Because I read a lot, I know a little about a bunch of things. I read articles, books, editorials, and blogs. I’m well-educated and have an above average deductive mind. I have to admit, however, when it comes to my oldest kid, I am out of my depth.
Today, Odie came home from work and I felt my insides clench up as usual. It’s time for me to confess to you. It’s indiscreet because many of my readers know who we really are, pseudonyms and careful fictional details aside. My husband suffers from mental illness.
God, that feels good to say. I feel guilty admitting that, but it does. I’m past the denial stage. I’m past the panicked phase where I worried that I needed to get out of the relationship. I, myself, have been diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, so those who live in glass houses should not throw Zoloft.
He’s never been diagnosed, so I can’t tell you exactly what we suffer from. Yep. “We.” His depression, despair, anger, mood swings, and obsessions affect all of us. My suspicion is bipolar disorder. The kind that’s more characterized by depression and mood swings than by mania. What I do know is that he does what I call “downcycling.” We’re in a downcycle now. It feels like it’s been going on for a very long time.
I have so much compassion for my husband. He’s a good man who suffers terribly and has no perspective on it. He truly believes that he is a bad person and that his misery is caused by his inability to do everything right. He takes everything personally and imagines that every person he interacts with finds him awkward and repulsive.
I’m human, so I admit that I find his shit tiresome. Odie is bright and articulate, and he once put it to me quite succinctly. “I know my shit is tiresome, but you know what, YOUR shit is tiresome. Everyone’s shit is tiresome. There is literally no one on this earth who is not teeming with tiresome shit.”
Point, match: Odie.
Still, the way he sees the world so different than I often knocks me on my ass.
Now that you have the context, let me tell you the problem. Today, he comes home from work and I hear it in the way he turns his key in the door and sets down his stuff. It’s been a bad day. I’ve been home with the kids for an hour, and I’ve had a tough conversation with our oldest, Viva.
My good friend and fitness instructor insists that everything in my life is a lesson from the Universe. Viva is a graduate level course in “the Universe.” She’s seven years old and nothing is easy with her. She has a dark and bleak outlook on the world, and while she can be silly and fun like any young child, she is frequently her dad’s mirror. She will tell me, “I’m the worst kid in the world!” or “Everything I do is bad!” She’s smart, so she understands everything. No blissful ignorance for this one. I’m not sure I’d even know it wasn’t normal, though, if not for her polar opposite, Pringles. My youngest girl, five, is the epitome of joy. She’s happy, silly, boisterous, friendly, adventurous, and game. Stubborn as shit, but that’s just “five.” She’s old enough to test boundaries and challenge authority because she’s realized that it’s possible. While her defiance drives me to drink, I can’t help but admire her strong sense of self.
A perfect Pringles story: I’ve told her a hundred times not to stand on the toilet to brush her teeth. Not only does she swallow her toothpaste instead of spitting it in the sink, she could fall off and hurt herself. The appeal is the mirror. She isn’t tall enough to see herself in the mirror at the sink, even standing on a stool. One evening, I went into the bathroom, saw her standing on the toilet and admonished her, “Pringles! I told you not to stand there!” She fell from the toilet and hit her head. No injury, but it hurt a bit. “See?” I told her. “It’s dangerous.” Instead of being contrite, she got in my face with her finger and yelled, “YOU SCARED ME! THAT’S why I fell. I was perfectly safe until YOU SCARED ME! It’s YOUR fault I fell!”
She was only four at the time, so I will give her a pass. After all, she was right. I startled her. Sure, I startled her because she was being sneaky, but Pringles would tell you that’s NOT THE POINT! (finger in your face, no doubt).
For a few months, I have been meaning to make an appointment with Viva’s pediatrician to talk about my concerns. So when Odie came home and one of the first things he said was, “We need to talk, just you and me, about THIS” (gesturing to Viva) and how we are going to handle her attitude” I told him that I didn’t want to.
I told him that would be a great idea if either of us had any expertise whatsoever in the topic we were discussing. I’m usually confident to go into any discussion because like I said, I know stuff. I read. I’m educated. But this? I’m stumped. I told him that I’m happy to talk, but I need to talk to someone who knows more than I. Not to someone who is just as in the the dark and as scared and desperate. Not to mention someone projecting his own worst fears and personal issues (coughOdiecough).
I wanted to sign her up for a sports team at her school. An outside program that’s coming in to provide the training and practices. Her friends are all signing up. Her very best friend signed up just because I told her parents Viva would too. On the car ride home from school, she wailed that this sports team would be “the worst thing EVER!” She took it to a terrible place. “I think I want to run away,” she told me. “I’m not happy ever. I’m the unhappiest kid in the whole world. If you make me play sports, I don’t want to live here anymore.” It might seem like adorable hyperbole, but she was so distraught. She triggered me, too. I pictured my innocent, naive but brilliant little girl sneaking out of the house and being vulnerable to all the dangers of the world. Of course she’d never do it, but mother guilt/panic is not a rational thing.
Then it was homework. One short worksheet. “I hate school. I’m never proud of my work.” Then dinner. “I don’t like any food except candy! No one is picky like me! I’m the worst eater ever!”
You have to imagine all of this said in a tone of utter despair, not defiance or cheerful pessimism like her sister. Pringles would be likely to say such things in a chirpy little lisp while coloring a picture of unicorns.
I’m tired of getting pulled aside after Girl Scouts for “little chats” about how Viva is on track to earn a Misery Badge, or about her refusal to eat or participate. I’m exhausted from the dinner battles. I’m dreading the first parent-teacher meeting of the year. I remember the trauma of the very first one. I showed up to kindergarten expecting to have a pleasant chat about how delightful my daughter is (already reading at a 2nd grade level with the conversation skills of a 4th grader), only to receive the frustrated venting of a teacher driven crazy by my kid. I’ve been in dozens of those conferences in 17 years, but I was always on the teacher side.
What I don’t want to do is take her likely normal personality and pathologize it. I was a negative kid. I did it on purpose for attention. Her dad was a negative kid. In between court hearings where his parents fought over him, he was being passed from aunt to grandma to cousin to other aunt because his mother couldn’t afford to support him but hated her ex too much to give him custody or visitation. At some point, his teacher recommended counseling and to this day he tells the story that he was “crazy” as a child and he knows because a psychiatrist would watch him draw pictures.
I don’t know a single mother who doesn’t worry she’s doing a terrible job. But I’m really worried. Worried about being a shit wife and a shit mother. I can always make Viva grin and laugh. Sometimes I don’t know how to reconcile the witty giggling jokester with the wailing self-deprecating mess she so quickly becomes.
Today, Odie said to me, “I keep getting messages from the Universe that I need to change my life. Focus on what matters and stop worrying about my job. Work out. Take care of my kids. Model the kind of person I want them to be instead of trudging through my days then coming home and plugging into my devices, trying to block it all out.” It made me feel hopeful. I know enough about child psychology to know that kids who show up in therapy are acting out what’s going on with the adults in their lives. If Odie can see that shred of hope, then there’s hope for our entire little family.
And I’m starting with a pediatrician visit. No drawings.