The Heart is a Leaky Boat

The old adage of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is a lie.  It’s one of those things that people tell you in the midst of suffering in the hopes that it propels you to the other side.  Pain and suffering leave lasting changes, many of them negative.  The ‘strength’ that people point to is perhaps more aptly labelled perseverance.  But trauma also leaves you with weaknesses in your armour; cracks and soft spots that are prone to rupture at the slightest prodding.

I discovered early on as a child that emotion was weakness.  The in-home daycare we were sent to before and after school was run by a mostly cold (and occasionally cruel) woman with four children, each of whom directed their anger at us, in varying degrees of cruelty.  I very quickly learned that the most effective way to diminish their interest in torture was to control my reaction.  No tears or crying out.  No flinching.  And above all, no telling.  My younger brother was not as adept at this and they quickly turned most of their attention to him.  I felt helpless to do anything.  Daycare wasn’t something we could escape — my mother was a single parent — and for all I knew, all homes would be like this.  Or worse.  So I just… persevered.  And I survived.

When I had my first brush with death in my early 20s, after complications from my first surgery for ulcerative colitis, I had to endure many painful procedures and what felt like insurmountable pain from the complications themselves (a twisted bowel).  I was certainly not new to pain — I had suffered from colitis for many years at this point — but the surgery was supposed to be the ‘cure’.  It seemed like I’d never see the other side of it.  But I did.  I got better.

But that’s when the tears started.

It’s not like I had never cried before.  I cried when I was sad, or in stressful situations.  But for the most part I was able to control it.  Now I cried involuntarily during movies and sad commercials.

Not so strange.  Still within the parameters of normal behaviour.

If that had been it; if that had been the extent of my physical and emotional challenges, then perhaps I would have been merely scarred.  A mildly wounded bird capable of flight, but walking with a slight limp.  But then came the arthritis.  And diabetes.  And then in 2008, a perfect storm of physical and emotional trauma:  Crohn’s disease, a failed relationship and a manic episode (precipitated by a medicine my doctor prescribed for anxiety) which involved me spending large sums of money to renovate my house all by myself, little to no sleep for weeks and forgetting to pay my bills for months.  Well, ‘forgetting’ isn’t quite the right word.  I just thought I didn’t have to.  And if that sounds irrational to you, it sounds that way to me too.  Now.

The crash from that episode was spectacular.  I had to be put on sleeping pills, antipsychotics and lithium (on top of very heavy painkillers).  I went from being an explosion of emotion to being largely sedated.  I slept.  I ate.  And I hated it.  The pills that were supposed to ‘level me out’ didn’t stop me from feeling the emotions.  They were all still there in my head — I just couldn’t express them.  I was corked.

After about a year of that I slowly weaned myself off the pills.  I could finally feel again.  But the crying was back.

And now I cried when I was happy too.

leakyboatI’m not stronger.  I just have knowledge.  Knowledge that when a new illness or emotional time bomb hits me that I have the ability to persevere.  There isn’t strength with this knowledge.  In fact, if anything it makes me feel more vulnerable.  To know that it’s not over means I have to get to the other side.  Getting to the other side means I have to submit to the suffering.  And there are times I really don’t want to.  When you know something won’t kill you, you have to make peace with the fact that it’s your new reality.  That’s a fairly devastating realization.

Rather than make me stronger, my history of survival makes each new challenge harder.  My ability to cope decreases each time.  Each time it takes me longer to rebound.

And now it’s not just the big stuff.  I overreact to the little things.  Even when those things aren’t happening to me.  I cry.  I cry for everyone and everything.

Trauma leaves you vulnerable.  It teaches you to guard yourself and put up walls to protect yourself from future trauma.  But it sneaks up on you.  You become a sailor in a boat on treacherous seas, hyper-alert and on the lookout for pirates, but forever find yourself running back and forth in your little boat, bailing water from cracks that keep forming in the bottom that you can’t fix.

It’s just a matter of time to see whether it’s pirates that will kill you, or you’ll just sink and drown.



Please Don’t Tell Me I’m a Good Parent

I’m not a very good parent.

It’s not that I don’t want to be or that I don’t think it’s worth it, or even that I don’t love my kid enough.  It’s not that I don’t know how or that it’s something a parenting class could fix.  I have the tools.  I’m fairly confident I even have the know-how.  But mostly, I fall short.

I could say I had no way of knowing back when I decided to have a child, the physical and mental toll that illness would have on my body and mind.  But I already had two chronic autoimmune diseases at the time (although one was in remission), and even if it hadn’t been diagnosed at that point, I knew something wasn’t right about my rapidly cycling moods and my body’s reaction to stress.

But I pushed on.  And for the first year, I was great at it.  I suspect now that the sleeplessness probably induced hypomania, because I was better at it and more committed to anyone or  anything than I have ever been in my life.  The same person who would over-sleep her alarm or start things and then impulsively quit them suddenly became this wonder-woman who jumped awake at the sound of her baby’s cry and made baby food from scratch.  The laundry was always done and folded and my house was spotless.  Some of this I-can-do-everything mentality was by necessity, since I had a husband at the time whose response to having a baby was to spend less and less time at home and more and more time out getting drunk at the strip club (but I digress… although word to the wise – if someone has to learn to live without you, they usually will realize they can).

But like any manic phase, I couldn’t keep that up forever.  But still I soldiered on.  I got divorced; which didn’t make a huge difference (except financially) and actually decreased a lot of stress.  But my baby wasn’t a baby anymore – he was a toddler.  An autistic toddler.  Who required so much micro-management.  I didn’t even mind – I was good at micro-management.  I was calm under pressure.  But I was also tired.  I had always suffered from fatigue as a child, but I’d learned as an adult to ride it out because it would often be followed by a period of high energy.  Then I’d run around getting things done and catch up.  Which was easy enough to accommodate before I became a parent, but not so easy after.  Stuff couldn’t wait.  Stuff had to get done.

But even still, I managed to achieve some balance, thanks to my mother’s help (she has always been pretty good at sensing when I need a break) and my son entering school.

motheronBack then, when people said “you’re a good mother,” I’d say “I try,” and take it in stride.  I didn’t swell with pride – I was simply pragmatic about it.  I felt I was doing what I needed to be doing and for the most part I was succeeding.

Dial ahead 10 years through several abusive relationships, 8 moves, a bipolar diagnosis, cancer, 4 autoimmune diseases and various other chronic conditions, and I am spent.  I could call it ‘not enough spoons,’ but when it comes down to it, I’m no longer emotionally or physically equipped to be a good parent.  And I’m not sure I ever was.*  On most days I settle for good enough.

I still try.  That’s still true.  It just seems like a paltry effort.  So much of my day now is consumed by exhaustion and pain.  When I’m able, I listen.  I talk to him (with mixed results – listening is not a strength of a teenager with Asperger’s).  I make sure he doesn’t starve.  I sporadically check his homework.  I go to all his school performances, but only make it to about 30% of parent-teacher meetings.

Now when someone says “you’re a good parent,” I wince.  It feels patronizing now.  It tends to come from people who learn about my personal challenges or my son’s personal challenges, and it’s offered in sympathy.  I know it is offered as reassurance that I am doing the best that I can.  I know it is meant to be kind.  But it doesn’t feel kind.  It feels like a lie.  Like they’re telling me what they think I need to hear to keep going.

In spite of my failures as a parent, I have a good kid.  He is a decent human being who I not only love, but really like a lot.  There are things about him that are so like me, and things that are so different from me and so uniquely him.  Some of him I lay claim to.  I think I’ve instilled a lot of important things in his character and I’ve tried desperately to help him, heal him, and guide him emotionally in any of the ways that I am able.  All I have ever wanted him to be when he grows up is to be kind and to care about other people.

I made a good kid.  That’s what I’ve done.

And that fact makes me so grateful every day.  That I made this kid and he’s good in spite of me and my inadequacies is a truth I can accept without flinching.  So tell me that.  When you see me dragging my ass, overwhelmed and spent, and you want to offer words of reassurance, say to me instead:



* This is a really shitty thing to feel and an even shittier thing to admit, but the reality is that while most of us ask ourselves whether we want a child, we don’t tend to question ourselves as to whether we should.  I don’t regret my decision.  But there are days it feels like it was a very selfish thing for me to have done.  Unfortunately insight tends to be retroactive.