[I am sharing my story of how I just could not happy through Mother’s Day this year because I need you to know that had I been feeling fine, I would have been able to let go of this idea that I should “have it all” as a modern mother. I would have said, “I’m enough, so those ridiculous ideas don’t stick to me.” But I wasn’t fine, and it changed everything. I need you to know what went wrong so we stop blaming the factors that don’t really matter.]
I tried to play the part today. Look like an adored mother, and my adoring children and husband would know they had succeeded. Because that’s what the pageantry is all about, right? Making those who ought to be most grateful for my mothering feel that they have conveyed their gratitude.
So why am I fleeing the women’s meeting at church, bolting through the parking lot, and going home to trade places with my husband, who is home with our sick youngest? Why am I hyperventilating to keep the sobs from overtaking me as I drive? Why am I wiping blinding tears from my make-up painted face? I’m hyperventilating. That means low blood CO2 levels. Wow, is this what alkalosis-induced hypokalemia and hypocalcemia feel like? The top of my head is getting tingly and numb. The distressing sensation spreads to my face.
A calming voice within: “Slow down your breathing, Elissa. The light is green, you are nearly home. Just slow your breathing. It’s OK to cry.”
“This wasn’t supposed to happen! I’ve been doing so well! How did I fall apart again?!” The broken child’s voice rails against the reality closing in around her.
I wipe my eyes and nose with the back of my hand and glance at my red, tear-streaked face in the rear view mirror. I hate how I look when I cry. Nowhere to hide that I’ve lost control. I take a slow, cleansing breath and abandon the security of my car for the face of my concerned husband in the house.
As I pass the bathroom near the garage entry, I hear the echo of a memory. My three-year-old, who potty trained herself at age two by asking for underpants and then flipping through an illustrated potty-training guide, has just had another accident. At the one-yard line, the toilet lid slipped and fell back. The crashing sound accompanied the silent breaking of a dam. As the puddle spread around her feet, I peeked through the door and heard her quietly whimper, “I didn’t want to wet my pants again.” Her crumbling confidence stayed my exasperated lecture.
As best as I could tell, she had regressed. And from her view, I could understand why. Seven months into the pregnancy that she was told would bring her a little brother, her mother disappeared. One moment they were together in a doctor’s office, and the next moment, she saw Mom walk into the doors of the Emergency Room next door. The doors slid closed, the car, now driven by her mother’s twin, drove her home, and Mom did not set foot in the only home they had ever known together for two heartbreaking weeks. “Remember yesterday a long time ago when you had to stay at your doctor’s office?” she still asks in a voice between reproach and despair.
She had never been away from her mother for
more than a day [Edit: I just remembered my trip to Mexico two years ago] more than a week, and suddenly a huge piece of her world became confusingly inaccessible to her. The last time Mom had disappeared from her view behind sliding doors, her grandmother had picked her up from the airport while her parents went to the hospital because something sad might be happening to the tiny baby inside of Mommy. Her older sister was inconsolable. Mom reappeared that night, and everything was basically fine again. This time things were different. Even though she visited Mom a couple times in the hospital room where her mom rested in a bed, connected to tubes and wires and wearing a nightgown the unreassuring color of a car mechanic’s shop towel; and even though she could see her mom on a computer screen most evenings during dinner, something was wrong.
Mom was no longer Mom. She couldn’t pick up this giant two-year-old who acted so grown up but who only wanted to be held close. And even when her baby brother arrived, he, too, was inaccessible. Just an image on a screen. Five weeks followed of brief moments at home with a mom who cried more, pushed herself even harder to make the most of these short visits, and said, “Please don’t bump me there. It hurts so much to be making food for your brother. Can you climb off my lap? I’m about to pump again.” Mom was still Mom. Only now, she was a mom to someone else. It is no wonder this child sprawls herself in every way possible on any visible surface of her mother all day long now.
So here I am, my dam having burst without any warning at all. I’ve just made a mess, again, and I thought I had it all together. I at least had the presence of mind to text my husband before ducking out of my meeting, so he’s just put the little one down for a nap and is ready to go. He asks me some sort of logistical question. I want to answer with a shrug that says, “What the blankety-blank makes you think I even care about that right now?” But instead I try to use my words.
When the emotions have already started spilling out of my face through tears, the words that accompany them follow a steep descent as well. Recalling them later on is as useful as trying to gather up my spent tears, but tears evaporate where words cling doggedly, and so I remember the awful things I said.
“There is nothing–do you hear me?–NOTHING anyone can do to truly thank a mother for what she has done. Why do we put all this pressure on everyone to say thank you to moms when no one but a mom has ANY idea what she really did for us? And now that I do know, there is nothing I could EVER do to adequately show my gratitude. Because none of us did it to be thanked or honored or told that we’re angels for putting up with our kids. We did it because we were overconfident and literally had no idea what we were signing up for.”
My whole body shakes as I furiously scrub the pots and pans my husband is too smart to tell me to leave for him to do later. I know that I don’t actually feel this way. I know only part of my being believes these extreme pronouncements. But if I don’t say these feelings out loud, the handwash-only knife I have moved onto could lend itself to a spilling that would not evaporate like tears. My husband blanches slightly as I hand him the knife that he offers to put away. I don’t mean to worry him.
He doesn’t know that I have already worked through that frightful question. When my friend asked me to offer the opening prayer in our meeting, she did not know that I was already engaged in mighty prayer. I added to my silent prayer that when I stood before all the women to pray aloud, these words, though pounding in my mind, would not push their way out: “Please, God, help me to not kill myself.” Usually I love to be with other women. But suddenly I feared that I would stun this unsuspecting group of women if I simply spoke the only thought in my mind. “Please don’t let them know that I’m losing it,” I plead. The words of a song meant to comfort and unite me with these women struck like a death knell. “Ye are not mine” blurred on the page before me. I had to get out of there. That’s when I texted my husband to tell him I was not doing well and would be coming home to switch with him.
I continued my tirade as I gathered my daughter’s myriad frou-frous from the dining room table. “I am so SICK of everyone decorating MY house with their crap! Do they have any idea how hard I work for every shred of my sanity?! And it doesn’t even matter. Last week I had a great therapy session, I exercised four out of five weekdays, I went for a jog ALONE, I went grocery shopping ALONE, I spent glorious time outdoors, I gave myself a creative outlet and BLOGGED! I socialized with neighbors, I let myself relax yesterday! I let myself have FUN! Wasn’t all this supposed to translate into me being happy?! But I might as well have skipped the birth control because I feel just as horrible as when I ovulated last month. I just feel like I want to die again.” [I’ll share more about the hell of PMDD in a later post.]
These words no longer stun my husband. He has heard me say such things at least a dozen times. I now have the sense to pause and say, “I don’t really mean that. I don’t know why I even feel that way. I will tell you if I actually intend to hurt myself.”
We come to some sort of agreement that I am pulling through and that he is safe to leave so that someone is at the church building to meet the kids after their meeting ends. I reheat a bowl of stir-fry even though I know it will go straight through me, just like everything else has for the past six days. “Well,” I laugh sardonically, “maybe my happy gut bacteria all died and the ones that say “kill yourself” have taken over.”
I laugh, but I seriously wonder what has led to my sudden collapse. I review the recent past. A week ago I went back to eating sweets after maybe two weeks of abstaining most of the time. And I’d acquired a tummy bug that my youngest also had (along with a newly developed cold and two teeth coming in). It makes no sense. So much of what typically contributes to my depression is being well-managed. I had stayed up too late on Friday night. But that was just one night. Could one poor night of sleep, a week of occasional goodies, and a shift in my gut microbes really send me this quickly over the deep end? I climb into bed, pull out my laptop, and try to work on a gift for my mom, if only to keep from being a danger to anyone.
The kids arrive home all glowing with surprises for Mom. I receive them one at a time and try to give a thin glimmer of a smile in response.
Eventually I take a much-needed nap. Afterward I emerge from my restful slumber to the sounds of children being children. I slowly help get myself and kids ready and we head to my parents’ for a Mother’s Day dinner.
To my mom’s “You look amazing!” I flatly snap, “Well, I’m not.”
A surge of guilt. What is wrong with me? Why am I so angry? Why can’t I just be happy?
Finally, as we finish eating dinner and the kids run off to explore Grandma’s house, I remember a funny story. It is prompted by my brother trying to lecture my children on proper Grandma’s House Etiquette. I say something abrasive to him and then decide it’s time to fake it ’til I make it. I may not feel happy, but if I were, what would I do?
That’s when I remember a little Lemons-into-Lemonade moment. My nearly seven-year-old son has some go-to activities when his ADHD medication is not on board. He has been doing these things since he was about three years old: he wads up toilet paper, gets it a little wet, and leaves toilet paper bombs all over the bathroom for me to find; he squeezes toothpaste onto every surface in the bathroom; he empties and smashes water bottles as if we get paid to recycle them; and he hides things that I only set down a split-second ago. If I didn’t struggle before, this kid would have sent me to the madhouse single-handedly.
He had obliterated two rolls of toilet paper sometime in the last week or two. I found it stuffed under his bed. I had him deposit the shreds into a bag, and then I saved it in case we ever have a ticker-tape toilet papering parade. I asked him to please remember the next time he wanted to shred toilet paper that his mom wanted him to walk away from the toilet paper instead.
So when I raced to the bathroom after discovering that my food still refused to stick on Sunday morning, I had to take a slow, deep breath when I saw that my toilet paper had been unrolled and then hastily re-rolled so it resembled a giant paper marshmallow on a stick. “Well, at least he cleaned it up,” I told myself.
Then I reached for the roll and discovered layer upon layer of pre-torn TP sections. They were the perfect length! On the way to church, I made sure to thank him for saving me time by getting my toilet paper ready for me. A glance at the rear view mirror showed a face of confusion as he muttered “you’re welcome” while wondering if this was a trap to make him admit his guilt.
Laughing about this kid with my family helps the weight of my recurrent attacks of hopelessness feel a little less unbearable.
But still, the question weighs on me: What had I done wrong? Why hadn’t I been able to prevent this attack? Hadn’t I done enough of the right things that a couple little things wrong wouldn’t have upset my apple cart? It feels like my cart is rolling on two good wheels, a donut, and an empty space. A gigantic burden with no room to mess up. Unless my family really loves apple sauce, which they don’t.
I continue to ponder this question as I get ready for bed. I stand at the same counter where that very morning I had persuaded myself to put on nice jewelry (I rarely wear any jewelry due to a nickel allergy, the fact that most necklaces have a life expectancy of about 12 seconds around my little kids, and due to no longer having pierced ears); I had persuaded myself to put on more make-up than just mascara and lipstick, and to sand down my heels so they didn’t look like the crusted remains of bread dough on the sides of a mixing bowl. Why had I done all that?
And then I remember the conversation I’d had with myself.
A small child’s voice said, “But today is my day. Shouldn’t I get to dress how I want? In something that makes me feel comfortable?” Her voice held reproach mixed with despair.
“No,” I shot back with a nasty laugh. “This day is about making everyone feel like they did a good job honoring you. Play the part. Look honored. Try harder than you usually do. Quit going around like you don’t know what to do with your beautiful hair and smile. Dress like someone cares about you. Put some sparkle on and make everyone proud that you’re their mother and the mother of their children and grandchildren. You have a closet full of gorgeous clothes. Now go in there and don’t come out until you’ve found something that didn’t come from a thrift store.”
[Edit: Adding this section in brackets because I totally forgot it.
She stuck her little chin out. “But I really need to rest today. Why do I have to go to church when I could rest here with the baby while he naps? Send the dad to church.”
“Because,” I retorted through clenched teeth, “the other three kids are singing to me,” I begin counting to three on my fingers, “someone is handing out a treat, and all the other moms will be there, so I have to go or I will disappoint someone. Stop looking for a way out of this. We’re going to be late.”]
The small child nodded her head, bit back tears, and stepped into her part.
The only problem is that this small child recently found her voice again. She isn’t sure when she lost it or where it went, but she found it when someone older and wiser reached out to listen and to comfort. This person had also lost her voice. She still spoke, but it was with snarls and sarcasm. It was with anger, shame, and despondency. It was the small child grown up but still carrying this deeply held belief that she didn’t matter. The grown Elissa decided to try out therapy again. After ten months, the two Elissas finally met each other again. I thought I had only gone there to learn how to deal with stress. I had no idea part of my self was missing.
“You do matter, Elissa,” my grown self stated through tears of anguish. “You just thought it was your job to keep everyone happy, so you went silent and hid your feelings. When you weren’t true to yourself, you felt divided. Your burden was too heavy, so you stayed right here waiting while I went to get help. It took a long time, but I finally made it back. I’ve carried you with me all this time, but I stopped checking on you because I was so afraid that you would see through me if I showed up without an answer. But I did have the answer this whole time. I matter, Elissa. I always have, and so you matter, too.”
“I knew it!” she cried. “I knew it!” and flung her arms around my neck. We cried a lot together that day.
This original Elissa and I are still figuring things out. I hear her say, “Let’s go watch the lightning storm with your kid who can’t sleep,” and I say, “But this is my only chance to write, to use my voice, to tell everyone that mental illness is real and that people who do perfectly normal things experience chronic flare-ups that can have devastating repercussions.” She looks at me expectantly. So I take my laptop with me while we watch the sky light up with the wonder of a child. I hear her say, “Let’s make pudding so the kids can paint with it, oh please!” and I say, “Remember I’m trying to not eat sugar? It makes me plump up in my mid-section and get depressed more easily.” My wide-eyed self innocently suggests, “You can just paint with it. You don’t have to eat it.” Oh, imagine that.
I realize now that on Sunday, original Elissa refused to be silenced anymore. She knew I had found her. She knew I had given her her voice back, and she was not about to be shut out again. But she is still a child, and the only way she knows to make herself heard is with tears and tantrums, with idle threats and survival instincts to fight, flee, or freeze. Sometimes she tries to drag the maturing Elissa into her maelstrom of noise and confusion if only to have company for a while. And oftentimes the elder Elissa acquiesces because she thinks she’ll lose her more tender self if she’s too harsh or expects too much.
So now we are learning how to be one again. We catch each other up on what’s new and what was forgotten. We cuddle up to the kids and tell them hilarious stories about their Mom catching rabbits at age seven and at age 37. We listen to the kids’ questions, and ask them to repeat a brilliant comment so that we can savor the sweet clarity of a child’s mind. We mother one another and try to notice the dissonance before it reaches catastrophic amplitudes. When one of us handles something the wrong way, the other one takes us firmly by the hand and marches us back into the room to own our mistake and apologize.
You see, I might look like someone who has it all together at times or is totally falling apart at others. But in these happy times, I am buoyed up by the high-fives we’re exchanging behind your back, and when I fall apart it’s because we’ve collapsed into each other’s arms, trying to find the trust and harmony that we have somehow misplaced again. I have finally learned that I don’t need to keep this world from dragging me down. I just need to keep all of me standing the ground we have reclaimed. Let the world do as it wishes, Elissa is remaining here.
Just don’t count on me becoming well-rested any time soon. This Elissa has a lot left to write.
[In a break with my tradition of titling the post with lyrics from a song, I have created a title out of two songs. I hope the reasoning has become clear to you].
Edit: I began this story in the middle because in moments like the one I described, I write as a process of self-discovery. Further reflection brought to the forefront the moment when I departed from my unified self and betrayed my inner voice. I didn’t just step out of the shower and decide to attack myself for wanting to be comfortable. I will share that part of the story now. Password: speakup