Sunday, June 22, 2014


"When you guys walk in the gate, we're all on high alert." 

I couldn't think anymore. The pain was too great. All I could say was, "Wow" before my throat constricted and I didn't trust myself to speak. I turned away and I told the kids we were leaving. They flocked around me, asking me what was wrong. I waited until we were out of sight of the front gate of the pool before I stopped and let the sobbing start. 

"What's wrong? What did the pool man say?" they asked. I didn't even know how to explain it to them. He thinks I'm a bad mommy. 

*        *         *

I was completely blindsided. Charlie was on a towel, trying to warm up. Elizabeth had bumped her chin so she was sitting with Adam a few feet behind me. Eddie was jumping into the water over and over, as he loves to do. And Lucy was floating around, her three favorite noodles under her arms, paddling away in her Little Mermaid swimsuit. Then I noticed the Pool Man coming up to us. 

"She can't be out there with the noodles."

I was so confused. "Out where?" I knew that toys and things weren't allowed past the rope that marked the shallow end. But she was on our side of the rope.

"Out there. In fact, I'd prefer it if you didn't use noodles at all, especially since you're not in the water with her." I was sitting on the pool steps, six or seven feet away from her. I looked at her red curls, so bright in the sun. I started to feel a terrible burning in my face but my mouth seemed frozen shut. 

"She can't swim, right?" he continued, and again told us he preferred we'd use a life jacket or something else. Adam started to ask him about the rules about noodles. I waded out to her, a burning darkness spreading inside of me. I brought her up to the steps, took the noodles and put them on the pool deck. The Pool Man walked away. I sat on the steps for a minute. The pool was almost empty. A half an hour ago, it had been crowded with kids splashing and laughing and moms and a few dads sitting on the steps, chatting or throwing balls to the bigger kids. There were lots of kids with noodles. There were lots of moms sitting on the steps. 

"F*** this. We're leaving." I said. I called out to the kids to get ready to go. Adam protested. He wanted to let the kids stay. I sat on the ground and cried. Eventually I left with Charlie, the cold one, my head swirling with everything I should have said and should have done.

When Charlie and I got home, I felt them coming, one by one: the crying jags; the numbness; the desire to hide; the ruminating thoughts. All the depression symptoms came back, familiar but no less dreadful. I didn't want to make dinner. I didn't want to talk to anyone. I just lay on my bed and let Adam do all the work. I pitched in to get the kids to bed, but that was it. Later that night, I talked it over with him. I talked it over with my mom. I talked it over with my friend, who'd witnessed the scene. I knew I should use the skills I'd learned at Crazy School, but I didn't even want to. I could challenge my thoughts. I could act opposite of the emotion. I could do something to distract myself. Maybe I'll just feel better in the morning, I thought. But one thing I did want to do. I wanted to talk to Pool Man again, on my terms, with my thoughts collected and my emotions under control.

This morning, I took the kids on our pre-church walk. In our Sunday best, we walked through the park to the pool. I explained to the kids that I was going to talk to the man in charge of the pool and that they needed to be quiet and wait patiently. What I really meant was, please don't act out of control. Please don't make me look bad. When we got to the gate, I asked to speak to the Pool Man. He came out and I said I wanted to talk about what happened yesterday, to find out more about his concerns. I explained that we were happy to comply with pool rules, but that I'd seen other children with pool noodles before, and other moms sitting on the steps watching their kids play. Why was I being singled out? He told me he was "very concerned." I think he used that phrase a half a dozen times. He referred to our "history" at the pool. Earlier that week, Elizabeth had been helped by a life guard. I was in the bathroom with one of the triplets. My mother's helper was in the water with the other two and Elizabeth was further out. She'd gone to get a ball and had cried for help. She later told me she could touch with her tippy-toes but she was too tired to swim. Neither the lifeguard nor my mother's helper mentioned the incident to me. I didn't find out about it until I was turning in a form at the neighborhood association office and the office worker mentioned it. "My daughter has four kids," she'd said to me, a look of great concern on her face. "So I know how hard it is to keep track of them all." My mind had gone blank then, too, mostly from shock that I hadn't even known what had happened. But hours later, the subtle condescension in her voice made me burn with shame and then anger. 

The Pool Man's face wasn't one of pity. It was steeled. His eyes were narrow and his mouth pinched. He told me he'd seen me "rescue" Lucy a few weeks ago. She'd gone out too far and was in distress and I'd run to get her. The lifeguard hadn't even noticed. He talked about how he's seen how Adam or I will stay in the shallow end with the four kids while the other goes off the diving board a few times; about how we let the kids take turns jumping to us in the deep end. "It's just too hard. Too many kids," he said. I was getting more and more agitated. I asked him how many kids he had. When he answered "two," I said, exasperated, "Then you don't know what it's like. This is what we do. We think we are keeping our kids safe. Where I come from, having four kids isn't a big deal." He repeated that he was very concerned about my kids' safety. I asked if he was targeting us because we have a big family. He said no. "So should we only come if we have four adults?" Again, he said no. Then he told me that he and all the life guards are aware of us, that they've discussed us. That's when he said, "When you guys walk in the gate, we're all on high alert." 

The crash this time was further still. At dinner, Adam and I were struggling to get the kids to set the table, sit down to eat, and be quiet for the blessing on the food. Everything was a battle, and every kid was either crying, whining, or yelling. I walked away from the table, lay down on my bed, and wondered why I even bothered, why I put myself through this. Then my old friends came back. They'd be better off without you. Wouldn't it be better and easier if you just died? I imagined it. I thought of plans. It soothed me and scared me. As soon as Adam came in I told him I'd been having suicidal thoughts. He coaxed me back to the dinner table and the rest of the night with the kids went okay. 

Now they're in bed. I've discussed it again with my mom, with Adam, and with my friend. "He's the one with the problem," they say. "It's about him, not you." "You're doing a good job." But do they really understand? What it's like to be a circus parade everywhere you go? To feel like a pariah at the library when three of your kids are running in all different directions? To want to melt into the earth when you're trying to get them all across the street and one breaks away and runs. You're on high alert, Mr. Pool Man? Try living my life! I'm ALWAYS on high alert! If I were to let that fear rule me, I'd never leave the house with my kids EVER! But deep down, there's the awful monster that eats away at all your confidence and contentment every time you make a mistake, or doubt yourself, or get a rude comment from a stranger about your parenting. Maybe I am neglectful. Maybe I shouldn't try taking them anywhere by myself. Maybe I am a bad mother. 

When I walked with my children away from the pool this morning, I felt like I could never go back there. And tonight, I felt like I couldn't even go on. But I am going on. And I will go back to the pool. I'll let you know how it goes, and what I figure out about myself in the process.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

With Honors

Friday was a big day in our house. Elizabeth "graduated" from preschool and I "graduated" from Crazy School. So now Elizabeth is officially ready to go to kindergarten and I am officially ready to be a healthy, productive adult. Ha!

But we really are proud of our big girl. During last year's preschool graduation, Elizabeth had terrible stage fright and spent the whole time with her head down. This year, their class was doing a beach-themed program and they practiced for weeks. Elizabeth talked all the time about wanting to be brave on stage. She even asked Adam for a father's blessing the morning of the program. And boy, did she nail it. She shimmied, she hula-ed, she even posed for pics with her "diploma." We were thrilled and so was she.

She's really loved her time at preschool. I think pairing teenagers with preschoolers is genius. And she still has a mad crush on Hank.

We even got to introduce the triplets to her teacher, who will be their teacher when they're in the program next year. And I use the term "introduce" loosely. We are talking about 3-year-olds.

If you're dying to see it, and I know you all are, the link to the video of her group's dance is here

So that was Friday morning. Friday afternoon I went to my outpatient program for the last time. Since they have rolling enrollment, patients start and finish at different times. When someone finishes treatment, they do a little graduation thing on their last day. And it is awesome. First, a volunteer from the group writes your name on the board and numbers 1 to 12. Then, your fellow patients call out positive attributes they've noticed in you during your time together; they're called affirmations. The last one, #12, is saved for you to say something positive about yourself. After this, you're given a certificate where another group member has written all the affirmations down for you to keep. Then, the group and the clinicians give you feedback about how they experienced you. Finally, you tell the group what you've learned, how you've changed, and any advice you'd like to share with the newbies. And then everyone claps. And you feel like a million bucks. It's wonderful. 

I was really nervous about graduating. I felt like I'd had this safety net for so long that was now going to be taken away from me. Plus, it came on unexpectedly and they switched the day at the last minute. Since different people attend program on different days, I was worried that some of the people I'd grown closest to wouldn't be there. But thankfully most of them were. Their feedback was so touching. They talked about how caring and helpful I was. One friend, my little buddy I sit next to every day in group, joked that he couldn't talk about me or he was going to start crying. So of course I got choked up for real. After they said all their nice things, I asked if I could give everyone an affirmation in return, since I wouldn't be there for their graduations. I've seen so much strength and beauty and pain and growth in that group, it wasn't hard to come up with something for each person. I guess that's what happens when you get to see someone at their most vulnerable—you can't help but love them simply because of their humanity. Maybe that's why I love novels so much, because they let us peer into the soul of another person (albeit a fictional person.) 

When they asked how I'd changed during the course of the program, I had to pause and think. I knew I'd learned a lot and had a lot of "a-ha" moments. One of the most important things I've learned is that I am the sole determiner of my happiness. I know it sounds cliche. Whenever I used to hear people say, "you can choose to be happy!" I'd want to punch them in the face. But now I can see that my gut reaction was anger because they weren't saying, "You can choose to be happy . . . and here's how. Here's all the junk you need to work through to get there. And here's how you can stop sabotaging yourself . . . " etc. Now I have more tools. I have more awareness. 

For example, a while back, my clinician asked me to fill out a self-esteem worksheet about what I'd learned about myself when I was a child. I could not for the life of me fill it out. What beliefs did I learn about myself? Huh? But I dug and I dug, and with my shrink's help, I started asking the right questions. For instance, when we were kids, my siblings would often call me "mother" as an insult. And I hated it. But I was—I was like a little mother to them, always trying to make them behave. As I talked to my clinician about this, I started to see why. My father would often get very angry with us and chase us or take a threatening stance and look at us like he was going to hurt us. Even though I don't recall him ever hitting us, I remember being viscerally afraid of him when he got mad. So, as a young child, I learned that misbehavior made me feel unsafe. So being "good," made me feel safe. I learned that I must be good at all costs, and I did everything in my power to make my siblings be good so we would all be safe. That's just one part of our family's dynamic, but those beliefs and coping mechanisms I learned as a child play out in my life today and are causing me harm. So I challenge those beliefs. When someone is doing something I perceive as "wrong," I can take a step back and be mindful of what's going on inside me—how my issues might be coloring my perception. And then I can ask myself if it's any of my business, if I'm trying to gain admiration or acceptance by being the "good" one, that sort of thing. Guys, this stuff is amazing!

So that's some more of what I learned. But have I changed? I look at how I interact with my kids, and I know I still have a long way to go, but I really feel like I've made a lot of improvement. The combination of the skills I learned with the meds I'm now on (remember that self-control in a bottle?) has really helped me, well, chill out. I don't loose it as much as I used to. I'm not afraid I'm going to hurt my kids or myself anymore. It may be because one of the meds makes me wicked tired all the time so I'm just too worn out to get in a rage, but all joking aside, I don't care. I'd rather be gentler to my family and myself than have more energy, even if it means I won't be throwing Pinterest-worthy parties or launching an at-home business, or, you know, mopping the floor. And I'm not giving up. My #12 was "tenacious," because I've learned now that, no matter what life throws at me, I have the strength and skills and tenacity to overcome. Booyah.

At any rate, it was an emotional day for all of us. And since I was given a Red Robin gift card for my birthday (hello, bottomless steak fries!), we decided to skip the hassle of making dinner and instead celebrate our graduations by going out with the whole family. Yum! 

So here's to the grads of 2014! Have a great summer! Keep in touch!