractions, and habits I fall into very easily when I don’t want to focus on what’s going on right in front of me in the present moment.  So I have to be careful there.  Yoga makes me happy.  When it’s done.  Not typically in the moment unless it’s aerial.  Usually, I’m too busy thinking Would you just please shut up and tell us to get out of this pose from hell? to be happy in the actual moment.

All of these things, and many others, make me happy in the temporary, and all of them help to make up parts of the whole of who and what I want to be.  And probably, that’s the key to happiness.  Finding all of the small things that work together to form a big, messy, complex picture.  I’ve decided that like Mrs. Rubin, I’m going to start my own happiness project – as I mentioned before.  But mine’s going to look a lot different than hers.  As it should, considering we are wildly different people.

First, I’m going to focus on the things I feel I fail at the most.  Self-care.  Real, honest and open communication with my kids and my husband.  Being present, even when it’s painful.  Those, I believe, will be the next three post topics.  Because each one is worthy of a deeper look.  And because I spent seven years -missing out on all of the great my life has to offer because I couldn’t see past the bad.  I couldn’t see past my own failures, even when those closest to me looked and saw only success.

Because that’s what depression is.  A constant state of steaming failure.  And that’s what is going to help me walk away from it  Because that’s what success is.  A constant state of accepting your perceived failures and trying again anyway.

Today, we are celebrating our country’s independence.  And today, I will celebrate my own independence from a miserable existence of only doing what is necessary to get by.  I will sit on a picnic blanket in a park with my family, and I will enjoy every moment.  Even the miserable ones.  Because I can.  Because being present, even in the miserable moments, is true freedom.

Starting Over…

I used to write a blog about my life, and the hilarity that ensued when attempting to turn wild little monsters (AKA, my kids) into mostly decent people.  I also talked a bit about the struggles of being an “autism mom”, though the actual struggle was severely downplayed.  People loved this blog.  I’m not saying that because I personally wrote it and think that anything I’ve written naturally comes with a dash of amazing. I’m saying it because I was told repeatedly by people I barely knew, or had never met, how much they enjoyed it.  It was funny, they would tell me, these strangers.  It was so nice and refreshing for someone to look at these difficult things and find the humor in them.  And, I guess, it was.  For them.  But I wasn’t laughing.  Not really.  I was locking myself in my closet and crying for hours.  I was silently wishing that someone, anyone would just make it all stop.

Then one day, I stopped writing.  I don’t just mean on the blog either, I mean I literally stopped doing the only thing I had left that gave me a sense of self, altogether.  Because I couldn’t find the funny anymore.  And when I wrote about the moments that hurt, when I wrote about the things that scared me so badly I couldn’t sleep for days, nobody wanted to read it.  I’d get asked, “When are you going to start writing about all the funny things they do?”  Well… there’s only so long I can pretend that cleaning my kid’s shit off a ceiling fan like some sort of twisted zookeeper is funny, my friend.  People were, from my perspective, disappointed.  So, I stopped.

Because my struggles were not funny anymore.

Now, that’s not entirely true. And I am writing this to be entirely truthful.  With you, whoever you may be, and with me, most of all.  I am determined to live my own truth.  It wasn’t that there was no humor to be found.  It was just that I couldn’t find it.  I was angry, and sad, and confused, and lonely, and hurting so deeply in some places that I was convinced I was going to hemorrhage and die. Postpartum depression split me open from stem to stern, and without any real idea of what was happening to me, all of the things that I loved the most about myself silently started slipping away.

What I didn’t know at the time, and what I have since learned, is that postpartum is a hellacious beast.  And, just like the more than 3 million women it affects every year, it comes in an unending variety of shapes and sizes.  In the seven and a half years since my youngest son was born I have learned a lot about this disorder, and it is very likely that I will share what I have learned on a future post.  But that’s not what I’m here for today.

Today, I am here to admit some hard truths.  Today I am writing this in the hopes that my struggles; past, present, and future, may help someone else.  Today I am writing this as a tool to help me become the best version of myself.  Because I have changed.  Dramatically.  I am not the person that I was all those years ago. Not by a long shot.  And I’m not even close to the person I want to be tomorrow.  Seven and a half years ago I began a downhill slide, one so subtle I didn’t even notice it was happening. Until I was so deeply buried, the idea of digging myself out seemed impossible.

So many things contributed to this drastic and terrifying change.  I am sure that over time I will dissect those miserable memories, even when I don’t want to.  But here is what it boils down to.  Here is the place I was in when I finally woke up. I was suddenly blinking at my strange new surroundings and wondering to myself, “Where is this, and how did I get here?”. 

I was angry.  I mean, really angry.  Not just mad, not a bit irritated.  I was absolutely furious.  With everything.  With everyone.  With my husband, with my kids, with my friends and family.  But above all else, I was so very angry at myself.  I cannot think of a single point throughout my entire life that I could say I was filled with such unyielding self-loathing.  I hated what I had become.  I hated who I had become.  How could I let this happen to myself?  Where did I go?  What have I done to my life?  I was also terrified.  I’ve never been so bone-deep frightened. And that’s saying something, given some of the things my kids have put me through.  Who am I supposed to be now?  How am I supposed to be that person?  Where did I go?!

The unnecessary anger wasn’t new.  My shameful lack of patience wasn’t new.  I had been living in some weird fog for so long, and now I’ve woken up to discover that I have damaged the people that I love the most in this world.  I have allowed hurt and anger to spread through my house like some 14th-century plague.  I’ve got one kid who is half convinced I hate him.  I’ve got another one who is so incapable of handling his emotions he never would have made it through the last school year if he hadn’t won the grand prize in the lottery of teachers.

I did this.  I let this happen.

So, now what do I do?

Answering the question is the easy part.  Actually following through is where the going gets tough.  Now, I have to fix it.  Now, I need to face the demons I have created.  Now, I need to climb my ass out of this hole that I have dug, so I can face the mountain before me.  Now, I need to be the person that not just my family needs, but that I need me to be.

Sounds easy enough, right?

I had experienced a few little snaps back to reality over the years, but every time it happened, I would find myself so overwhelmed by the immensity of it that I’d slide right back into my familiar fog.  Until one day I didn’t.

My first real, hard snap back to reality happened about two years ago.  My husband and I were fighting.  Honestly, I couldn’t tell you what we were fighting about.  The constant push and pull of conflict was such a commonality in our marriage at that point that we could have been arguing about him forgetting to put something on the grocery list. Now, don’t get me wrong.  We weren’t screaming obscenities at each other, or screaming at all for that matter.  We weren’t being abusive or mean, we just weren’t getting along.

I opened my eyes one morning, and he wasn’t there.  He wasn’t there because he’d left for a trip that had been planned for quite some time.  It wasn’t that he was gone that bothered me.  It was that he’d left without saying a single word to me.  My first reaction, petty and small though it may be, was relief.  I thought, at least we won’t be arguing.  And then it hit me.  Hard.  This was my life.  I was laying in my bed, with my children sleeping in their beds, and I was relieved that my husband had left for a week without saying goodbye to me.  How is okay?

It wasn’t.  It isn’t.  And I knew it.  Right then, in that moment, I knew my life was not okay.  I spent that entire week running around like my hair was on fire.  Taking in the state of my life.  My kids, my marriage, my whole self.  When reality finally crashed down around me, it hit hard.  I threw up.  A lot.  I was violently, painfully ill.  I had to keep sticking my head between my knees and silently willing myself to breathe as the full breadth of my life hit me with the force of a mac truck falling out of an airliner.  I didn’t sleep for two days.  Images of my life kept playing on forced repeat in the front of my mind, and I thought I might actually go crazy.

I didn’t go crazy.  And eventually, the panic attacks stopped.  Which is when the thinking started.  My life had to change.  I had to change.

Now, let me stop and be clear on something here.  I was not, by any means, suddenly fine. I did not just wake up and suddenly everything was clear and focused. At this point in time, I barely registered the changes that were happening in my children.  This is a horrible, heartbreaking, sickening thing to admit, and I can’t even type the words without crying.  So many things were going on in my boys’ hearts and minds and lives that I was not connected with.  Oh sure, we went places, or did things, and I was there at school functions and IEP meetings, and all the other necessary things a stay at home mom is expected to be at.  Once, I even tried to be PTA secretary, which by the way, was an unmitigated disaster.  But I was not there.  I was coming back, I was waking up, but I still had such a long road to travel.

I spent that week doing some of the most intense soul searching I had ever done in my life.  Was I happy?  Uh, no.  Clearly.  Was I doing my family any favors by being so unhappy?  No, definitely not.  Why was I so unhappy?  Oh man, don’t get me started.  The list of reasons I gave myself that day for my own self-loathing and misery were embarrassing in many ways, enlightening in many others, and some of them, quite frankly, were freaking ridiculous.  But again, I remind you, I was still encased in a shell of depression that had only just started to fracture.  So, I’m going to give myself some grace.  Because what really matters here, is that it had fractured.

Over the last two years, I’ve taken many steps forward.  And I’ve taken quite a few steps back.  When my husband got home from his trip we had a meeting of the minds the likes of which we hadn’t seen in a long time.  There was, and still is, a lot of damage.  There’s scar tissue, and hurt, and resentment, and anger on both sides.  But there’s also love.  And a determination to fix the problems, and build a future.  Together.  That week I made a decision I had been playing with for years.  I decided to go back to school.  And I did.

Some things changed.  I started taking classes, which I’ve wholly enjoyed.  Except for the moments when my true inner monster rears her ugly head, and I start to convince myself I cannot possibly do it. What right do you have to dedicate so much time to this ridiculous endeavor?  You’ll never finish anyway.  And seriously, your kids have eaten hot dogs like three times this week.  This is how you become a better person?  Really?  Those moments are real, and intense, and I don’t know if I’ll ever be rid of them.  But for now, every day, I win the small internal battles, and I push on.

And while I will take those moments of triumph for what they are, I have come to realize that a lot more things haven’t changed.  I’m still impatient.  I’m still angry and resentful.  I am nowhere near the person or mother I want to be, and I have only just realized how much my words and actions have impacted the hearts and minds of my children.  I started a yoga challenge last month.  60 days of yoga, in the studio, every day.  I signed up because I thought it would be nice to give myself an excuse to get out of my house and away from my family, since we are all piled on top of one another at the moment (yay summer vacation!).  What I didn’t realize, was that I would find such striking clarity while doing so.

I did not change over the last two years.  Not in the ways it matters most.  My internal dialogue is still filled with such vitriol, it’s appalling.  My kids are constantly at each other’s throats, and the anger I see in them is a direct reflection of my own.  I’m impatient, all of the time.  Once again, the lightning struck, and reality crashed in.  Only this time, I wasn’t a sobbing mess on my bathroom floor.  I was laying in savasana, listening to the guy next to me breathe like a leaking firehose.  It took everything I had not to sit up and shout to the room “This is NOT me!  This is not who I am!”  And it isn’t.  I refuse to let it be.  I will not allow this miserable bitch who has invaded my mind exist anymore.

I am done with her.

So, I’m not who I was.  And I’m not who I am.  Where the hell does that leave me?

With a long journey ahead of me.  I need to consciously shift my perspectives.  I need to stop seeing my children with a critical eye, and start seeing them with a loving eye.  I need to stop telling myself how horrible I am, and start giving myself the grace I need to heal and become the woman I am meant to be.

Which leads me to this blog.  And you.  If you managed to get this far, and really, give yourself a pat on the back for that, because this is one really long post.  I’m starting my own happiness project.  If you don’t know what that is, don’t worry.  I’m not one hundred percent certain yet myself, and I read the book.  But I’m going to find out.  Maybe we will find out together. Because I’m revamping this blog.

This place where I used to hide my pain with laughter.  This place that was both weirdly sacred, and a cause of personal torture.  I’m taking this place back.  I am going to give it new life.  I am going to put myself out there, warts and all.

This was the hardest thing I have written in a very long time.  It’s not fun to peel back the curtain and expose all of your shortcomings to the world.  It’s harder still because some of the readers may be people I know personally.  Maybe you?  I had initially planned on this being posted anonymously, because I’m terrified to think of someone I know and respect reading these thoughts and thinking less of me for them. But, I am living my truth.  And that means no more hiding.  So, if you know me, and even if not, I only ask that you reserve judgment.  Because this isn’t an easy thing for me to do.  But I think it may be a necessary one.

Life can be hard.  But it is so much harder when we are horrible to ourselves.  When our perspectives are so skewed in the wrong direction we can’t even see what we are doing to ourselves and our loved ones.  It doesn’t have to be like that.  We don’t have to be like that.

I refuse.