Monday, March 27, 2017

An apple a day--oh wait, those are lemons

The year 2014 was the year of the 365-day panic attack, and by panic attack I mean scared-to-leave-home-without-my-husband, day in, day out, talk-yourself-out-from-under-the-bed, paralyzing, heart-racing, tear-inducing fear. I cried and I cried. I cried while doing mundane chores(this was the worst, because the things your hands can do without your mind allow the mind to wander and dwell in places it shouldn't be allowed to go unchaperoned)...I cried getting ready for kids' birthday parties and "happy" family events, I cried in the shower before bedtime, I cried if I found myself in the car alone, or if I had plans or a phone call to make. I cried doing things that were supposed to be fun, cried while putting on makeup in the mornings, cried after talking on the phone to a friend or even my parents. Sometimes the tears would sneak out as I walked the aisles of the grocery store; only once did some kind soul notice that things looked a bit out of sorts: she was a college-aged girl at Whole Foods who saw me in line with a bag of chocolate candy that I had run back to grab while the family was checking out but I had missed them and was waiting to pay; she grabbed my bag, said "you look like you need a treat," and paid for my chocolate-covered pecans with her order, then gave me a hug. That was probably the kindest thing I remember from that year; I still draw strength from that moment when SOMEONE looked hard enough, saw the problem, and cared.
This is NOT the appropriate response when someone is struggling emotionally!

Not that nobody else did. My husband was as supportive as he could be in his obsessed hunt for work and perpetual attempts to find some way to bring money in during his 30-month unemployment.
Friends tried, at first, but apparently couldn't handle the intensity of emotion that inevitably flooded out when we talked, so eventually the phone calls stopped and dwindled to a text message now and again. I have already mentioned my terror at trying to make a phone call; I had to just let it go. I was physically and mentally incapable of asking for help, while those I had always believed would "be there" to understand and encourage during difficult times just floated away into happier circles, some even accusing me of isolating myself on purpose because of laziness. . . I can't blame them, really, for jumping ship, but I also can't shake the aloneness of it. That--the distancing of friends--both mine and my kids' friends--probably hurt as bad as my own body's betrayal of itself.

Emotional difficulties can cause you to be the odd one out.

It was indescribable, the feeling that my mind was betraying me and I could not control the response no matter what I tried. I know now it was depression, that a spring had been wound too tightly and just wouldn't hold its tension anymore. At the time, however, I was afraid of applying that word, as well as afraid of what was happening to me.

Searching frantically for answers, we changed our diet; I had read that wheat affects brain chemistry, so I thought that we would try going gluten-free, and it helped! Not everything, and not all the time, but as I dabbled with it, I realized I would cry for days on end after having that beautiful slice of Chantilly cake or that flour tortilla. This was important because it gave me hope that things could be improved by my efforts if I could just throw enough energy in that direction. So we went full-on gluten free. While the involuntary tears subsided somewhat, hurt came from another direction as suddenly I was at war in the kitchen with more intense meal prep AND with well-meaning friends and family who couldn't understand this sudden obsession with food. I needed to eat this way to be able to stay alive--to even function, it seemed to me, and they simply couldn't understand. I found myself learning to cook all over again, reading every label in the store every time, and preparing everything my family would eat, ever. It was exhausting and the sheer preparation load ensured that any anticipation I had for upcoming events was replaced with dread for the effort involved, I realized how much our family and social life was based around food.
They don't LOOK like bringers of sadness and gloom, do they? But I soon discovered they WERE.

I also discovered essential oils and herbs that year, in my quest to manage the anxiety that threatened to choke me at every turn. Lemon balm grew easily enough in my herb garden, and I had purchased it for the pollinators, but I soon discovered that it was a blessing I had given myself. The leaves of that 3-foot-tall plant provided tea that actually helped me calm down, and then I learned to make a glycerite of it so that it would be portable. Meanwhile, peppermint oil helped the headaches and tummy cramps subside and lavender further calmed anxious breathing; I felt like a walking apothecary with my purse full of oils and bottles, but I also knew that with my little arsenal, I could at least leave the house wearing eye makeup and expect to have it on when I got back home. This was huge!
Essential oils

As a cat and bird owner, I have read that cats and birds are simply TOO good at hiding when something is wrong until it gets really bad and then it's sometimes too late to help them get well. I, too, have struggled more I think because I am really good at looking like I've got it all together, at least on the outside, when I'm really falling to bits. This is a problem I still cannot fix about myself. Just how does a person go about saying "It's a really bad time and I need help" without sounding as if complaining is all one ever does? I discovered quickly in 2014 that NOBODY really wants to hear my struggles.

So as all this was going on in my interior, we kept homeschooling, kept attending the social functions we were invited to, kept trying to help hubby find employment and pinch pennies to make ends meet. I didn't realize then that the sacrifices we were making for the sake of economy and energy conservation were being absorbed by my children until school started back in September of 2015 and my daughter began having trouble getting her school work done.

To keep the details private for her benefit and to shorten an already long post, I will just say that she's been dealing with anxiety and depression too. I believe that my lack of coping skills caused the stress that put her into this, and so now just as I have begun to get a grip on my issues, I am watching my child suffer. I have spent every available moment this past year researching to try and help her get better, but the bottom line is that I don't know the answers nor do I know what questions to ask of whom, and she doesn't have the drive to do even little things to help herself out of the hole at this point. I'm watching as she is seriously considering dropping out of college and losing a full scholarship just to rest, and she just gives in to apathy most days as her energy is too low. Most of her friends don't know she's struggling, and none of them really know the extent of it because it's just not something you talk about. My heart breaks for her.

Meanwhile my second daughter is frustrated and feels inadequate because as high school graduation comes around, she feels that her experiences and accomplishments don't add up as high as her peers'. We didn't involve her in "enough" activities and opportunities so she's got a shorter brag list for scholarship applications. I can't say anything about it except that I did what I had to do to keep myself and the family operating. I have heard some moms say that "you do what you need to do for your kids" and it's true, until you have a physical/mental breakdown, and then you simply DO WHAT YOU CAN. Period. I hate that my weakness robbed my kids of what could have been valuable experience, but as I look back, I can't see anything it was in my power to actually change. That doesn't stop the guilty feelings.

So the lessons learned here?
I am unsure that there are any--at least, not trite and simplistic pithy ones that would make a cute meme, but let's try:

  • We all need to take better care of each other. 
  • Keep your friends close.
  • It's dangerous to give, give, give when you're not being replenished, as selfish as that sounds.
  • We all could stand to be a LOT more compassionate toward others, because we simply don't know their struggles.
  • Give grace. When in doubt, give grace again
  • Life offers many opportunities to forgive others. Never turn down the opportunity.
  • Above all else, love each other deeply, for love covers a multitude of sins.(1 Peter 4:8)


Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Everything in the Kitchen Sink

A girl needs to be careful when she takes on the living and care of a life.
Oddly enough, she may be thirty-five-plus-six and moving along at a clip when she realizes this fact.

A girl could stand to be warned at the outset that the things she likes might be hers to bear more often than not all on her own, and though they bring her joy, they can also drain her cup dry if she gazes too long at the prospect.

I have a mental image of my 70-year-old grandmother standing at my mother's kitchen sink, elbow-deep in suds, clean dishes stacked in the dry side waiting for a rinse while the stack of dirty plates, glasses, and flatware slowly diminishes. It never occurred to me at the age of 15 that she had been doing that very thing for decades, or that she might wish she were doing something else at that moment. I failed to realize the probable pain in her lower back and the ache between her shoulder blades; didn't know of the dry skin and flaked fingernails from exposure to soap and hot water. I just knew she made a mean potato salad and fried chicken to die for, and that she wouldn't rest until the kitchen was cleaned up. I helped, darting about in my teenage way, putting condiments in the fridge, bringing dirty dishes to the sink, wrapping the last of the rice and gravy and finding space to stack them in the refrigerator. I may have even wiped the table. My cursory jobs done, I would have escaped to the television or(more likely)my latest read of young adult fiction while Grandma stood at that sink for another twenty or thirty minutes, removing the traces of crumb and oil and setting things to rights in my mom's kitchen.

This image haunts me as I approach the kitchen near-midnight after having friends over for the afternoon. We had tea and a host of small treats to attend it; four porcelain pots, 8 cups-and-saucers, 8 or more plates and spoons and then the serving dishes--platters, plates, creamers and pitchers, along with the food processor and cutting boards, knives, mixing bowls, and baking trays; all greet me as reminders of the fun afternoon chatting and laughing with friends. Sounds of the movie the girls are watching drift in from the adjacent family room, but as I begin putting nacho cheese sauce in a container after the late-night snacking session, my oldest daughter flits in on tiptoe and begins unloading the dishwasher.

I smile, somewhat amused at this oddity as I help put skillets and glasses, whisks and platters in their places. She bends over the silverware, actually sorting the pieces into their little holders and chatting gaily with me about how tea parties were invented by people with STAFF for people who also had STAFF--a mild protest of the immensity of the cleanup--as the work gets done. She finishes the sorting and I begin loading the second of what will be three loads of post-tea-party washes. And it hits me, this image of Grandma at the kitchen sink.

I love my kids and their friends. I love my friends. I enjoy using my pretty things and making memories in beautiful surroundings, but this is work. So much of love IS work. And I see it for what it is. My grandma stood at that sink so my mom wouldn't come home from work to a dirty kitchen and need to clean up before preparing supper. She was reinforcing her own habits of years, though. Raising four children in difficult circumstances, she had to make the most of meager resources all too often in order to provide nourishment and sustenance to her husband and family. She owned--commanded--the kitchen in that old house we used to visit, with its chipped formica counters and scary stove, slightly-askew cabinets and large porcelain sink. It was used, and in that use, loved, and she served us and the kitchen nearly equally as she stood at that sink and stove going through the all-too-familiar ritual of making milk gravy and buttermilk biscuits or frying chicken and stirring up her amazing potato salad.

Brides-to-be pick out china, crystal, and linens, glibly registering for all the paraphernalia that makes setting up a home easy and beautiful, completely oblivious to the fact that they are essentially pledging to those beautiful things a lifetime of conscious care and handling. Just as the extra care they will eventually put into preparing special meals for wonderful times with the people they love will help build happy lifetimes, it will also invoke a bit of loneliness as the kitchen's filling the heart-of-the-home means a woman stands in there a whole lot of the time by herself with her thoughts and memories.

As a young mom of three little girls, I would occasionally stand them on chairs at the soap-filled sink, tuck and tie the aprons around the tiny waists, and enjoy hearing them giggle as they "washed" and rinsed the plastic plates and cups that are the hard-working finery of families with small kids. 

Now getting them to help in the kitchen is a treat, and they can bake and chop and braise and saute better than I ever did at 15, but the cleanup generally lands on my shoulders, as it will for years to come.

I have a photograph somewhere of myself and my two nearest-in-age cousins standing at the sink in my other grandmother's kitchen; I was in college so they were both in high school, and we were washing dishes after one of the very last full-family gatherings we had in that house. We enjoyed the time to visit, I'm sure, but what sticks in my mind now is the ages we were; I could put my three girls at that sink now and have the same scenario, different faces. The years fly and we are held to this earth in part by the rituals of living--and the kitchen certainly centers in that grounding. I know in a few years I will cook for two and clean up for two and wait impatiently for the days when they can all come home and make huge messes and we can clean up together...and so the cycle continues. Young bride, mother-to-be, mom with a toddler playing in soap bubbles, children doing chores alongside mom, teenagers cooking and experimenting and helping when they want to--in their own way--and then leaving...never knowing as they spread their wings and buy pretty things that they are committing to years at the kitchen sink. Mostly alone.

Meanwhile grown-up women haunt thrift stores and antique shops searching for bits and pieces of the memories they hold from their childhoods. I have so much that reminds me of this grandmother or that aunt or a day we spent together doing something fun as a family. The memories associated with these things keep me company as I wash and rinse and dry and put away very carefully.

At the end of this long day, after my daughter has returned to her sisters, movie, and friend in the family room,  I hit "start" on the dishwasher, rinse out the sink, wipe down the stove, and turn off the light. Tired but happy, maybe with a tear running down one cheek. The soap bubbles drift and pop into the air like laughter fading, and I remember the joys of today, looking ahead to many, many, many more. My cup is certainly not dry; in fact, it is running over.
Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.
 The boundary lines have fallen for me in pleasant places;
    surely I have a delightful inheritance.
Psalm 16:5-6