Mental Health and Hormones

This might be an odd topic to discuss, but it’s actually very important in terms of adolescent mental health particularly if there is a biologically-based brain disorder on the table.

What happens when puberty strikes?

Let me get this off my chest.  I hate the word ‘puberty’.  I don’t know why.  It’s a weird word, isn’t it? I don’t even like to say it aloud.  “Puuuuuuuuuberty.”  No.  Just…no.

What else can I call it? Game Day? The Dawn of a New Age? Rites of Passage? Pledge Week? These all sound like terrible movies, cults, or something that happens to you at a Greek Week event.  But, isn’t that what puberty feels like? I digress…

Everyone warned me that puberty would be an über nightmare for Grace as opposed to the standard nightmare that the neurotypical folks experience because the sudden surge in hormones might possibly increase the intensity of her diagnosis–schizophrenia spectrum disorder.  I winced.  It is a valid concern because onset of puberty is often the time when schizophrenia and bipolar spectrum disorders emerge.  If you have a child who has a childhood-onset diagnosis, then what might puberty change or exacerbate?

So, how has it been?

Well, the first thing to note here is that Grace has been taking Abilify since she was 11 years-old, and Abilify affected her sexual development.  She didn’t experience any signs of puberty until she was well into her 15th year.  That’s late.  It was concerning.  We were almost referred to an endocrinologist.

The second thing to note is that her symptoms were in no way exacerbated by her diagnosis.  She was a very typical teenager if ‘typical’ is a thing.  In other words, her behavior and thoughts were well within the bell curve for what I would define as normative although she has favored emo-angsty self-expression for about a year.  It’s like living with a character from a knock-off John Hughes movie.  The month prior to menarche (another word that should never be used), however, she became an asshole, and no one knew why.

Also, she wanted to snort and mainline sugar.  I had to practically build a wall between her and the kitchen just to keep her away from anything potentially sugary–even granulated sugar! She hated everything as well.  She was rude.  She wanted to be left alone.  Everything was bad.  And, she cried all the time.  She is my third daughter.  I’ve seen all this before but not quite at this level.  A friend commented, “Wow, she just hates everything.”

Well, when her first period arrived, it all crystallized, and her mood cleared up.  It’s damn hard being a girl.

We did not, however, have any psychotic symptoms.  We did not have a surge in mania.  It was fairly typical.  Everyone in the house gets a bit moody and upset as their hormones ebb and flow.  Doireann cries.  Eadaoin gets punchy.  Grace hates everyone and everything.  I feel irritable.  It is life.  You learn to go with the flow (sorry about the pun…).

The good news? There was no apocalypse, and that means a lot because more than a few people prognosticated the end of the world for Grace when Shark Week hit.

So, should you be in a similar situation, wondering how your child will do when the surge of hormones bathes their brain in all the colors of the moody, developmental rainbow, have hope.  Sometimes things go smoothly and everything works out.

Just as you hoped it would.

 

 

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Making David Sedaris Proud

It’s been a year since the girls and I have lived together sans their father here.  He moved out a year ago.  Last year was a year in transition to say the least, but everyone is emerging in very good shape.  In better shape.

Personalities are revealing themselves in ways that may not have been permitted before.  As a parent, it’s reassuring to see.  As another human being who lives here, in the fray with a 13 year-old, an almost 16 year-old, and an almost 18 year-old, I find it extremely entertaining (yeah, Grace is almost 16!).

A few weeks ago, one of our family pets, Q the parakeet, died suddenly as in he literally keeled over.  Q was a very interactive bird.  He was very loud and screechy (a trait Doireann in particular disliked), but it’s because he loved attention.  Eadaoin loved him.  She had picked him out to be her bird.

On the night he died, I recall talking to him before I showered.  As soon as I opened the bathroom door wearing nothing but a towel, Milly approached me and whispered, “Mom, look at Q.”  I immediately felt dread.  I approached his cage and looked for Q.  He was lying on the bottom of the cage in a contorted pose, his wing entangled in the cage bars.

“Oh my god, what happened?! Is he alive? I just saw him a few minutes ago!” I shouted.

I reached into his cage to try to remove him, and I found that his feet had grasped onto the bottom of the cage which prevented me from removing him.  I had to undo his tiny grip, and it wasn’t easy.  Each little birdy toe was interlaced within the slats of the bottom of the cage.   I kept thinking, “How am I going to get him out of this cage without breaking his feet?”

Milly and Grace were hovering around me and the cage at this point.

“Is he alive? Is he alive? He can’t be dead! Eadaoin will be so upset.  Oh no…” Milly repeated.

I tried to reassure them, but I was fairly certain Q had died.  It looked like he had suffered a seizure based upon the final pose of his body.  I was having a helluva time removing him from his cage, and I noticed that my towel was slipping.

“Maybe he’s alive! Maybe he’s alive!” Milly suggested hopefully.

“Honey, I think he has probably died,” I finally said with both my hands still in the cage.

Grace was wringing her hands and trying not to cry.  My towel was going to fall off.

“What if he’s really alive?” Milly asked.

“He’s not alive,” Grace answered rather emphatically.

“He could be!” she countered.

“Look at him! He’s lifeless.  He’s dead, Milly!” Grace shouted to match Milly’s energy.

“He could be…you know…in one of those…what are they called?” Milly stammered.

“A coma?!” I answered, shocked, momentarily distracted from trying to get poor Q out of his cage.

“Oh my god, Milly, the bird doesn’t have locked-in syndrome! What in the world…he’s dead!” Grace said very pointedly.

“Well, I can hope, right?” Milly retorted, her fists balled up by her side.

“No, you can’t! You can’t hope for something to be in a coma when it’s died! That’s ridiculous…”

Interrupting the banter, I all but yelled out, “Hey! Eadaoin’s bird has died here! Stop it! And my towel is going to fall off.  Help me!”

That’s the moment I paused everything in my mind.  I observed the scenario.  Both my hands are in a bird cage while I stand almost naked, dripping wet, handling a dead parakeet while my daughters are literally yelling at each other over the possibility of our obviously dead bird having locked-in syndrome.  It was absurd.

I was eventually able to remove Q from his cage.  He had, in fact, died.  There was no doubt about it.  Everyone held him, and Milly spoke words of kindness to him as she held him: “You were always a loud bird, but we loved you.”

Eadaoin was predictably heartbroken.  She told me that she didn’t want to even see him, but, upon my suggestion that it would help her mourn him, she held him anyway.  Then, in a scene of sweet sadness, she pet his face and held him next to her heart.

Milly found a box, gently placed Q in it, and announced that she wanted to bury him in our backyard.  She also announced that she wanted to do it alone.  Eadaoin was too sad to be at his funeral, and I told Milly that I didn’t mind if she did it alone.  I could hear her singing a song to him from the kitchen.  I half expected to hear “Taps”.  She is a very serious girl.

I began to feel melancholy in observing everyone’s grief for their deceased pet.  I was sad, too, that he had died.  Milly came inside after burying Q, washed her hands, and leaned against the counter.  She looked thoughtful.

“Are you okay?” I asked.

She nodded and bit her lip.

I felt myself become anxious.  Maybe I should not have honored her request.  Did I make a bad decision? I don’t always know the right things to do.  Parenting is damn hard.

“Mom…” Milly asked tentatively.

“Yes?” I replied hesitantly afraid of what she was going to ask me.

“You’re sure that he’s dead, right?” Milly asked.

Suddenly, a loud shout from the living room boomed throughout the house.

“Oh my god! He doesn’t have locked-in syndrome! He’s dead!!!!!”

Breathing out a sigh of relief, I quietly laughed.  Yeah, everyone is okay.  Everything is fine.

 

 

The Imaginary Audience

Happy 2016, one and all! I feel like asking, “How are you?” And, I hope that some of you tell me!

I have been adjusting to life as a single parent, and I have to admit that it is exhausting not to mention the Groundhog Day Effect.  I clean one room, leave it, return to it, and find that it looks just like it did before I cleaned it–all within the space of ten minutes.  So, my days are starting to feel just like Bill Murray’s in the film “Groundhog Day”.  Interminable sameness.  “Didn’t I just pick up this exact piece of paper from this exact spot yesterday?” No.  Am I losing my grasp on reality? No.  Have I bridged the space/time continuum? No.

What is going on then?

The answer? I have three daughters at home, and they don’t observe a lot outside of K-Pop, manga, their insatiable desire for savory snacks, and their obsessions du jour.  Okay, okay, there are other things going on as well, but you get the picture.  I will admit that relaxing into it seems to be the way to go.  I’m not pushing the river, so to speak, when it comes to the culture at home.  With the atmospheric oppression lifted, I have wanted to see how the girls would expand in their own right.  What might evolve in terms of family culture in our home? Doireann is living on campus now so the home dynamic has changed.  Everyone living at home carries a DSM diagnosis.  We have three biologically-based brain disorders at play.  What might emerge?

The first thing that happened was a kind of collective deep breath followed by the predictable release of emotions.  Everyone had been walking on eggshells around my ex-husband (their father).  No one knew any peace in the home due to fear.  When safety and predictability were finally established, everyone freaked out.  We had crying jags, externalized emotional expressions of fear, anger, confusion, and expression for the sake of expression.  Just because they could.  There was an outpouring of verbal expression that sounded a lot like hatred: “I hate him!”  It’s rooted in feelings of betrayal, confusion, and profound emotional pain.  There was a month, after he moved out, in which the girls refused to see him.  To his credit, he did not push them.  Doireann, however, has cut him out of her life.  She has her reasons, and they are valid.  This is her journey now.  She is almost 19 (can you believe that?).

Grace began high school, and Milly began middle school so the school year, in a word, has sucked.  They are, however, developing resiliency, and that is what I have wanted for them.  It is difficult as a parent to watch our kids swim through the shark tanks of both middle and high school.  We remember what it was like.  I’ve only met one person in my entire life who liked high school.  No one looks back on middle school fondly.  It seems that everyone turns feral during that time in adolescence.  Instinctively, I would spare them that particular suffering, but, at the same time, how will they find out what they’re made of? To quote T.S. Eliot, “If you aren’t in over your head, how do you know how tall you are?” For those of us with children with mental health issues, we walk a very fine line when it comes to helping our children develop resiliency because we are never sure of what their tipping point is.  On a good day, they can handle a lot.  On a bad day, they can’t.  And, there is no predicting in the morning if a day will be good or bad in terms of their ability to cope.

Yesterday, for example, Milly seemed okay.  I have to drive fifteen miles to her school as she is open-enrolled in another district.  We leave early so that we can hold to our morning tradition of stopping at the Caribou Coffee across the street from the school.  I get coffee, and she used her allowance to buy a drink of her choice.  Yesterday, she chose hot chocolate.

It is worth noting for the sake of this story that when Milly was younger she would never speak in public.  She would hold onto my legs and hide behind me.  Sometimes, when I would walk, she would slip down my legs, and it would look like I was dragging her behind me.  Oh, the looks I got! She was terrified.  She was almost agoraphobic.  She is on the autism spectrum (what the DSM-IV labeled as Asperger’s Syndrome), and she has an anxiety disorder as well as a depressive disorder.  Co-morbid to this are sensory processing issues.  Milly has always been the way she is.  From Day 1.  And, she has been receiving countless kinds of interventions since she was a toddler to bring her to a place of functionality.

Yesterday, however, she marched up to the counter, ordered her drink, paid for it, and sat down at our chosen table–just like a neurotypical kid.  I almost take it for granted now.  She was talking to me about a documentary that she had watched; she is really into documentaries: “Mom, some of these documentaries are hard to watch, but I think that it is our responsibility as people to know the truth about what is happening in the world.  It is important, and part of that is feeling uncomfortable.  I feel a responsibility to know so that I can help.”  My 12 year-old said this to me! I was amazed.  As she was sharing this, she knocked her drink over, and it splashed all over her pants.

Time slowed.  I saw her face.  Her eyes widened.  She was frozen.  Tears started.  She couldn’t move or respond.  Her diagnoses came to the forefront.  I wasn’t dealing with Milly anymore.  Hello, Anxiety.  Hello, Depression.  Hello, Autism.  She was enveloped in them.  And, this was the moment to talk to her rather than try to save her.  If I could reach her, then I could get some neurons to fire.  “Hey, hey, it’s okay.  It’s just a drink.  I need you to stand up and go ask for a rag.  This isn’t a big deal.  Can you move?”  She couldn’t.  She was using all her emotional energy to hold it together.  “Can we leave? Can we leave? Can we leave? I wanna go home.  I wanna go home.”

Suddenly, a woman appeared with napkins.  “I saw what happened.  You clearly need help.”  She looked at Milly with kindness, and then she looked at me judgmentally as if I wasn’t helping my daughter.  I wasn’t helping her in a way that she would help.  I am accustomed to this.  I have developed some shame resiliency.  I thanked her and got up to ask for help.  Another person had already intervened on our behalf and a barista was on her way over.  Milly was able to stand up, but she was trembling.  Her bottom lip was quivering.  She ran to the door and stood there.  She was ready to bolt.  The barista cleaned up the table and chair, and I sat down.  I motioned for Milly to return, but she shook her head at me.  I mouthed, “Come here please,” and she slowly returned.  Her pants were indeed saturated with hot chocolate.  She could not go to school like that.

“Everyone is staring at me!” she said quietly starting to cry.

“Here is a secret,” I said.  “No one really cares what you are doing.  If you take care of what you are doing and carry on as if nothing worth looking at happened, then people won’t care either.  But, when you sit there in your chair frozen and rigid, refuse to help yourself, and run across the store to stand by the door, then people will stare.  Those are unusual behaviors, and people stare at unusual behaviors.”  She was able to hear that.  She made her “thinking face”.

“Oh,” she said, “so if I act like nothing happened even though it’s so hard, then people won’t really stare that much?”  she asked.

“For the most part, yes.” I answered.

“But, there was a group of kids staring at me,” she said pointing directly at them.

And, here we landed on the Imaginary Audience.  There may have been a group of kids staring at her; in fact, I don’t doubt it.  But, why is this form of social anxiety so heightened in adolescence and even more so with young people on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum? It is due to the developmental phase characterized by the egocentric state known as the imaginary audience:

“David Elkind coined the term “imaginary audience” in 1967. The basic premise of the topic is that people who are experiencing it feel as though their behavior or actions are the main focus of other people’s attention. It is defined as how willing a child is to reveal alternative forms of themselves. The imaginary audience is a psychological concept common to the adolescent stage of human development. It refers to the belief that a person is under constant, close observation by peers, family, and strangers. This imaginary audience is proposed to account for a variety of adolescent behaviors and experiences, such as heightened self-consciousness, distortions of others’ views of the self, and a tendency toward conformity and faddisms. This act stems from the concept of ego-centrism in adolescents.[1]

Elkind studied the effects of imaginary audience and measured it using the Imaginary Audience Scale (IAS). The results of his research showed that boys were more willing than girls to express different sides of themselves to an audience. This apprehension from girls has given rise to further research on the value of privacy to girls. Imaginary audience influences behavior later in life in regards to risky behaviors and decision-making techniques. A possibility is that imaginary audience is correlated with a fear of evaluation or self-representation effects on self-esteem.[1]  

Imaginary audience effects are not a neurological disorder, but more a personality or developmental stage of life. It is not aroused by a life event; rather it is a part of the developmental process throughout adolescence. It is a natural part of the process of developing a healthy understanding of one’s relationship with the world. Most people will eventually gain a more realistic perspective on the roles they play in their peer groups as they mature. This natural developmental process can lead to high paranoia about whether the adolescence is being watched, if they are doing a task right and if people are judging them. Imaginary audience will likely cease before adolescence ends, as it is a huge part of personality development. Imaginary audience can be as simple as having to change multiple times in the morning because the adolescent still feels unsatisfactory about arriving at a destination about his/her appearance even though he/she will appear the same as everyone else. The number of adolescents who experience an imaginary audience effect cannot be described with any sort of statistics because an imaginary audience is experienced in all adolescents.” (online source)

The imaginary audience phenomenon is one reason why adolescence is so damn awful.  We feel perpetually observed and scrutinized.  For the person with autism it is even worse because of the clash between a deficiency in theory of mind and this:

“According to Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist known for his epistemological studies with children, every child experiences imaginary audience during the preoperational stage of development. He also stated that children will outgrow this stage by age 7, but as we know now this stage lasts much longer than that. Piaget also said imaginary audience happens because young children believe others see what they see, know what they know, hear what they hear, and feel what they feel.”

Piaget’s assessment that young children believe that others see, know, hear, and feel as they do is, in fact, the definition of a theory of mind deficiency.  This is the hallmark struggle of Asperger’s Syndrome.  If we were to recall then our own middle school experiences, we would see that one of our greatest social anxieties revolved around fear of being discovered.  “Everyone sees this.  Everyone notices this one thing that I hate about myself.  I look terrible today, and everyone sees.”  In this, we see the imaginary audience in addition to the belief that “everyone” is aware of what we are trying to mask.  Keeping in mind, every single person in our peer group is experiencing the same developmental phenomenon, it is no wonder that adolescence is a horrible experience.  It’s like squeezing hordes of porcupines into a shoebox and asking them not to prick each other.

What is the outcome?

 The extremes to which adolescents experience an imaginary audience, however, varies from child to child. Some children are considered to be more “egocentric” than others and experience more of an extreme imaginary audience or have more of an elaborate personal fable.[2] Therefore, children then subconsciously put more value on the idea that everyone cares about what they are doing at all times. This is very common in adolescents during this level of development as the child is going through Erik Erikson’s identity vs. identity confusion.[3][4]

The child is struggling to figure out their identity and formulating congruent values, beliefs, morals, political views, and religious views. So, on top of experiencing an identity moratorium in which they are exploring different identities, children feel they are constantly being watched or evaluated by those around them. This leads to intense pressure being placed on the child and may also influence later self-esteem.[2][5][3][4]

Comedian and former Saturday Night Live writer John Mulaney jokes about this here:

13-year-olds are the meanest people in the world. They terrify me to this day. If I’m on the street on like a Friday at 3 PM and I see a group of 8th graders on one side of the street, I will cross to the other side of the street. Because 8th graders will make fun of you, but in an accurate way.  They will get to the thing that you don’t like about you. They don’t even need to look at you for long, they’ll just be like, “Ha ha ha ha ha! Ha ha ha ha ha! Hey, look at that high-waisted man! He got feminine hips!”  And I’m like,  “No!! That’s the thing I’m sensitive about!!!!”

Doesn’t this feel absolutely true?! And, it feels true because of our past developmental experience with the imaginary audience and our own theory of mind.
The point here is that our experience in adolescence of our own imaginary audience does, in fact, affect our self-esteem later on in life.  So, those odd teenaged behaviors and rituals that we as parents and caregivers observe in our kids do matter.  We are observing an identity being birthed, and it is vital that we assist in that with empathy, kindness, and nurturing.
You might not value or even like how your child is attempting to mitigate the intense pressure of the imaginary audience, but it is worth asking how you can be a support and resource while they individuate and, ultimately, differentiate.  My goal as a parent is that their self-esteem is intact, strong, and well-founded along with their sense of identity so that they don’t fear 13 year-olds walking down a street one day when they’re 30 years-old.
Is this possible? Even with our children with special needs? I believe so.  It is hard.  As hard as you expect it to be, you find yourself wishing that it were that easy.  For me, however, I have found that no moment has been wasted in my efforts to prepare my kids for the life they have today or the life awaiting them–regardless of what that life will look like or what their present limitations are today.

 

 

Meeting George Costanza

Doireann turned 18 yesterday.  I am now the mother of an 18 year-old.  I am sharply inhaling over that.  Sweating even.  I went out to breakfast with a dear friend yesterday and felt a bit of panic over this, and she kindly said, “You aren’t old enough to have an 18 year-old.  You really aren’t.”  I felt better, and then I felt silly.  Yes, yes, it’s all about me, isn’t it?

Still.  18! She’s going to college in the fall! Where did the years go? I remember everything.  It feels like a rare privilege to be given a baby, doesn’t it? And then you get to love and prepare that baby for adulthood.  Doireann is an excellent human being.  I don’t say that because I’m her mother.  She really is a wonderful person.  I even enjoy the lesser developed parts of her character.  It’s why she is who she is, and I’m going to enjoy seeing how those parts are developed.  Frankly, she’ll probably fight it every step of the way, and I’ll hear about it.

When Doireann was young, she was very obnoxious and stubborn.  I’m not one of those mothers who believes that her children can do no wrong.  On the contrary, I know exactly what’s what.  Doireann loved to push buttons and boundaries.  There was, however, one thing she liked more than anything else.  She loved being right.  She was like a little tsar trapped in the body of a toddler.  She was vengeful, too, due to her above average intelligence.  She could plot and carry out plans.  There’s a reason three year-olds should not be able to read.

Suffice it to say, I realized that I could only parent her so much.  Life experience was going to have to offer her another sort of parenting.  This is what I prayed for since she learns empathy experientially.  Enter Thomas.

Thomas is Doireann’s nemesis, and he has been her nemesis since ninth grade.  Doireann loathes him.  I have heard tale upon tale of Thomas’ disgusting personality, ugly face, and sadistic disposition not to mention his misogyny and intellectual snobbishness.  After almost four years of listening to the storied Clash of The Titans Misadventures of Doireann and Thomas, I had a horrible mental image of what Thomas must look like.  Surely, this must be Thomas:

images

Scut Farkus Thomas

About two months ago while Doireann was ranting about Thomas once again, I remarked that it must be quite difficult to look at the embodiment of Scut Farkus of “A Christmas Story” every day.  Joking at the time, I noted that if Ralphie eventually beat Scut up, then how was she able to control herself? She stopped.  “What? No, Thomas doesn’t look anything like Scut Farkus.”

“You mean that he doesn’t have yellow eyes and pointy teeth? My gosh, I imagined that he looked something like the devil to be honest.”

“You wanna know what the most horrible human being on Earth looks like? Oh, I’ll show you!”

Well, yes, I wanted to know.  The most horrible human being on Earth? Please show me! She immediately found a photo of him and practically shoved her phone in my face.  “This.  This is Thomas!” she declared with evident hatred.

I was ready for something hideous.  Instead I saw this:

George-Costanza

George Costanza of “Seinfeld”

Thomas looks just like George Costanza.  I wish I were kidding, but I’m not.  He apparently has the personality to match.  I couldn’t control myself.  I covered my face and started laughing.  “Oh my gosh, he’s George Costanza! He’s a schlub! Your nemesis is a schlubby George Costanza which is a redundant statement, I know.”

“Who is George Costanza?!” she asked, confused.

How can I explain “Seinfeld” to my 18 year-old daughter? How can I sum up George Costanza? Well, from how she’s described Thomas, I’d say she’s spent the entirety of her high school career getting to know George Costanza by proxy, and I can’t help but laugh.  I loved “Seinfeld”, but I really hated George Costanza for all the reasons Doireann loathes Thomas.  On Monday night, I finally asked her why she still wanted to punch Thomas in the mouth so badly.  She said:

“He is so vile, Mom, because he thinks he knows everything, and he makes other people feel bad about themselves when they don’t know something.  And he just sits there looking smug all the time.  And his fat, stupid face just annoys me.  He thinks he’s better than everyone else just because he thinks he knows things.  Intellectual snobbishness is wrong, and getting off on being right at other people’s expense isn’t right either.  You have to admit when you’re wrong!”

I listened.  I nodded.  She looked down.  She sighed.  “I know that I used to be like that.  I struggle with that, too, but I’ve seen what it does to people.  It’s wrong.  People don’t learn when someone like that is in the room.  He hurts people, and I see that now.”

Thomas’ job is done.  He no longer serves a purpose.  She learned exactly what I could never teach her, and she will never have to see him again in a few months.  This is one of the primary reasons I am against helicopter parenting.  We, as parents, can’t teach our kids everything that they need to develop in order to become good human beings.  Some character traits are developed out there in the world through adversity, and some character traits are filed and buffed away through adversity.  Doireann needed Thomas.  Thomas may have learned something from knowing Doireann although he would never admit it. What I’ve learned in observing this over the past four years is that there may be people in my own life as well who I don’t like very much, but maybe they are present to teach me something, too.

It’s an interesting thought, isn’t it?

 

The Executive Decision

We are a very forgiving household.  This is why almost all my daughters’ friends spend their time here.  It’s also why most of them call me ‘Mom’.  I feel too young for that.  Or, I feel like someone’s mother-in-law.  “Hey Mom!”  It’s a weird feeling to have multiple teenagers call you ‘Mom’, but it’s a sign of affection and respect.  It’s also a sign that their own home lives are lacking in something.  They feel comfortable here.  One young woman comes here to sleep.  Her home environment is highly abusive.  One of her family members has tried to strangle her in her sleep numerous times.  She, therefore, doesn’t sleep well if at all at her house so she comes here from time to time just to sleep.  She slips out quietly in the morning.  I’ve called CPS twice about that situation to no avail.

Another girl comes here to be herself.  She is forced to care for her younger brother who by all accounts meets the criteria for having some sort of developmental disability.  Her parents work all day so she must be his caregiver.  She’s a senior in high school this year, and she’s getting out.  She comes here for a break.  Being a house full of girls, we usually get only girls coming here, but, on occasion, we do get a boy.  He is a transgender boy.  His parents hate him.  They “forget” to pick him up and neglect him.  They ignore him completely.  They gave him a Bible for Christmas.  That’s it.  He comes over to our house occasionally but largely keeps to himself.  He’s skittish and shy and understandably so.  He’s being emotionally abused by his family.

All this is to say that I see a lot of behaviors come and go.  I hear what many adults would deem “inappropriate talk”.  One identifies it and moves on.  Most kids who come here want to be better particularly the ones who call me ‘Mom’.  They want to be respectful.  They, however, may not know how to be because they haven’t been taught well, or they haven’t been given enough real opportunities.  No one has believed in their goodness enough to give them a second or even third chance.  Everyone fails.  Everyone needs to be given opportunities to try again.

There are kids who come here, however, who do not want to be better.  They do not really care.  They have learned to be exploitative to get their needs met, and they’ll display rather cruel behaviors in unexpected ways.  That happened last weekend.  Eadaoin needed help with a school project so she invited one of her newer school friends over to spend the night.  Her name was Lauren.  Lauren was initially quite friendly and extremely talkative.  She talked so much, in fact, that I couldn’t get a moment’s peace.  Wherever I went, there was Lauren.  Lauren in the evening.  Lauren in the morning.  Lauren in the afternoon.  Lauren did not pick up on social cues either, and Lauren spoke very openly about her alcoholic stepfather and his abuse as if it were normal: “You know how adults are.  They drink when they’re stressed.”  She then went on to recount how she, her siblings, and her mother had to leave one night to get away from him.  I just nodded my head and listened.  There were other stories she told about her friends that raised red flags.  To her, it was all fine.  Good.  She was perfect.  Her life was great.

Grace’s friend, her former BFF, came over as well.  That friendship has been evolving as middle school friendships do.  She has been less than kind to Grace during the last year and a half displaying relational aggression.  We’ve been unsure how to handle it.  Does Grace end the friendship? Should she talk to her sometimes? Wanting to believe the best about her, she didn’t want to simply write her off.  These are important decisions for young people.

Grace came to me on Monday morning crying.  She told me that Lauren and her former BFF had called her ‘stupid’.  She had been trying to keep up with them in a board game, but she could not.  This is a reality for many young adults with schizophrenia spectrum disorders and for people taking certain drugs.  There is cognitive slowing.  It can’t be helped.  When she wasn’t able to process the game as fast as they thought she should, Lauren laughed at her and said, “You are so stupid.”  Her BFF laughed at her, too, and said, “Yeah, you are so stupid!”  They then went on to laugh at her together.  It didn’t end there.  Someone began teasing her for not being as physically developed as other girls.  “So, when are you gonna get your boobs?!”  And, that’s when the pointing and laughing really started.

As a mother, I felt something rise up in me that might be called rage.  As a woman who has watched other girls victimize girls in this way, I wanted to punch a hole in my wall.  As a host, I wanted to take these girls and shout at them, “How dare you treat my daughter like that in MY house!”  I did neither of these things.  I had to sit there and collect myself.  I had to take deep breaths.  I wanted to cry on her behalf.  Her face! She just stood there full of shame, tears collecting in her eyes.

At what point do we say, “No more.  That person can no longer come here”? I had to ask myself that question.  I may be called ‘Mom’ by a lot of these kids, but I am not their mother.  I had to remember that.  I am, however, Grace’s mother, and she is vulnerable.  So, I made an executive decision.  “Grace, BFF can’t come here anymore.  She is displaying a pattern of cruelty when she comes here.  I’ve talked to her about it more than once, and she won’t stop.  You cry when she leaves.”  I talked to Eadaoin about Lauren.  She might be a perfectly appropriate “school friend”, but she is not going to be a good choice for bringing home.  She lacks compassion and empathy.  I am truly sorry that she is enduring abuse at home.  That is probably why she has learned to normalize abuse and why she is repeating those behaviors.  She is merely doing what has been done to her.

These red flags, however, must be observed, and we have to follow our instincts.  This is how we learn to make good choices in our relationships.  If I don’t want to raise my daughters to tolerate abuse in their relationships, then I have to make the tough decisions about who will and will not come here.  They have to know that they are worth something.  They are worth more than something.  Do they want to hang out with people who think it’s funny to bully and call vulnerable people names? Do they want to be with girls who engage in relational aggression? This is how we develop a conscience in our children.  We point out these behaviors and ask them what they think.  In the end, Grace cried out of relief.  She had not wanted BFF to come to our home anymore.  She simply didn’t know what to do about it.  She was glad that I made the executive decision for her.  Eadaoin understood, too.  She said that she didn’t realize that Lauren would behave so badly, and she apologized to Grace.

It was a very fine line for me to walk.  I remember being 16.  I tied my identity to my choice of friends.  If my mom didn’t like my friends, then she didn’t like me.  I had to be so careful in how I talked about Lauren to Eadaoin.  I wanted her to know that she could still make good decisions.  I still believed in her, and I didn’t view Lauren as ‘all bad’.

I keep waiting for life to get easier, but I think that’s magical thinking.  I think we just need to increase our stamina.  Life is the ultimate marathon.  People praise and admire those who finish the IRONMAN triathlon or the Leadville 100.  I think finishing life well should not go unnoticed.  It is the greatest test of character, will, and endurance.  Feel good about yourself today.  You showed up for your life.  I guess now it’s a matter of how we show up, isn’t it?

 

The Gift of The C-Word

I can be slightly naïve at times.  Well, not naïve.  Optimistic perhaps.  I tend to believe the best about people and circumstances, and, when people behave like absolute asshats, I’m almost always surprised.  It’s as if I did, in fact, just fall off that turnip truck because I was indeed born yesterday; and, there I am lying helpless in the road wondering how I got there.  Oh, right, I was shoved.

I am being tongue-in-cheek because it’s fun.  The very minor incident to which I am not so subtly alluding was annoying but, at the same time, surprising to me.

An anonymous person posted a comment to my blog a few days ago.  He wrote:

You are a cunt!

Classy, right?

Yes, yes, this is a troll, and there is one mantra that we should all follow when it comes to trolls:

Do not feed the trolls!

Trolls know how to take the piss, don’t they? Calling a woman a bitch isn’t so bad.  How many women have been called that and worse for ignoring the clumsy gropes of some drunk guy at a bar? I have.  My girlfriends have.  Accidentally cut someone off in traffic and some angry person will yell, “Bitch!” Women are finally beginning to reclaim that word in order to rob it of its power.  The C-word, on the other hand, feels altogether different, doesn’t it?

Why?

Well, Tina Fey tackled this issue on 30 Rock in the “C-Word” episode when her character Liz Lemon overheard Lutz, one of her writers, call her the dreaded C-word behind her back.  Her response? She wanted to fire him.  Yep.  That’s how most women I know feel about being called the C-word.  We have a visceral response to it, and if we could fire the person who spoke that word over us, then we just might.  Liz Lemon ran to her producer and shouted, “We need to fire Lutz! Fire him!” When she explained her reasons, both Pete, her producer, and Frank, one of the writers, grimaced.  They, too, know of the C-word’s power.  And, why does this word hold so much power? What was the conclusion? It is so powerful because there is nothing that a woman can call a man that is as degrading.  As misogynistic and, well, defiling as the C-word is to women, there is no linguistic match for a man.

My husband and I sat around one night and tried to come up with an equivalent if you can believe that.  We came up with one, but it lacks the punch that the C-word packs.  I think that Tina Fey is right.  This is why trolls love this word so much.  This is why people aiming to shock and hurt women love to use this word.  It degrades and defiles in a way that few other words do.  There are erotica authors who have decided that it’s time to reclaim this word, I’m concluding, to rob it of its powerful punch to the female gut.  They freely use it in their writing.  It’s a jarring read to be sure, but it’s interesting to watch the linguistic evolution of this word.  Where might this word be in another generation? Will it feel as truly disgusting as it does now? Will I want to plug my ears and cry, “Lalalalalala!” when I hear it in 25 years?

Why write a post about the C-word? Firstly, to be frank, it pisses me off that there are people out there who find trolling entertaining.  It’s a complete waste of time, and it can hurt very vulnerable people.  Secondly, I have four daughters, and I’m a woman.  This sort of behavior is not acceptable no matter its form.  I blackholed that comment, but how does one feel empowered after reading something like that? It’s insidious.  That’s why trolling is potent.  Words are infinitely powerful.  The written word, when aimed directly at a person, can carry the weight of an anvil, and that is the take away.  Words can be weapons, or they can be shields.  They can edify and build a person up higher than the highest skyscraper.  They can also destroy a life.  We get to choose.  Isn’t that incredible? How many things in life do you actually get to choose freely?

You always get to choose your words.

That is a brilliant thought.  Many of us are caregivers to very vulnerable people.  We know just how weighty each word that we speak is because we have seen just how destructive other people’s words have been.  I am going to try to pay more attention to my words this year.  That is the gift of the dreaded C-word.  It’s potency inversely teaches us just how powerfully good we could be when we choose the better words instead.

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Incidentally, the brilliant comic The Oatmeal has attempted to rob the awful C-word of its “terribleness” in his wonderfully irreverent and funny comic The Terrible C-Word.  For a good laugh, you simply must read it!

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The Oatmeal’s The Terrible C-Word

 

 

Whole-Assing It

I think it’s a good thing to remember what it’s like to be young.  I have vivid memories of middle school and high school.  I even remember Ms. Mercado, my fourth grade teacher, who never let anyone go to the bathroom even if they really had to go.  Consequently, Tyson Landry peed himself in the cafeteria.  I remember turning 18 at the beginning of my senior year of high school.  I was a legal adult! I could vote on who would become the next leader of the free world, but I still couldn’t go to the bathroom without a pass.

I also remember feeling out of place, insecure, and like I was under a captive audience.  That “feeling” that permeates our adolescent years is called the imaginary audience.  When Eadaoin and I were taking the DBT skills class together last summer, the group leaders discussed it.  Apparently, this is a developmental stage in adolescence, and everyone experiences it.  It’s what makes everything seem so much bigger and so much worse.  Those bad hair days are really bad because the brain somehow believes that it’s being watched and even judged by the entire world.  Every detail of every item of clothing is being looked upon.  Every tiny imperfection is magnified and picked apart.  That’s the perception.  This is the reality for adolescents without any DSM diagnoses.  Imagine what the invisible audience might be like for someone with an anxiety diagnosis or a mood disorder.  I think their audience might be full of hecklers and rotten tomato throwers.  What about shy people? Do people carry their imaginary audience into young adulthood? I did although it got better.

I spent most of my 20’s feeling exactly as I did in my teens–anxious and judged.  I spent my 30’s dismantling…everything, and now I don’t really care.  The adolescent experience, however, isn’t the 40 something experience.  As a parent, I must remember what it was like when I was 14 or 16 if I am to make a connection with my daughters even though they are wearing me out.

I think Eadaoin and Grace have crafted a plan to exhaust me before Hanukkah.  I’m not sure to what end but the means are clear.  Eadaoin’s school counselor phoned me yesterday morning.  She had her “I need to handle the parent” voice on.  Oh boy.

“Hi, this is Ms. Payne, Eadaoin’s school counselor.  I’ve got Eadaoin in here with me.  I think we need to talk together so I’m going to put you on speaker, okay?”

I rolled my eyes.  I know, I know.

“One of Eadaoin’s friends was concerned about her which is why she’s in here today.”

Oh boy! One of her friends was concerned? What is Eadaoin up to?

“It seems that Eadaoin is cutting.  Now, before you get upset I just need you to understand that cutting is not a suicide attempt.  So, let me tell you what cutting is…”

Stop.  Hold it.  I know what cutting is.  Eadaoin knows that I know that she cuts.  Eadaoin usually gives me her X-Acto knife when she starts cutting, or, at the very least, she tells me that she’s doing it.  I grew up with a mother who cut often.  It’s not something that causes me to run around flailing my arms in the air.  People generally cut for emotional pain relief and the subsequent endorphin release.  Our pain receptors and emotional pain receptors run on the same neural pathways in the brain.  This is why cutting makes sense as a coping strategy.  It’s highly maladaptive, but it is a strategy nonetheless.

I interrupted Ms. Payne, “I know that Eadaoin cuts.  I know the reasons behind cutting.  Eadaoin has been cutting for over a year.  This isn’t new to me.  Is this why she’s in your office?”

“Oh, well, okay.  No, there is another reason.  Apparently, she has been, on occasion, making herself throw up after she has eaten.”

And, there it is.  My empathetic parent wanted to get up and leave the house.  I felt done.  No more.  My inner well of patience felt dried up.  I needed to start digging.  I did not know what to say.  I could hear Ms. Payne say, “I would say that this is disordered eating.  It’s early.”

My next question was, “Does your therapist know, Eadaoin? Have you told Jessie?”

I knew exactly what she looked like when I heard her quiet response, “No…”

“Why?”

Ms. Payne answered for her, “She was afraid of telling you.  She thought that if her therapist knew that you would find out.”

“Why?”

“What have I ever done that would provoke fear?”

“Nothing.  I don’t know why I’m scared.”

Doireann has always said that everyone is afraid of disappointing me.  No one cares if they disappoint their dad, but it suddenly becomes real if I know.  From my perspective, I just want to know the truth so that I can connect them to the right resources.  They are afraid that I’ll be disappointed.  Truthfully, I was pissed.  I was angry because we’ve given Eadaoin every therapeutic opportunity possible short of an inpatient setting, and she half-asses her way through all of it.  I’ve got to agree with Ron Swanson on this one:

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I really want Eadaoin to whole-ass therapy.  So, I asked her directly, “Eadaoin, do you want the inpatient experience? Are you trying to ask for that by increasing your target behaviors? It’s not enjoyable.  Grace can fill you in on that.”

She was quick to deny it.  No! She didn’t want that at all!

“Then, what is going on?”

Little was resolved on the phone what with Ms. Payne trying to be the counselor.  It wasn’t a long call.  She commented on what a short call it was.  Well, we’re not novices at this point.  Eadaoin may appear to be the mental health ingénue, but she’s far from it.  When I finally was able to speak to her in person, she admitted that cutting had become a habit.  She did it when she was stressed.  She also said that she wasn’t quite sure why she was making herself throw up.  She didn’t understand her own motivation.

It’s complicated.  I know that this isn’t necessarily uncommon for 16 year-olds with developing mood disorders.  I also know that it’s also common for teens to think that the rules don’t apply to them.  Somehow they are the first person in the world who doesn’t need to try in therapy.  Sure, their therapist has a PhD, but they know better.  They know more than their doctors.  I saw this in our DBT skills group–adolescent hubris.  No one wanted to look like they actually cared.  I recall feeling the same way as a teenager.

To be honest, Grace is easier to manage than Eadaoin because Grace knows that she needs help.  Grace seeks it out.  Eadaoin, on the other hand, isn’t attached to reality.  She seems to think that cutting and purging are all signs of mental stability and appropriate stress management tools.

Right.  And I want world peace and a self-warming toilet seat.

And a unicorn.