Solo Mama: What Happens When You Let Go of Your Destructive Nature?

Oh. My. Goodness. I’m reminded of the song that has a line that goes “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.” Who was that? Who cares. I’m old and I don’t have space in my memory banks.

It was this summer as I was in the shower, crying, that I realized that my harmful coping skills were gone. The negative self talk about me and anyone who had hurt me. Murderous, slaughtering, blistering language that overlooks the humanity of me and others and dehumanizes, devalues, in order for me to accept myself and my situation. The thoughts wouldn’t come. The words wouldn’t come. Spewing rage. Didn’t come.

There I was left standing, without an angry word or malicious thought, water rushing over me, scorching my body because my protective skin, my shielding strategies, were all gone. I felt raw. All I had left was, when someone hurts you, tell them what they did and how it made you feel. Use “I” language. Don’t assume anything. Give people the benefit of the doubt. When you are hurting or anxious, check your toolbox for your new tools. Breathe. Distract yourself. Fully participate in an activity. Describe. Ground. Tap. Affirm. Self care. Text a friend. Call the crisis line. The problem is that I am new to this tools. They are like picking up a power saw, which I’m not super comfortable with, and using it as a way to a more positive, healthier outcome. I might lose a finger or an arm in the process.

Having kids doesn’t lend itself to the luxury of time to practice using your new tools. It’s awkward and clumsy and the frustration of trying to find a quiet space physically and mentally often exacerbates my anxiety. Then, not only am I dealing with the pain and anxiety of some other situation, I’m also the lousy parent who checks out to fumble around with a coping skill that is foreign and seemingly less effective than just a rush of thoughts and words to describe the latest asshat I’ve interacted with or me regarding something stupid I’ve said or done.

“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.” I have NEVER been good at that. Hence the therapy and the medications and the tools and the constant push to grow through this. Often I’m encouraged to “give it to God,” or “pray about it.” I appreciate the sentiments and the effort to reach out with this, but DONE. Check. I’ve done that. Doing that. It doesn’t flip a switch and make everything better and I think God’s on the same page there. It’s pretty explicitly stated in stories and accounts throughout the Bible. Still have to engage those awkward new tools and counteract destructive old strategies. XOXO

Solo Mama: “I Never Thought I’d (fill in the blank)!”

I have to travel for work this week. On one hand, it is nice to go to bed when I want to, not worry about monitoring minion behavior, and share a bed with two children and a dog. On the other hand, I typically end up missing my kids terribly and spend a lot of time on Facetime exchanging “I want you”s with my daughter and trying to get my son’s attention. In any case, they both spend a lot of time making faces or playing with their hair and looking at themselves on the screen rather than focusing on any coherent conversation with me.

GJ 11-2018-2

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to find an episode of Law and Order on TV. It is almost guaranteed that you can find an episode playing on some hotel TV. This time I found L&O Criminal Intent. What a great show. Vincent D’Onofrio is brilliant. Through unique detective work and clever interactions and pinpointed perceptions, he is always able to put together very quickly who committed the crime and the person’s intentions, motive, weaknesses, strengths, etc. Yes, it’s very make believe, but wouldn’t it be grand if that’s how crime was solved and criminals were caught? Like a beautifully scripted dance…which inevitably ends with the person charged with the crime crying out at the end “I don’t know why I do this!” or “I don’t know how I became this person!” This is exactly what happened in two episodes I watched tonight.

In one, a woman who had become a murderous monster on account of her greedy husband and a nightmare divorce (“Look what you turned me into!” she screamed as she was hauled off camera by two NYC police officers). In the other, a shy, socially awkward man in his 20s who performs lobotomies on women he drugs and kidnaps so that he can cuddle with them and care for them and they never leave him. He even eats some of their body parts to connect with them (“I don’t know why I do this, I’m so disgusting”). With tears and snot running down his face, the cannibal, played by Neil Patrick Harris, breaks down after being coaxed into a tearful confession by D’Onofrio, who has taken pity on this young nerdy guy who can never get the girl, and masterfully pulls the confession from him in order to avoid the death penalty.

I can relate to these revelations. While I have not murdered anyone, disabled people so I could cuddle with them against their will, or eaten human body parts (THANK GOD!!!!), I often find myself alone crying “How did I become this person?” or “How did I get here?” At first, I would blame something or someone, usually a husband, romantic interest, family member, or more recently, children. If I wouldn’t have met that person, made that decision, sacrificed for that partner, things would be different. Then it was unhealthily turned inward (and still sometimes is) with I’m so screwed up, I’m stupid, I’m unlovable, God hates me, I’m worthless. I once visited with a sort of “medium” who tried to explain to me what had happened in my past lives that had caused certain things to happen to me in this life.

I guess when we are young, we often imagine our future lives as something that is known or familiar already. So it resembles our childhood experience or something we saw on MTV Cribs (wow, that dates me). I certainly didn’t envision two failed marriages, having children by myself, dealing with several mental health diagnoses or living in my MTV Un-Cribs neighborhood and single in my mid-40s (yeah, I’m on the high side of mid but nearly 50 sounds totally inaccurate). These kind of thoughts haunt me on a daily basis. I imagine it might be a common experience, but people rarely talk about it unless it’s a positive thing.

“I never thought I’d win the Powerball!”

“I never thought I’d get to work with Lil Wayne!”

“I never thought I’d win a Grammy!”

“I never thought Bradley Cooper would discover me singing at a drag club and I would sleep with him!”

You get the point. Some days it’s hard to combat the “I never thoughts” with gratitude. And yet, on the positive side, I’m not killing people or eating them. There are no restraining orders out on me. I have a job that is in the field of my passion. I own a house (which is a privilege reserved for the very wealthy in Denver these days). I have great friends. I have two amazing children. I have a great family where there is relatively little drama (it depends on any given day how much I might be causing).

Do you ever think about the “I never thoughts”? How do you deal with them?

(Photo credit: Me)

Solo Mama Moving Through Marriage Like a Knife to Butter

I’ve been married twice. I may have been struggling with my mental health long before I was married the first time. Definitely with depression.

These past two weeks have been killer sitting through church. The messages have been about marriage and divorce. Nothing condemning or guilt producing or traumatic in terms of the message. Just the idea of marriage and divorce throws me back to traumatic times and it’s hard to sit still and listen.

I was married to my first husband at a very young age. I was 21 and finishing my last year of college. He was a year older and was doing construction contracting jobs through family. We lived in a tiny apartment in a moderately crappy neighborhood in Chicago. We almost lost our apartment when an angry ex of a tenant came and blew up his ex-girlfriend’s new guy’s motorcycle, parked under the wooden stairway of our complex. We also experienced our first shooting as a couple when there was a shootout happening on our stairway and the Chicago Police gained access to the gunfight by storming through our front door.

We had a dining room table, two chairs, and a bed, that was it. Early on, I remember feeling a strange mix of terror (holy shit, we were married, this was it) and exhilaration (holy shit, we were married, this was it). I was struggling with an eating disorder (yup, there’s that pesky mental illness!) and we were both struggling with a mother (his) who thought we were too young for marriage and didn’t want to let go. Eventually, we moved to an apartment 4 blocks south of our first place, which put us in a slightly better neighborhood (where our first car was stolen), he got a job that was closer to his career aspirations, and eventually we moved out of the city to a brand new condo in a western suburb.

Things went from rough to worse. Maybe we WERE too young. I thought marriage was forever and wouldn’t have dreamed of seeking a divorce no matter how bad things got. He didn’t share the same value. Just 4 years in, including a year of marriage counseling, he announced to me one February Sunday afternoon as we were pulling into our driveway after a shopping trip, that he no longer wanted to be married.

Our lives went from the Friday previous where he kissed and hugged me goodbye before he left for work, to the following Monday, when he started slipping out of the house in the morning, off to work, without a word.

I remember reading and rereading his Valentine’s Day card to me, written less than 2 weeks before that Sunday. There was nothing there to indicate he would be leaving. I took the card and followed him around the house one evening, screaming at him, asking him how his mind changed so quickly. We ended up celebrating his birthday together in mid-March, at Red Lobster. We went out for ice cream after and he told me that he didn’t think he had ever loved me, that we should have just been friends. That we would have been great friends.

I lived in the condo until May that year. I couldn’t afford the mortgage so I moved into a studio apartment in Evanston, the first suburb north of the city. I was 6 blocks away from Lake Michigan, and I felt like a tremendous weight had been lifted off of me. I would walk to the lake regularly, sit on the shore, and stare at the lake for hours. It was so big and I was so small. My life, my husband, my marriage, the ending of my marriage, it was all like a tiny drop in the lake when compared with time. Even less than a drop.

I left the marriage with a total of $600, a bunch of furniture, a vacuum cleaner, a knife, pots and pans, and silverware set (which I still have and use to this day), and a leased Dodge Avenger. The intangibles I left with were probably more heavy hitting. Marriage doesn’t last, I can’t count on a man, when he left me, so did my livelihood, and I was not good enough for someone to stay married to. I would need to work my ass off for the rest of my life, and always question a man’s intention.

Of course what I expected to find, always found me first, creating a lifelong pattern that was maybe broken slightly with my second marriage, but I hadn’t processed the trauma and lessons from my first and I blew up my second.

I’m sure all my relationships have been sabotaged to some extent by my mental health and my inability to sit with or process my demons in an effective manner. This year it finally all exploded in my face. A lifetime of unprocessed relationship dysfunction. There’s a ton of stuff written on this, courses offered, support groups, etc. I’m sure it’s the experience of lots of people, it’s just not a popular topic in conversation with friends. You’re never sure…

Thanks for reading. Hearing from people who share their experiences, or just the fact that they’ve had similar experiences, is healing.

Solo Mama: Don’t ever do this…..

My daughter makes her mark on my world every day. Every single day. She makes me laugh, she makes me cry, she makes my head spin, she makes me clench my teeth and raises my blood pressure. Lately she has been on this “Momma, never do “X” because…” mission. To the point where I’ve had to start keeping a list of everything I should never do.

I’m not sure where this recent focus has come from. She has been watching a lot of YouTube lately, but from what I can see, she mostly watches a really upbeat cute blond girl with an Australian accent talk endlessly about DIY projects – how to make a cute and colorful stress ball out of a balloon and cornstarch that you can tie to your backpack with curling ribbon, how to create a bright and attractive pencil pouch so you can sneak candy into class, how to make a fake cactus out of painted rocks and a flower pot to decorate your room when you can’t keep plants alive. The list goes on and she always has ideas for DIY. I can’t keep up and it has started to become a source of stress due to all the random things I need to keep on hand. 😑

Anyway, I felt compelled to share my list to date of things I should never do. Maybe it will also help some of you who had ever planned to do some of the following things give them a second thought.

  1. Don’t ever build your tent by a pile of rocks beause a bunny could come and throw rocks on your tent.
  2. (For God) Don’t ever build a volcano next to where you think a street might be some day.
  3. Don’t ever put a string on a tree and hang on it because a bunny might come and cut the string and you will fall down.
  4. Don’t ever hide in a fire place.
  5. Don’t ever play hide and seek in a car. Once, a little kid did this when his mom was on a date and he was stuck in the engine for 30 years. He survived by drinking oil.
  6. Don’t make a store with lots of money otherwise no one will come there and you will be broke.
  7. Don’t ever try on anything if you don’t know what it is, you might turn into a mermaid.
  8. Never use berries as lipstick. They could be poisonous.
  9. Never leave the house and go anywhere without making sure your purse opens.
  10. Don’t eat random things. You might be killed by people who don’t like America.
  11. Always check the boxes in your mail. Read the tag first to make sure it’s not a bomb.

She makes me laugh ❤️

Solo Mama: Defixating on a Fixation

I was checking in with a friend who has a young daughter who struggles with mental healthiness. He mentioned this thing about her fixations and how much energy she puts into trying to get certain parts of her life to improve. She refuses to give up, even when she is failing, and has essentially become obsessed with righting parts of her life to the point that it is debilitating her.

As he spoke these words, it was like part of the conversation was spoken into the dense, foggy part of my brain and when he mentioned her fixation, the fog cleared and I clung to his words. Yes, yes. That’s it. Part of all this has been the fixation. There are a couple parts of my life that I’ve become unnaturally obsessed with. Not necessarily the people who tie into the fixation, likely, it could be anyone, but the fixation itself. Two major fixations jump out at me. I have not been able to extract myself from them and the harder I try to get them right, the more things fall apart.

My therapist asked me recently “What if you were to let go of these things?” Not storm away, burn bridges, hurt people, but to simply let them go free. One of the issues I can’t really let go, but in a sense I guess I could let the fixation go. But how? I sat with her words for a week. If I let these issues go, I would be failing. In part, these issues were the impetus, the trigger, that got me here. If I let them go, I’d be admitting defeat. I’d be saying that I was unable to overcome them, to conquer them, to show them that there is nothing that I can’t do. To show them that my own mind will not stand in the way of me succeeding. I had invested so much time, in one case, years and years of energy. Months, hours, minutes, seconds. Hundreds of thousands of seconds. Obsessed, triggered, consumed, to the point that when my mind is spinning on these issues, I can’t hear, I can’t feel, I’m not even sure if my eyes are functioning and I can see. I’m not aware of anything going on outside of me.

How do you defixate on a fixation? I can distract my mind for only so long – as they say in my group therapy – fully participate so that my mind is completely in the present moment and can’t focus on the fixation. Moving away from the unhealthy distractions (men, alcohol, negative self-talk) toward the healthy: podcasts, music, side work, budgeting, readings on mindfulness, playing cards with the kids, cooking a favorite recipe, facilitating a workshop, church, learning about a new topic at work. I move from thing to thing, trying to fully participate and defixate. Realizing that I can’t succeed if I continue to fixate. Letting go is necessary, essential, healthy. Working on the how…

Hi God, It’s Me, Crazy Solo Mama

Hi God. I’ve known you since I was little and I probably haven’t skipped a year of church since I was born, including in my adult life. I’ve read so many books about you and traveled the world and talked about you with hundreds of people to learn more about you and how others interact with you. I’ve seen you through the eyes of Islam, Judaism, Hinduism and other faiths. I’ve seen you through the eyes of people who don’t believe in you, have set you aside, or have thrown you out. You could say I have really wanted to learn about you intellectually because I need to know as much as I can about something when I care about it.

I’m pretty sure you’ve been there in some capacity most of my life. When it comes to the principles and laws of religion, I screw up all the time. I don’t really fit in with people who go to church every Sunday, but I still go.  By traditional standards, I’m sinning constantly. Every day. But I can usually still feel you nearby, and despite some of the really stupid or horrifying things I do, you trail behind me, walk ahead of me, and track alongside me, picking up the fragments of my life and others’ whom I hurt or betray or neglect.

Sometimes, when people judge me in your name, or tell me I need you, or that I’m not following you right, I’m a little taken aback. I think inside my head “Hey! I’m on that team too! Team GOD! Aren’t we all out here messing up every day, but trying to do better?”

This summer, for the first time in my life, I felt like you disappeared. Footprints style, but there were never a set of two footprints, only one. Maybe you were carrying me all the way? Maybe my feet didn’t touch the ground at all? I don’t know. I even admitted to a police officer, from the behind the partition in his car, that it felt like you had gone away. That dumb officer told me that he thought you had put him in my life that night and I felt like kicking him. Maybe, maybe not.

I told my therapist that I was going to stop talking to you until I got my shit together. She told me to talk with you more, that you want to hear from me anytime, all the time, even when my shit’s not together. That seems counterintuitive and it’s hard to do because every time I go to do it, all I can think about is how awful I am. The other people I know who talk about you all the time seem really pious and well mannered. Not me. Now, when I’m driving to work in my car, I have to yell at you otherwise I won’t talk to you. “Damn it God! Today! I know I’m supposed to be talking to you and I need you to hang out with me and be close because I’m about to fuck up in a million ways! I NEED YOU!”

2018. God, people have said you are timeless. I’m tired of keeping track of the years by the number of the year. It doesn’t matter to you, so why should I do things that way? When I checked, it has been 736,993 days since January 1, 0001. Though this is probably not accurate, maybe it would be healthier to keep track of the days rather than the years. Then I can’t just write off a whole year as miserable, or hard. Kind of like George Constanza and “Festivus for the rest of us!” I’m boycotting years and skipping New Years!

So, God, hey! from the crazy lady. Keep sending me signs that you are nearby, because shit, I need all the help I can get. Here’s to day number 736,994.

Solo Mama: When You Are Not Trying Hard Enough

I’m just curious. Has anyone out there been involved with some type of “system” in life – justice, education, employment assistance, public assistance, mental health , child welfare, religious, medical (health) care – and are told by someone “inside” the “system” that you are just not trying hard enough? You are not trying hard enough to be a whole, healthy, ideal, productive citizen of this community.

For the first time in my life where I feel like a lot hangs in the balance, I was told by someone “inside” the “system” as a beneficiary, recipient, consumer, user of services, whatever, that I’m not trying hard enough.

Let’s count up the hours in the week that I have dedicated to trying hard enough on this particular issue: 8 hours of group or individual time and at least 5-7 hours of personal time to study each week plus numerous hours of launching coping skills which fail half the time. That’s on top of soccer, swimming, dance, school, work, dog sitting, budgeting so I can pay a shit ton of money to “un-crazy” myself, consulting and caring for two young children who need to be bathed, fed, helped with homework, LOVED, etc.

I’m just not trying hard enough. Really?

If you work in any kind of “system,” please choose your words carefully when meeting with your students, consumers, clients, patients, offenders, residents, whatever you may call them in your line of work.

Are there some cognitive distortions going on in this post? Rationalizing? Justifications? Maybe! But I need my moment. Go screw yourself, system! End of rant! 🤪😂

Solo Mama: Eccentric Coping

Jumping ahead in my story (without even starting from the beginning), part of my summer included learning numerous coping strategies for dealing with several mental health diagnoses. Probably the hardest hitting issue has been anxiety. Every time I go in to see my prescribing nurse, I ask her if we can’t just medicate me out of anxiety attacks. She smiles kindly at me across her desk and reminds me that changing 40 some years of behavior overnight or through the use of medication alone is not realistic. Every time I’m disappointed to hear this. Total bummer. I actually have to use “coping skills.”

Having been in the criminal justice field for nearly 30 years and encountering mental illness more often than not, I’m very familiar with coping skills. I’ve even incorporated them into workshops, teaching and coaching I’ve done with clients. I can talk about them all day long and how great they are in staving off anxiety attacks, distracting, self care, managing emotion and anger, bla bla bla, but use them? Laugh out loud! Coping skills are kind of like exotic paper weights for me. They look nice but they are rarely used to hold paper in place, right?

I’ve spent hundreds of hours this year learning coping skills. Even with all these new skills, it takes effort to use them, and the sooner you use them, the better they work. This means I’ve also had to get better at understanding triggers and what can turn into a major anxiety episode for me. I’m not always good at figuring this out until I’m feeling full-on crazy and engaging in destructive behaviors. Sadly, when you are acting all crazy, your social opportunities and circles really shrink. This has mostly been self-imposed, but I’m sure there are a few people that I’ve scared the hell out of.

The coping skills I’ve landed on are definitely surprising to me. I’ve become really regular at the gym. While still balancing 4 jobs technically, I’ve found 3 mornings a week where I can drop the kids at school and run to the gym. While I haven’t acquired a beach body, I definitely feel better and I’ve rebuilt some muscle.

When I’m really starting to lose it, I turn on podcasts of Dave Ramsey taking calls from across the country about money decisions. When I was less anxious and maybe more mentally stable, I doubt I would have paid much attention to him (no offense to mentally stable people who enjoy him) but now as soon as I start to feel anxious I scramble for my headphones and Spotify – save me from myself, Dave! Not only do I enjoy listening to him chew out people for doing stupid things with their money, I’ve gained a lot of budgeting advice that I’m starting to use – um, like having a budget. He probably has no idea that there is a goofball out there who calms herself by listening to the debt-free scream interview every week.

Another surprising coping skill: Christian music. Anything else depresses me or stresses me out. The songs are always uplifting and positive and I guess that’s where I need to focus these days, with a lot of effort.

So, there’s a bit of self disclosure. Maybe some humor? I had no idea one’s mind could get so out of control. One day you are a bit moody, and the next day you are legitimately doing everything possible not to self destruct. And maintaining responsibility for two small children while praying you aren’t setting them up for a lifetime of their own therapy needs.

 

Solo Mama: Reconstructing Reality

I am sitting in an all-day departmental workshop focused on problem solving. The facilitator has everyone stand up in a circle and give their name, division and project update. My morning was off to a bad start. I was triggered by a text and am doing my best to manage my emotions. They go straight to my body and I’m feeling sharp pains in my neck, back. I can’t stand still anymore and start stretching my neck, my limbs, my back. Looking back, my public behavior has probably always been strange. On one hand, I seem to have no filter on what is socially acceptable and what is not, and on the other hand, I am painfully aware of each thought and word and how it will impact every single person in my presence.

After the introductions, the facilitator and my supervisor come over and tell me that while I am wearing a really cute outfit, I look like I’m not well and in severe pain. My boss suggests that I take the day off and if I feel really compelled to work at some point, I can do it at home. I go to my office, pack up my stuff and head out. My head feels compressed. Foggy but dense. Like too much matter is shoved over to one side of my brain and it needs to disperse or shift so that I can think more clearly. I get in the car and start to head home, resting my elbow on my window sill. My arm is pulsing. It’s my heartbeat. I decide I’m going to head to the store before going home so I can get some ibuprofen for the pain.

Once I arrive at the store and park, I think as I walk towards the new bright green facade entrance of Walmart, I’m about to enter Disneyworld. I have the choice of a thousand different comfort items in this store (besides ibuprofen) that I can purchase and take home to get me through the day. My thoughts race through their normal checkpoints – how much do I have in my bank account? Nothing too high in calories, sugar or fat. What would really make me feel good because today will be a bad day?

I settle on an 8-pack of Diet Pepsi, a box of hot chocolate packets for the kids for later, a bottle of ibuprofen, dark chocolate chips, and some keurig cups which I will use with my pumpkin spice almond milk creamer later. The compression in my head continues and seems to have spread down to my chest, my stomach is queasy. I am in a fog; drifting away and then returning to the present moment. Then experiencing both at the same time. I screw up all the instructions on the self check-out, in a split moment of clarity, remember to withdraw an extra $20 for the kids’ school Lego club enrollment, then leave the bill hanging out of the cash slot and start to walk away before the cashier calls my attention to it.

As I walk out to the car, I realize that I’ve had so many misconceptions about things like anxiety, depression, suicide, personality disorders, PTSD, and it’s almost comical. My experiences dealing with people at the absolute brink as they enter the justice system had me believing that these were all really outwardly dramatic, loud, extravagant displays of behavior. Personal experience has taught me that they are not. Which tells me that something is really going on and it is frightening. It is frightening to realize that your mind, the thing that regulates your intake and processing of external information, controls your output to the world, your reactions, responses, words, decisions, actions, emotions, behaviors, is broken somehow. And all you want to do is fix it. Give me medicine, give me therapy, give me God, give me mindfulness, give me skills, give me groups, give me information, give me some understanding. And then go away because I’m embarrassed that this has happened. My mind is broken and I need to know how to fix it and I don’t have much time because what if it breaks more?