Day 7

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried keeping a blog or writing as a habit. Its not that I don’t write, I just write sporadically. I’ve kept a journal since I was about eight years old. In the last decade, I write in a journal on two different occasions… on planes, and when I’m super super stressed out about something and can’t sleep. Now, because I have traveled every 4-6 weeks for the last decade or so, I have plenty of entries. It’s a mechanism to deal with anxiety I might feel about flying and it’s also a way to reflect on what’s going on in my life at that time. Separately, I’ve taken numerous writing classes – memoir, screenplay, dramatic writing. I’ve done the Artist’s Way, taken workshops in writing + yoga, and free writing flings. In the moment, when I am working on my writing, I feel challenged and if I’m lucky, inspired. Sometimes, I even write good shit. The problem, of course, is consistency. I have spent most of my life believing that I am not a writer because hello, writers write. Every day. All the time. It’s the work they can’t not do, as Scott Dinsmore says. Or said. Isn’t that right? Isn’t that what defines a writer?

For me, though, I sometimes hate it. Yes yes, the blank page, the fear, the doubt. Moreover, though, am I wasting my time? Shouldn’t I know already? Shouldn’t I feel a deep compulsion, every day, to tell my stories? I think I used to. I have suppressed those feelings for the last 20 years. When I was young, I dreamed of telling stories through film and books, not being able to dream yet of an internet connecting me to the world. I had an active imagination, I had fun with my stories, and I moved to California believing without a doubt that I would make it in Hollywood. Boy, was I dumb. And thank god because if I hadn’t taken the leap, I wouldn’t have had such a wonderful, adventurous life. More fodder for the page, I guess.

Maybe I am more afraid that this isn’t the work I can’t not do (note: as a grammar nerd, this sentence tortures me.) But it’s the work I can do now. I’m in a position in my life where I finally have the time to find out. I am not trying to figure out how to avoid a late notice from the electric company. I’m not worrying about bouncing checks to my ex for rent and wondering how much interest he’ll charge me. I have stability despite the fact that I’m not working, because my supportive, generous husband wants me to take this time to figure out what’s next for me. And I do, too. Which is terrifying, of course, but also liberating – and I still need to find a way to see that I deserve it. That I don’t need to be suffering. And that just because I am white and educated and privileged, doesn’t mean I can’t also complain from time to time. I know who I am inside and what I believe, I know my level of compassion. Maybe the problem is that the work I can’t not do is work I actually can’t do. Humanitarian work? Diplomatic work? Or is it writing screenplays and memoirs about my life which I think is extraordinary but honestly it’s not. And isn’t that the point? That my stories will resonate, that despite our obvious differences, we are fundamentally the same?

So, today is day 7 of the writing challenge. I’m not ready to find out how to monetize my blog or get 100,000 followers by this time next year. I’m not ready to say this is the work I can’t not do. I feel that this work, this expression, much like my journaling, actually just allows me to get the spinning mind down on paper and frees it up for what’s next. I have to remind myself, every morning, that today is a new day, a new opportunity. I only need to see the 10 feet in front of me, I don’t need to know where the road ends.

Progress not perfection.

The only way to know there has been progress is to look back and see how far we’ve come. Or not.

When I met my man, Jennifer had just turned five and Dylan was eight and a half. One of the first things I noticed about them was how ridiculously cute they were. I had a boy, so girls were something new. They seemed sweet as pie, loved having me around. Of course, that was when we were dating and I was a novelty. Even then, though, I noticed some things about Dylan – anxiety and OCD behaviors. I recognized them because I had a mild level growing up, and I’d seen it in my own son briefly around the same age. At the time, I sent him to a psychiatrist friend who said, he’s just now processing your separation and that with some conditioning and assurance, he’d likely grow out of it. He did. (He does, however, still have a nasty habit of biting his fingernails.) Anyhow, there were things Dylan did… needing the same exact towel, the same nightgown, hopping three times before getting into bed, always asking if everything was safe to eat but then not eating it even if we said its fine. Dylan has trust issues and needs to feel safe, in control, always – as we all do on some level – but never vulnerable, or connected to her emotion. Bedtime was a nightmare, a lot of screaming and crying – every. single. night. I suggested to my man that he break out that Super Nanny book he had on the bookshelf and start implementing some structure. The girls were flailing. And he was exhausted. No one was being accountable for the situation. Those things have changed somewhat since my man really stepped up as a Dad, and also when Dylan began taking Prozac about a year ago. I was never a fan of medicating children. That is, until I was up with her at 3am while she was having a panic attack, punching herself in the face, biting her fingers until they bled, and screaming “Someone please help me!” Prozac works. And the girls have structure now around bedtime. Yes, we still need to get Jennifer to fall asleep on her own, but at least Dylan isn’t losing her shit anymore at bedtime. She does, however, need both the fan and the book-light on to fall asleep to, as well as actually reading to fall asleep. What do they say, progress not perfection?

I realize that I sound heartless sometimes when I speak about the divorced child. I’m not. Far from it. My son experienced being a child of separated parents. Maybe he’s ‘easier’, its all relative. My point is, though, that like it or not, this is the reality of many, many households for numerous reasons. We can have empathy for the children that they don’t have both parents under one roof but we can also set up a life that has love and boundaries. Just because someone is upset, or ill, or a victim (especially in their own mind,) doesn’t mean they get to be an asshole. And allowing that behavior does no one any favors, least of all the child who will grow into an adult, believing a.) the world is out to get them b.) the world owes them c.) everyone will feel sorry for them d.) they won’t have to be accountable for anything because poor them, their parents got divorced.

I had a friend who blamed her parents for her unhappiness well into her 40’s because they divorced 20 years earlier. She had a weird marriage of her own, more of a business arrangement. And her own mother had never remarried. She hated her stepmother, yada yada. Its so cliche. I say this also as someone whose child has had a stepmother (and two other women in his life who were stepmother models until his dad traded them in.)

I was raised in the school of hard knocks. Do I wish that my mother had been a little more present while I was growing up? TOTALLY. But she was grieving the death of her little boy. Do I wish that my father wasn’t a traveling salesman while I was growing up? TOTALLY. But learning how to verbally spar and push boundaries with my father compelled me to take action in my life, both then and now. In my 20’s, I know I went through a phase of forgiving them, maybe not to their faces but for myself. They did the best they could with what they had. But they didn’t know better. WE DO. We are educated, affluent, white people with every resource available to us. It seems irresponsible to me for us not to use those resources, and get our houses in order. Those kids will become adults (mine is already 17) and I want to be proud of the parenting we did that allows them to be in the world without us.

Where to start?

It would be too difficult to start at the beginning, so I’ll start with yesterday.

When I picked the girls up from school, the older one, whom I’ll refer to as Dylan from here on out, started her usual onslaught of verbal diarrhea. This time it was about her visit to the nurse’s office. She started by telling me about her nosebleed (she has these chronically and yes, we know there is a procedure that can cauterize but if you keep reading, you’ll understand why it’s not possible.) Then she went on to explain that the reason she was at the nurse’s wasn’t because of the nosebleed but because she’d had a sore throat. It started the night before, it was ‘strep-y’ and in gym she was coughing and coughing, and then her breathing got really rattle-y, and on and on. The nurse saw a little irritation at the back of her throat, no doubt from coughing, but there was no fever, aches, pains etc. Dylan told me, though, that the nurse said she should see a doctor. So, when I could get in a word edgewise, I said, ok, I’ll see if I can make you an appointment this afternoon while Jennifer (her little sister) is at her acting class. That’s about when Dylan started losing it. “What?! No, no, no, I don’t need a doctor!” Yet, she’d spent 10 minutes explaining how very sick she was. She’s not, in fact, sick. This happens every month or so. Her biggest fear, actually, is to BE sick. She associates illness with throwing up and has a paranoia about vomiting. Its a long story, stemming from her mother lying to her about chocolate milk (that was really a protein shake because we were trying to get Dylan to gain weight, since she doesn’t eat anything. But that’s a story for another day.) Anyhow, I said we’d discuss a doctor’s appointment later with her Dad.

When Dylan is quiet, its unsettling. I’d love to believe its because she’s feeling peace or calm, but its usually because something is stirring. She is spinning so badly that she’s not even talking to herself. Later that afternoon, before dinner, we discovered Dylan had forgotten some homework at school. After some attempts at connecting with the teacher via email, she found she’d be responsible for doing it tomorrow instead. But because this is a chronic habit of hers (yes, yes, I know, school is very difficult, there is so much homework, yada yada,) her Dad said she couldn’t watch TV that evening. We are trying to implement rules around accountability and responsibility, of which she feels zero. Ever. Its part of her personality, brain chemistry, and upbringing. The knowledge that her little sister would get something that she wouldn’t started her in a woe-is-me tailspin. Mopey at dinner, which for her has consisted of bread and cheese for the last couple of months. Then its “Da-da, can we talk in private?” One of her attempts to manipulate (a skill she’s learned from her mother.) She puts on the baby talk, even though she’s 12 years old. Her Dad is learning not to cave anymore, and understand that love and boundaries are best – not giving her everything she wants. It turned into her calling her Mom and crying for pity because Dad is so mean and Jennifer gets what she wants, why can’t I blah blah. Poor, poor Dylan.

And yet, yes, I feel badly for her. I feel for her. OCD, high anxiety, oppositional defiance disorder, classic narcissism, and possibly ADHD are the most common diagnoses she’s received from two psychiatrists and two MFT/social workers, not to mention being under height and weight. It isn’t just an unwillingness on her part, its an inability. She can not feel empathy, she can not see beyond herself, her needs. She is most comfortable telling people what to do, keeping order and control within her grasp. And she is exhausting. I’ve spent the fast few years feeling badly about myself – not being a better role model, not being able to always be ‘on’ or even myself with her, for sometimes losing patience. But I am a human being. And while I love her, I don’t always like her. Yes, that does, in fact, make me feel like a shitty person. How can someone not like a child? And how can they admit to that fact? Am I terrible? Is she in a bad environment because of my feelings? Are we doing more harm than good because despite every single effort we make (therapist, medicine, consistent behavior training, love love love and positive affirmation,) she is about 3% better than when I met her. Now, don’t get me wrong, I hang on to that 3%. I pray that in another few years, she might actually recognize the need of another human being before hers, or even something simple like – not trying to trick or bait me in every conversation. That is a skill she doesn’t need to hone. I pray that she’ll choose to eat with a fork instead of her fingers, that she’ll be able to have dinner at a friend’s (oh and actually EAT the dinner.) I pray that she’ll be able to spend time on her own, without direction every moment. My biggest fear, though, is that she’ll never know how to keep a job, pay a bill, have a relationship, and worst of all – never love herself. And we, my wonderful, sweet, amazing husband and I, will continue to play ping pong with Dylan’s mother, well into our 60’s and 70’s, trying to figure out a way for her to exist without us.