The Fabian Strategy

Doireann and I had a fight.  Well, let me back it up.  Our version of a fight.  We don’t have those stereotypical mother-daughter screaming matches.  So, whatever we had, it was a highly charged, intense, emotional exchange.  She cried a lot, and, at one point, I started to cry out of sheer frustration.

I joke about Doireann being the female equivalent of Jack Donaghy.  The only reason it’s funny is because it’s true.  Living with her is like living with a dude in a girl’s body.  Oh, she’s a girl.  There’s no gender-bending going on, but she has so separated her emotional self from her thinking self that she’s not very integrated.  The only emotions that she regularly exhibits are anger and frustration.  Sometimes she’ll get The Feels from reading a book she loves, and that’s when I know she’s in there.  Occasionally, I’ll hear her up in her room yelling: “What? I did not ship this! I protest!” If you don’t know what The Feels are or what “shipping” means, then welcome to my world.  I thought I was pretty up-to-date on slang.  Well, fan girl slang is different.  I learned it though! Just last night we were watching “CSI:NY”, and she said, “Oh Danny, go talk to Lindsay about how tired you are.  Lindsay will make you feel better.  I ship it! I ship that so hard!”  And I knew exactly what she was saying! So, I knew to say, “Don’t worry.  They get married.  Does that give you The Feels?” She squealed with delight, “Yeeeees!!!!” See? She’s in there.  Somewhere.

Normally, however, she’s crabby, somewhat mean, bossy, overbearing, and overly focused.  She stomps around in her Doc Martens and I AM SHERLOCKED hoodie looking as stressed out as a Wall Street bond trader.  She reminds me of Liz Lemon:

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In this, she is so much like her dad.  He can work himself into a rabid lather in .005 seconds.  Doireann is the same.  The two of them are both identical in that they live from their thinking brains, but they seem to have overactive amygdalae.  If you ask them how they feel, they look at you like you just spoke German at them.  You’re fine if you use ‘thinking’ words, but step into the realm of ‘feeling’ words and risk your own life.  Doireann usually growls with words.  My husband just walks away pretending not to understand what you’ve just said.  He chooses the Fabian Strategy.  Yes, this is a real strategy, and he’s been using this Roman military strategy in our relationship particularly as it relates to his going to therapy for a very, very long time.  What is the Fabian strategy? It is “a military strategy where pitched battles and frontal assaults are avoided in favor of wearing down an opponent through a war of attrition and indirection. While avoiding decisive battles, the side employing this strategy harasses its enemy through skirmishes to cause attrition, disrupt supply and affect morale.” (online source)  Well, my husband might be successfully implementing the Fabian Strategy in our relationship at his own expense, but I’m not going let Doireann get away with it.  She can’t model that! I had to mount a defense.

So, last Thursday my husband had a business dinner and Doireann had another evening anxiety attack.  She was talking about the fact that all her friends have their license, but she doesn’t.  All I have to do is sit and listen.  She works herself up in no time.

“Oh…my…gosh…the human brain is NOT meant to drive a car.  It’s not even possible.  I mean, I can’t do it! I can’t even see the signs! I’m apparently gonna kill everyone! I can’t work the pedals! I can’t see everything that I’m supposed to see.  I’m supposed to do all those things at once? I can’t.  My brain can NOT do all that at one time.  How am I supposed to learn to DO this?”

And on and on it went.  Cognitive distortion after cognitive distortion.  Catastrophizing after black-and-white thinking after thinking with her feelings.  It was an exercise in torture listening to her.  I would try to interrupt her with a “Don’t you think that…” but her anxious monologue just steamrolled me.  She ended her soliloquy with, “Everything’s the worst!”

I finally decided I would just go in for the kill since she had already worked herself up: “I think you would benefit from some help for your anxiety.  You have been really suffering since last November.  There are people who are trained to coach people your age who are high achievers and struggling with the pressure.”

There.  I got it out there.

She did not like it.  “Are you talking about…therapy? I am not going to therapy,” she spat out.  She said ‘therapy’ like it was a bad word, and then it all went sideways.  I did not lose my head.  That’s not what I mean by sideways.  The benefit of living with Grace is that I have grown accustomed to inordinate amounts of pressure and intensity.  It’s normal for me.  What I didn’t expect was to hear Doireann apply a stigma to therapy.  She, in fact, believed that going to therapy would stigmatize her.  This chafed me.  I in no way believe that seeking help to improve one’s mental health is stigmatizing.  In fact, I believe that stigmatizing people for doing that is based in deception.  The stigma is a lie.  I believe that so much that I can no longer relate to the notion of a stigma, and I have lost my tolerance for that attitude and belief.  It is a mark of ignorance and prejudice.  We know too much and are continuing to learn more and more about the brain and how it impacts human behavior to continue to perpetuate the idea of “crazy”.  It is time to burn stigma, ignorance, and fear at the stake.

Doireann went on to say that if she couldn’t solve her anxiety issues on her own, then she couldn’t.  She would not be talking to a complete stranger about that! Good Lord, how many people say things like this? I challenged her thinking with: “What if your anxiety is inherited? Your three sisters all have anxiety disorders as does your father.  What if this is merely a neurotransmitter deficit? How will you fix that on your own?” She stepped around that with an insistence that she would never take medication like her sisters.  So, I merely challenged her logic: “If your premise holds then, you won’t seek the help of a complete stranger for something private.  What will you do when it comes to your reproductive and sexual health? Will you give yourself your own Pap smears? How will you deal with birth control? What about checking for STIs? What about breast checks? There’s nothing more private than a visit to the gynecologist.”  She looked offended.  “That is not the same thing!”  I shook my head.  “Sure it is.  The brain is an internal organ.  Who do you see to care for your brain? How do you know when your brain isn’t functioning properly? Well, you have two options.  A neurologist and a psychiatrist.  From there, a psychiatrist can recommend a psychologist because thinking can often address neural connections which can affect chemistry.  Even brain tumors can manifest in behaviors.  Sometimes that’s the only tell.  I mean, depression is a symptom of MS, but MS is clearly purely neurological although there are psychiatric symptoms.  Your premise, however, indicates that you won’t seek help from anyone.  You will solve all your problems on your own.  If you can’t solve them, then you’ll suffer.  So, how’s that working for you so far?”

She started crying.  Then, it was a lot of nonsensical statements that she seemed to think were logical.  She needed control.  She wasn’t good at anything.  What would it mean if she couldn’t even control her own brain? She could control her thoughts.  If thinking could change brain chemistry, then she could do it on her own.  Didn’t I see it? She wasn’t going to see anyone.  She didn’t need help at all.

“Who is going to give you the proper thoughts to think?”

“Me.”

“How will you know that your thoughts are healthy? How will you know which thoughts are distorted and which thoughts are not?”

“I’ll know.”

“So, all these people who have dedicated their professional lives to learning about treating anxiety are just…useless? You know more about proper thinking than they do?”

“Yes.”

That’s the moment I came apart at the seams.  That’s the moment I really wanted to find a hammer and slam it down on my hand just so that I could feel something different.  I felt like a nuclear bomb had just exploded in my chest.  When I get angry I internalize it.  It comes out as crying, or rather a weird mix of laughing and crying because I need the endorphins.  I just sat there in the living room crying and laughing with my face in my palms.

“That’s just fucking hubris.  I feel like I’m talking to Aaron!”

An aside: Our family knew Aaron.  He was a neighbor.  He seemed okay to everyone, but he wasn’t.  I invited him to dinner with our family one night, and we sat at the table after a bison pot roast and discussed all sorts of things.  Eventually, the conversation landed on him.  He was abused as a child.  Severely.  The sort of abuse that one doesn’t get over easily if ever.  He struggled with chronic PTSD symptoms forty years later.  He also had paranoid symptoms.  The more he talked the more it became clear that Aaron had untreated bipolar disorder with psychotic symptoms.  He wouldn’t seek help from anyone, however, because he was certain that he knew more than any professional.  If he couldn’t fix it himself, then it wasn’t fixable.  Two years after meeting Aaron, he died by suicide in his house four blocks away.  His own illness and non-compliance are what caused his death.  Suicide is a symptom of mental illness.

“Okay, okay, I’ll enter into this with you.  I’ll use your premise.  We can agree that the brain is like a computer.  A hard drive, right?”

“Sure, ” she agreed.

“To change thoughts you need a new programming language to overwrite the old thoughts.  You can’t overwrite old data with old data.  You will only get the same data.  You are trying to do something different with the same language.  That’s not possible.  What you really need to do is repartition your drive, install a new OS, learn new code, and then start installing new data.  If you don’t, then you’ll end up with the same data as you have now.  So, where are you going to get a new OS? Where are you going to go to learn new code? And, what about virus detection? I mean, even computers install outside programs to detect viruses. Even computers aren’t entities unto themselves living in a vacuum.  They need support to make sure that they aren’t infected, and that support comes from the outside.  So, how will you know that you aren’t infected with malware if you refuse to seek help?”

She had a fit of epic proportions.  She cried.  She carried on.  She didn’t say anything.  She just emoted for a long time.

“Fine.  I’ll do whatever you want.  I’ll see someone.”

She said it like she was going to the gallows.

“Why are you saying this like you’re about to die?” I asked.

“It doesn’t matter.  Nothing I do matters anyway.”

I had to try very hard not to roll my eyes.

“Doireann, would you please get some perspective here? Why does admitting that you might need help or have limits cause you to feel as you do right now?” She just shrugged.

“So, you have the opportunity to learn, to feel better, to gain ground, and to grow, and your response is to look like you’re about to be hanged?”

“I have no control,” she mumbled.

“Oh, on the contrary, I’m trying to give you control.  How is being driven by fear and anxiety having control? Explain that to me.  For the past five months all you’ve said is that you feel nothing but stress.  The other day I overheard you say that life must be nothing but high school, college, getting a job, and dying.  You are miserable.  You can barely breathe.  You are starting to get sick more often.  You stopped reading novels.  You are starting to cry more often.  You don’t enjoy your life.  Who is in control here? Your anxiety or you? You won’t even allow yourself to feel anything because, if you do, then you’ll be overwhelmed and non-functional.  That isn’t control.  That’s avoidance behavior.  You’ve got your inner life compartmentalized, but it’s coming apart now because your anxiety is too big.  You can continue to engage in denial all you want, but I can offer you resources that will free you from this and teach you a better way.  That’s control.  Learning the truth so that you can pick and choose your battles rather than the battles picking you.  But hey, go ahead and live like this if you like.  By the way, control is an illusion.”

Eventually, she cracked.  She gave up self-pity.  She agreed that she did, in fact, need some kind of help.  She agreed that she was far more anxious than she should be.  She agreed that she needed tools.  Doireann is a very high performer.  She is getting letters from Brown, Brandeis, and Wesleyan and the like, and she wants nothing to do with it.  Mention the word ‘college’ to her, and she blanches.  If she doesn’t get an A on everything, then it’s a crisis.  I am not a parent who cares about grades.  That pressure is not coming from me.  I learned that the hard way in college.  They don’t often tell the whole truth.  Sometimes it’s politics.  Sometimes it’s a poorly written test.  Sometimes it’s a poorly designed grading scheme wherein one test represents the bulk of the semester’s grade.  Sometimes the teacher is an asshole.  Sometimes the teacher is a bad teacher.  Sometimes the curriculum is poor.  Sometimes a student is just outside of their “golden vein”.  That was physics for me.  It didn’t matter how much I studied.  I couldn’t conceptualize the material.  My grade did not represent my effort or passion to try.  I just did not get it.  The aphorism, “If you work hard enough, then you can accomplish anything,” is wrong.  I’ve never told my children this.  I worked harder in physics class than I’ve ever worked in any other class, and I never understood it.  Maybe it was the teacher or the textbook.  They were both very old.  No matter.  I learned in physics class that sometimes the amount of effort put into something does not necessarily change the outcome.  Technically, I should have failed the class, but we can all be thankful for extra credit.  I ended up with a B+.  My teacher really liked my physics essays.

Doireann is having a very hard time with this notion: Hard work doesn’t always reflect itself in a good grade.   The American school system loves to say that if you study hard, you’ll get good grades.  What happens if you study hard and you don’t? What then? What happens if you study hard and you master the subject matter? What if mastery of the subject matter doesn’t equal an A+? What’s more important? Mastery of the subject matter or an A? Try asking these questions of a highly anxious, perfectionistic 17 year-old who has been “churned and burned” at a high school that demands everything of their high performers in order to boost their test scores.  And we wonder why the American educational system is falling behind.  The 21st c. American school system demands achievement and high performance rather than mastery and critical thinking.  Oddly enough, when mastery of subject matter and critical thinking are the goals, higher test scores are a natural by-product.  When high test scores are the goal, however, mastery of subject matter and critical thinking skills are not, hence, the rise in mental health issues in adolescence particularly in high performing cohorts.

Anyway, we both went to bed around 1 AM.  Last Friday, I crashed.  She crashed, too, but, as is her habit, she asked me to watch “CSI:NY” with her.  So, she crawled into bed with me on a Friday night, Snowbell lying on top of me curled up next to the laptop. We both fell asleep to the dulcet tones of Gary Sinise and his puns: “Mac, we found the vic lying here.  Looks like he was hit by that liquor truck over there.”…”Well, it looks like the drinks were on him.”

I don’t know if everyone finds parenting to be difficult, but I think it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

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4 thoughts on “The Fabian Strategy

  1. That is quite the conversation! I must say, you handled it really really well. Doirann reminds me of myself at that age (although I’m sure she is much smarter!) but the pressure she puts on herself reminds me of me that age. It’s a tough tough thing to unlearn when you’ve associated success with perfection. Obviously, she didn’t internalize that from you. So glad she made a turn around and is willing to get help!!! Good job… Parenting is soooo tough!

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