The Necessary Fight: Helping My Depressed Child (Wyn Magazine)

I had to have enough conviction for the whole family when I knew it was depression. That effort on top of the grief, guilt, and personal disappointment was so draining, I couldn’t do anything beyond the naming. I felt helpless, and was silent.

As has been true in so many areas of my life, it was a story that brought clarity and gave me the images and language to move forward. Bearskin, a picture book illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman, crossed our collective laps at this very opportune time.

The title character is raised by a bear, and early in the story he chooses to fight a dragon (“I will go myself if nobody better is to be found.”). The interesting thing is that his Mama Bear does not fight for him. She’s not that sort of mama bear.

She has raised him on bear milk (making him strong), and before his fight, she provides him with armor and weapons, but then he faces the dragon on his own.

I remembered the dragon that stalks me.

Recognizing that it was now going after my kids, my first response was fear, because I knew I would not be able to fight the dragon for them. Even if I had unlimited strength rather than my present weakness, there is not enough “environmental shaping” or help I can give them to keep the dragon away. It attacks from inside them.

Somehow I had to train them. I had to make them strong. And how could I do that when I can’t slay my own dragon?

(Read the whole article at Wyn Magazine)

What Connects with…Me

Image courtesy of Liana Bitoli via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Liana Bitoli via stock.xchng

I found a “coach,” at the end of last year, because most of what I do with my counselor seemed to be coaching, anyway. I was looking for an “outside” voice and perspective that was sharing a brain/time focused on me.

Becky and I have talked about how this is the reason to hire someone: friendships are more mutual, and we don’t want to muddy those relationships to work through our issues.

The coach got me thinking about some good stuff, and some new angles on older projects that have been marinating for a while.

~  ~  ~

Then I got my heart stomped on, and I was back in the counselor’s office.

I had a double bomb in an exhausting 48 hours: First, someone I already guessed didn’t like me confirmed they didn’t like me, and second, someone I love very much– who has a degree in an industry not supported by our local economy– told me they were saving up money to move away to do the work they went to school for.

Both totally make sense, were almost predictable, and so it took me 4 or 5 days to realize I was deeply hurt and grieving. I was so scared by my response (it felt like my depression was returning- freaked me out and you don’t play around with that!) I visited my counselor the day before my coaching appointment.

The counselor gently reassured me that that this wasn’t my depression returning. She affirmed that I was grieving, and validated my experience that just because someone is a jerk, or someone has beautiful dreams that don’t need to include you, intellectual assent doesn’t necessarily change how others’ choices affect you. Continue reading »

Writer Mama

Today, out of nowhere, Elisha said, “You’re a great storyteller, Mama.”

Tonight Natasha saw me starting in on cleaning the kitchen while she was on her way to bed.

“Why start cleaning now?”
“I just finished a novel,” I said. “I have energy now.”
“Oh,” said Natasha. “That makes sense.”

Another time recently, I asked Melody what story she wanted to listen to, and she said, “Tell us more of your novel!” (I’ve read them bits from Shadow Swan and Lindorm Kingdom.)

Being understood by my children is a beautiful thing.  They are proud of me, of my writing, and I can only begin to articulate how much of a gift this is to me: it. is. huge.

Image courtesy of Maare Liiv via stock.xchng

Image courtesy of Maare Liiv via stock.xchng

People used to frame my writing in competition with my children.

My enthusiasm for NaNoWriMo and its “treatment” potential (I’ve used the daily goals for depression management in Novembers) was met with the emotional equivalent of a bucket of cold water. More than one person questioned the adequacy of my devotion to my children if I was engaging in this demanding activity (writing with quotas and deadlines).

Such undermining behavior made my automatic language about each piece (“a fourth child”) feel even more scandalous — though no less true.

Each is like a newborn in the beginning, with growing and changing “demands” as the project matures.

Then during 2013 NaNo we had a physical 4th child in our home for 44 days, with no jealousy or angst.

Just tonight I realized that’s how my children take my writing, too. The fourth child.

It’s not a competition, it just *is.*

Sometimes (most of the time) it’s a baseline not worth mentioning. Then there are these moments of understanding, or vicarious pride.

And these moments when they connect– when they play at it themselves– it’s like a toddler picking up a baby doll after mama has a newborn, and surprising me with their tenderness and skill.

I am so thankful to be a Writer Mama.

Limits and Love

I’m not sure how much I’ve written about it here, but one of my serious quests over the last few years is about naming (and to a certain extent accepting) my limits.

There is a fine balance between what we can do, what we should do, and what we want or need to do.

Last month– the month of November– I didn’t write much.

That is, I didn’t process much via journal or blog writing.

I did write my 50,000 words of Sherlockian Daze, and fell in love with a whole new cast of characters.

I also had my limits tested, and my will challenged.

The day after Jay left for his month in Antarctica, I was already past the half-way mark on my 50,000-word goal.

I should say a few things here:

  • At some point this summer Jay made the connection that when I said “our work is not equal” I wasn’t talking about value. I was talking about him getting to spend hours and hours of his life (almost daily) on something he enjoys and is good at.
  • He made the connection that the crowd-control, housework, homeschooling and the myriad of details that fill my life (while he is doing work he loves) is nothing close to “enjoyable” for me, and with a couple notable exceptions, something I’m only marginally “good at.”
    • I’m speaking here of the list above: people are not on that list. Just the grunt-work of making life liveable for a group of people.
  • Jay’s trip was up in the air because of the gov’t freeze, so I found out about 10 days before he left about his departure date. [Cue Amy’s standard non-freak-out that involves a lot of focused breathing, book-buying, and vitamin-checking.]
  • In a spurt of insightful generosity, Jay pulled his details together in time to stay home and manage the house and kids on November 1, so I could write all day. November 1 I wrote 10,352 words.
    • The 10,000-word day is sort of my generic “professional writer” benchmark, mainly due to this book. (Which I recommend: along with quality content it only takes an hour or two to read– which is also why I recommend it.) So crossing the 10K mark on the first was a big-huge deal to me.
      • She writes “full time” with her kiddo in daycare, which is sort of how I define full-time: someone else watching your kids so you can focus on something else.
  • I tracked my words per hour in a spreadsheet, so I saw that my 10K day was built in hours of 1,000- 1,200 word hours. So when Jay left and my life became exponentially more complex, I maintained my sense of professionalism and good will by producing at the same rate, but in smaller chunks. Chunks more like half an hour to an hour than whole days of application.

On that day after Jay left, I still had a mathematically doable goal of finishing the entire first draft (not just the 50,000 words) by the end of the month. I was half an hour (and a respectable 556 words) into my 2-hour writing block when a got a phone call from a young mom who asked if I could keep her baby “for about a week.”

I used to be a foster parent (of elementary-age kids, before I had two babies of my own) so I knew a few questions to ask, and a week seemed overly optimistic for resolution, but I said I’d talk to Jay.

Jay way still somewhere between Fairbanks and New Zealand, completely unavailable.

Normally my gap MO in such cases is to talk to my mom or dad, but they had left town that morning, and were also unavailable. So I called my IRL Christian/writer/mama friend (do you know how hard it is to get all five of those elements in one person?!) Afiya to have *somebody* who knew my situation to help think things out.

I don’t usually call (phones are not my friend), so she started by asking what was up.

This is why I needed my own pet in the midst of a busy life.

“Do you remember the last time I called when Jay was traveling? I was asking your opinion about adopting a little dog without his go-ahead, because I wasn’t sure it would still be around by the time he got home.”

“Oh sure,” she said. “Did you ever find a dog you both like?”

“No, we ended up getting two cats instead, but that’s not why I’m calling. Today I’m calling about a baby.”

“Oh, Amy, Amy, Amy…”

It was Afiya who pointed out I should ask the kids, enlist their participation because there was no way I could add a baby to my life as it is.

So I spoke with them (“Are you in? Because I’m not doing this by myself: God didn’t design a baby to be raised by one person all alone.”), they jumped at the idea, and that night I was doing baby laundry, watching babywearing videos on YouTube, and introducing my kids to the Dunstan Baby Language DVDs.

Over the last month my kids have impressed me again and again with their attentiveness and problem-solving skills as we’ve integrated this baby into our family.

It is unknown how long he will be with us, and I am thrilled to be writing this the morning after his second night of a big sleep-through (8p.m. to 6a.m.). Writing has emerged once again as a necessity, not a luxury, so with his stay stretching out I’m learning how to reintegrate writing even when we don’t particularly have a schedule. Since I don’t do schedules. Because they require too much energy in ratio to the benefits they proport to offer.

And, no, we don’t plan to adopt him, we’re just giving him a safe place to live while his forever-home stabilizes. Please don’t ask how we’re going to deal with “being attached” or the kids’ “being attached” or what we think we’ll do when he goes.

Odds are we’ll be sad. Odds are we’ll have a very real mixture of grief and relief, but fact is, there’s no way to “prepare” emotionally for a loss other than an unhealthy disengagement, which would damage baby as well as us.

I like how C.S. Lewis wrote about it:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

When I was 17, I considered a 6-month after-graduation job in another country. I actively considered what it would mean to fall in love with people and a community that I didn’t expect I’d visit again (non-traveler that I am). I quickly reached the “wrap [your heart] up tight” conclusion when I heard two words, almost as if from the voice of God.

Love lavishly.

It was my job, I felt him saying about me, to pour out the love I’d been given, the love I was full of. It was his job to keep my heart whole enough to keep loving.

 

I’ve learned a lot about love since I was 17, and I have learned more about actively protecting my heart, and defending myself in a useful way, but none of those things is really about limiting love. They’re about choosing how I’ll live, and accepting that people won’t always understand my love, or the way I express it.

One of my lessons is that the outward expression of my love (be that gifts, or listening or service, etc.) isn’t just about what I can do. That is too great a burden. It is about what I can keep on doing.

A one-time gift, or a series of large gifts, adequately spread out to allow me to recharge, is not showing greater love than the small bits that happen every day.

By making choices based on a pattern of sustainable giving, I am allowed consistency (one of my high values) and I am spared the choice or angst of having to decide with each “opportunity” to be stretched, can I endure *this* right now?

It is tied to my recent study of self esteem. My favorite summary of good self esteem has two parts.

  • The ability to trust your own mind.
  • The assurance you are worthy (or capable) of happiness.

By practicing these two halves, I am more-able to set meaningful limits in the relationships I have, and build a sustainable life that isn’t about running from crisis to crisis (mine or anyone else’s), putting out fires.

I used to think that if I was living life right, I could “work ahead” enough to coast for a while. I could push, then rest, push than rest. I wanted that rest so badly I pushed really really hard. But there’s always more to do, and there is a point we need to take the rest.

More than just taking the rest, which I believe *is* critical, I think some of us also need to work the rest into our daily living.

There will always be people “worse off” than me, and for a long time, I was not able to feel peace in my plenty because of that. But there will also be people better off than me, some because of their hard work and some because of good luck.

I can only live the life I have, and I have proven over and over again that I have plenty to think about without adding to the complexity of my world.

Life is complicated. Love hurts. Limits mean we don’t have to deal with all of everything at once.

Limits are a gift.

What Mental Health Help is For (Wyn Magazine)

I said before that my story is long. What I find fascinating throughout its process are the ways my mind is opened to new understandings. One of these examples was through the process of canning.

I used to do a lot of canning; mostly meat, beans, soups, and stews. With all my food sensitivities, there was no longer anything like fast food in my life, and this was my attempt to build a buffer.

Invariably I would start a project bigger than I could complete in one day, shuffle the crowded fridge to keep things food-safe overnight, and finish canning the next day.

Unfortunately, about a third of the jars would crack during the canning process. When I pulled them out of the hot water, the glass bottoms would fall away with all my hard work and all my patience.

I called the local canning guru, changed my technique according to what she suggested, and tried “one last time.”

As I removed the heavy lid of the pressure canner from the second batch, my middle daughter bounced through the kitchen and asked if any broke this time. I told her I’d learned what made them break and now could carefully avoid it.

“What made them break?” she asked.

“Temperature stress,” I began, and then translated it down to six-year-old level. “When the inside temperature is too different from the outside, the weaker glass isn’t strong enough to handle the difference; it breaks.”

And I froze.

Wow.

That was a good explanation for my some of my depression.

My inside was nothing like my environment, and I had cracked.

Read the rest at wynmag.com

Why Work?

Becky Castle Miller initiated a good conversation at her blog the other day.

small melody I asked my three kids (a set older than Becky’s– her oldest is six-months behind my youngest) and they gave the same answers her kids gave: work is for money/food/good things (Daddy) or to make our lives better/healthier/more-comfortable (Mama).

 {I was delighted that they’ve internalized that I work here at home was both work and a benefit to them.}

Actually, that was the string of answers after Melody spouted the first answer to my question: Why do Mama and Daddy work so hard?

Because we don’t!

I hooted, laughed and banged the wall with my hand. I think that’s my griping lately coming back out her mouth. And it’s true.

But after several minutes and variations on the trios of meaning above, I said there was one more very. important. reason their parents work:

We both choose work that we love.Small grinding

I told them, because this is something I want planted deep and firm in their soft hearts, that what they enjoy doing can be a real path to God’s will for them. I asked them what they love, what makes them excited and energetic and ready to jump into a project.

My throat tightened at the explosion of delight in their bubbling descriptions.

“Keep watching those things,” I said. “Ask questions when you meet someone with that job. Try out play that matches what you enjoy.”

The moment passed and everyone returned to eating (or ignoring) their lunch, but the conversation has begun here.

Delight is an acceptable measure of direction.small Natasha

 

Courage– Revisted

Image courtesy of Colin Brough via stock.xchng

It takes one kind of courage to look straight at  your life, compare where you are to where you want to be, and then dive into making your life the one you want to live.

It is another kind of courage (more in line with General Sherman’s definition) that has us look straight at the cost of something, and choose it anyway.

Both have been coming into play in this “year of courage” (as I labeled 2013).

I have had a string of successes and delights this spring.

  1. I adopted a dog that was just what I wanted (still learning how to train him ;])
  2. We had a family vacation in Hawaii that was almost completely stress-free and got me far enough into my novel that the momentum meant something.
  3. I finished my first 10 speeches to achieve my “competent communicator” award in Toastmasters
  4. I finished my novel last week, and am now letting my story-brain rest, working on non-fiction writing instead (blog, WynMag).
  5. I’m wrapping up a last few editing of WynMag projects and the first issue will go live soon. (And I’m ahead on my submissions for the next issue).
  6. I’ve got the children signed up in a homeschooling program for next year (that we will actually start this summer), so that we have more financial flexibility to explore and experiment with curricula to find what will work best for our family.
  7. We’ve sold the rabbits (most of them, anyway), bringing us down to pet-levels.
  8. Our second round of baby goats is due this week (and we know better what to DO this time, so the enjoyment level will be even higher).
  9. The children will complete their first year of “away school” next week, and I won’t have to be the bad-guy, sending them on with empty hopes that people might change, and the slightly less-empty hope that there’s not many days left.

These are all tied, in my mind, to the first type of courage.

Now comes the second kind.

Image courtesy of Sarah Peller via stock.xchng

In the process of getting healthy on a mental/emotional level, I’ve come to recognize a series of needs that I must not just balance or juggle, but meet.

  • Writing
  • Exercise
  • Right eating
  • Sleep

These are the non-negotiable for internal stability.

But having those covered allows me to see there’s a second tier that really enhances the first tier.

  • Clean Space
  • Calm companions
  • Achievable, completable goals
  • Spiritual pursuit (singular)

I suppose having spiritual pursuit in the second category is going to look bad to some people, but it’s true. Until I am stable physically and mentally, asking the hard questions and pushing in any realm that has Deep Meaning is simply asking too much.

One of my biggest problems, all through my mothering journey (I can’t remember much thinking about it before then), was an image of a robot changing its own batteries. That’s how I saw “self-care”.

Continue reading »

Response to “A Letter to Teenagers”

I understand why this letter has gone viral and been so popular, but when I saw it on Facebook this morning (before I read the above article) These were my thoughts.

~ ~ ~

This letter is a good start (in the sense that we all need to be reminded to do what we can, and quit expecting others to do it for us) but these words don’t provide what I needed as a teen, and that was personalized direction.

I was a KID. I was even one who didn’t claim to know everything. And I didn’t know on my own which way to go other than to “be good.” And that is WAY to vague for most kids.

I was a good kid by most standards, and this letter being given to me would have made me feel simultaneously furious and helpless.

He’s just told me to get out of his way and quit being vocal about the fact that I have needs I don’t know how to meet.

All my life I had a drive to “make a difference” and “be involved,” but I did not have the skill/know-how/authority to make much of anything happen on my own.

Weekly visits to the nursing home (at 13) were with an adult, who eased me into being unafraid. Joining worship team (at 17 or 18) and before that forming a youth version (when I was 15) required an adult sponsor to give us access to the stage and sound equipment.

Even now, in my 30s, I know the fastest, most efficient way to know how best to apply my talents comes from outside help.

Why do you think “life coaching” even exists as a profession? We want solid, reliable input. Wise people don’t want to be limited to their own experience.

It always feels good to tell off people who are making your life more complicated, and the writer was described as “a judge who regularly deals with youth.”

I guess most of the readers/repeaters are parents, and AMEN! because they feel similarly pressed.

These parents have been dealing with and giving, like the judge says, and yes it’s perfect for the youth to “accept some of the responsibility your parents have carried for years.”

But I for one was never the kid who could look at a mess, see what needs to be done, and “just do it.”

I am BARELY that kind of adult.

If there’s anything I’ve learned from becoming a grown-up, it’s that the growing. never. ends.

And parenting (best as I can tell) is a lot of inconvenience.

We’re allowed to gripe, and call it hard, like it is, but eventually we have to swallow the frog; reenter the inconvenience of life-as-parent ’cause, really, nothing gets done until we do.

We have to change that diaper, find a bandaid, teach a concept and (Lord-Willing) cultivate a sense of self that will allow that child to develop a personal vision and motivation that will equip him or her to finally accept everything in his letter as a reasonable expectation.

Kids Reading (Reading Notes)

Natasha has been reading for a long time now, and definitely prefers the series I consider “fluff.”

Light reading that is not particularly meaningful, but harmless.

The fairy books by “Daisy Meadows” are currently the Doritos books of choice for all three of my kids.  And I’m pretty much okay with them as library books.  They’re so generic, formulaic and predictable I don’t feel the need to read them before letting the kids.

Mostly, I’m a selfish reader: I want to read my stuff (the stuff I’m interested in reading for myself).

But I’m also a protective mom, all too aware of gateway books (those books that are unobjectionable themselves, but tie directly into material that I don’t consider appropriate for the child who’s just finished book-1).

Alanna is my textbook example of this. Wonderful story, exciting and well-told. Any girl who’d read #1 would burn through #s 2-4 ASAP. But those all involve premarital sex, and as something light and experimental.

Perhaps I’ll do a post someday on what will make me tolerate sex in a story rather than be done with that book (and maybe the author) altogether.

*hint*
Like swearing or violence, it has to need to be there. And it doesn’t need to be in middle grade books. Ever.

Anyway, my mom never let me read Doritos books. At least, she leaned really hard on me when I picked up, say, a Sweet Valley High paperback from a garage sale, and while it lived on the lavender shelves in my room, I never read it.

I read loads of Jim Kjelgaard (mostly dog stories), Walter Farley and Margarette Henry (mostly horse stories), and nearly everything Brian Jaques wrote before I left high school.

I read other stuff too (I *hated* A Wrinkle in Time with a fearful passion), and had a Hermione-like reputation in my family for being full of random facts that I would pull out at various applicable and inapplicable times. I read enough non-fiction (including the 1960s encyclopedias my mom brought from home) that they just assumed I’d read it somewhere.

All that to say, I know I’ve read loads of kid books, but that was 25 years ago, and there are loads of books (many of them awesome) that I haven’t read.

So I’ve begun taking a principles approach with Natasha. I’ll skim a book for author philosophy, and let her pick out her own, mostly, and I won’t even insist she read the stuff I read at her age because I want her to discover what she likes.

When I was in 5th or 6th grade, a man said I should read Banner in the Sky.  I tried, he was very special to me, but the book bored me silly. Adventure and survival genres have never been my thing.

So I’ve been letting her pick out her own books, but I have begun insisting that at least half the books she chooses be older than her. And at least one older than me.

Why?

What I told Natasha is that every author is stuck in their own time, the way each culture is stuck in their own skin. You are a product of your time, and have to stretch to see more. There are ideas and angles you will not see if you always look from where you sit.

And so I think it is important to cast your reading net broadly.

At the same time, as a modern writer, I think it’s also important to support authors who are putting out good works now.  Two main reasons:

  1. You don’t get stuck in the false (*cough*lazy*cough*) assumption that old is always better. (Really it means someone else has already done the vetting. A fair starting place, but no need to be stuck there.)
  2. There’s really nothing like falling in love with a story, and getting to meet the person who wrote it, or being able to write a thank you note to the giver of a wonderful experience (something I heartily I recommend).

Default Matters (Reading Notes)

I am in the early chapters of a book called Shadow Syndromes, and currently am fascinated by the concept the authors put forward that they label Noise.

In the same way, they say, as all sick people are going to have a baseline of feeling cruddy (tired, confused, unmotivated, general yuck) all brain issues also have a baseline of some general, indeterminate but distinctly distracting busy-ness that gets in the way of our brains doing exactly what we want them to do.

Just as literal noise (the neighbor’s music, nearby traffic, baby crying can be alternately ignorable and maddening, so can this brain-noise. It’s something extra to process, and so an additional draw on our physical/intellectual resources.

~

There’s this (thank God, happily married) researcher named Gottman who’s been studying relationships and marriage for decades. This book describes Gottman’s observation of the direct correlation between heart rate and the capacity to argue like adults.

Before Gottman puts his study-subjects “under glass,” and tells them to pick a subject of conflict, he hooks up monitors to measure a variety of physical markers– including “general somatic activity” (how active is the nervous system).

The correlation is consistent with what we’ve all experienced: the more active all these markers get, the less functional the communication becomes. Gottman calls it “diffuse physiological arousal,” and it’s a reasonable summary of what Shadow Syndrome‘s authors call noise.

“Gottman actually advises troubled couples to take their pulses in the midst of battle. In his experience, when a man’s pulse reaches eighty beats per minute, on average, and a woman’s pulse ninety, there is little point in going on.”

Why?

“To put it bluntly, once in a noisy state, people are simply not as smart as they are when calm.”

The heart rate is just the at-home check anybody can do: the fact is the entire body of a combative individual is getting worked up.

Intensifying the noise.

It is a collection of extra demands on the brain, diverting energy from the “higher processes” of reasoning, empathy, the reading of body language, and subtext.

What warring partners are left with is the dubiously termed, overlearned behaviors.

These are the patterns we have repeated so many times we have burned their processes into our neural pathways. They were learned and practiced in childhood, and so have had the most time to entrench themselves as the default position.

You don’t have to think about them and that is the point.

When you are too tired (or busy) to think, these are your go-to behaviors.

Which, really, explains a lot for me. In real-life and in writing.

I’m an over-thinker already, so when I’m mapping out a scene, I really have a hard time, in good conscience, making a character do something stupid.

I mean, I know people do stupid things all the time and in a story that’s often how you get interesting things to happen. Character-A does something stupid, and we get to spend a chapter (or half the book) getting him out of it.

Other than writing by the seat of my pants (and not seeing the trouble myself, so I’ll believe the character wouldn’t) the best advice I ever got about getting characters to act stupid was Have them make decisions in a hurry.

Another option, according to this research, is to have them act in anger, or some other intense emotion, or while there’s enough other stuff going on that the decision-maker is not functioning at full capacity.

The point is– well, two points.

a) We really do deteriorate as an argument stresses us. So if progress (or relationship improvement) is our goal, taking breaks really is the best policy.

This might even be why discussing the issue in front of someone you both respect (even if s/he offers no direct input) can have value: it might be easier to maintain self-control with an audience, and you could get farther before hitting critical mass.

Maybe this is even the point of talk-therapy: the counselee is “forced” to move linearly and may be less-likely to perseverate or deteriorate to “overlearned processes” like anxiety.

b) What you were like as a kid still affects who you are now.

The subset of this being: teach your kids processing/communication skills NOW. And take every opportunity to practice with them.