a difficult session

I had a rough meeting with my therapist yesterday. I appreciated that rather than the inane “how are you doing?”, she started by asking “how have the last few weeks been for you?” I started saying the first words that came to mind: “Turbulent. Draining. Stressful.” I could have added “painful”, but I moved on instead.

I talked disjointedly about recent events, and how I didn’t want to talk about things because I’m tired of thinking about them; somehow this led to the idea that maybe I’m overstating all of my issues. Maybe life wasn’t as bad as I have imagined it to be, or maybe I’ve exaggerated and magnified everything to the point where I’ve created my own distorted thought patterns. I told her about my desire to interview and interrogate people from my past who might know the answers I seek: what did I do to hurt you, was I really a terrible person, was my home life as damaging as I think. I want the unvarnished truth from everyone to confirm the worst things I think about myself and everything I remember about my past.

She said there are several problems with that line of reasoning. First, everyone’s “truth” is different based on their perception, their biases, and their memory of what really happened. In addition, even if they had the information I seek, these people may not want to be 100% honest with me (who among us is completely honest, after all?). Finally, if they told me I wasn’t a bad person, or that they liked me and I was a positive presence in their life, I am so deeply programmed in my thought patterns that I wouldn’t believe what they say. I would throw away their evidence because it didn’t fit my narrative. The only conclusion I can make is that things must have been bad enough at an early age that my sense of self was badly damaged, which caused me to remember my entire experience through the filter of distorted thinking. I think the way I do because I was in a bad situation, and my memories of my life may not be entirely accurate.

We went on to discuss the difficulties with my daughter’s current situation and the negative effects on the entire family. I told her about how I went unfiltered for a few minutes and said things which I believe to be true, but were very hurtful for my daughter, which my wife sat by and didn’t say a word during or afterward. That pretty much sums up the family dynamic in our house for the past several years: Nicole is the victim, I’m the control-freak bad guy, and Annie won’t tell me what she thinks. Instead we paper over things with conversations about unimportant things, and distract ourselves with fish or Fakebook or videos of cats. We can discuss the most inane things, but meaningful things get ignored. Annie won’t tell me what she’s really thinking, whether she agrees with me or if she thinks I’m full of crap. Right now we can’t even sell an item on Fakebook because I think she disagrees with me and just can’t say so.

Sometimes I wonder if I have misled my therapist into thinking the current situation is worse than it really is. Her opinions about my family’s actions and words are filtered through what I choose to tell her, and this leads me to question some of her statements. She wants a more complete picture though, and she has asked a couple of times if I might bring Annie in for a session or two to talk about the situation. I scoffed a little, because I don’t think that would be successful at all.

Stay tuned, for I fear worse times are ahead.

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don’t wake the campers

We are on vacation this week at a campground about an hour from home, avoiding insects and raindrops, burning marshmallows, and trying to relax. Relaxation is not easy for three people with anxiety issues, but we’ll do our best.

This annual campout started out years ago as a fun thing to do with my wife’s daycare families. After she quit doing daycare, it became more of an extended friends and family event. More people have stopped coming, and this year even my wife’s parents stayed home. So it is just the three of us in a large, private group campsite, with lots of equipment, lots of food, and much less activity than in the past.

We may get a few visitors during the week, but it’s a lot less fun without more people. We could have expended much less effort by buying a fire ring and sitting at home to make smores, while getting to sleep in our own bed.

52 pickup

I used to play a card game with a kid I knew, and I called it 52 Pickup. I told him there were 52 cards in a standard deck of playing cards, then I asked him to hand me his deck of cards. I took the cards in one hand and bent them slightly backwards in my fingers as if I were preparing to shuffle. I then released the tension in my fingers, and the cards sprung out of my hand at him, landing all over the ground. I walked away, saying “now you get to pick them up.” The funny part is that he fell for the joke more than once.

–o–

Getting older means having a new perspective on things you once took for granted: your health, your brainpower, your balance. I have become unnaturally afraid of falling down and breaking bones. I had a fractured hip due to a car crash when I was 26, and I’m afraid it will break again someday. I actually think about falling every time I go down a flight of stairs. Maybe sometime soon I’ll start carrying the Life Alert thing with me (“I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up!”) I’m somewhat joking, but it’s not very funny when older people fall outside and die of hypothermia because no one was there to help them.

When you’re young, you think that you will live for a very long time, because old people are so damn old. But as the years roll by, you realize you are closer to “old” than you are to “young”, and time is a one-way ticket on a bus to the future. People who talk about time travel always want to go back and be young and do things differently; no one wants to fast-forward to their old age. Middle-aged people don’t usually dream of skipping parts of their life and getting to the end any faster than necessary.

–o–

On my last birthday, I told my wife that if I fall down she might have to play 52 Pickup, except this time it would be picking up my 52-year-old ass off the floor. The funny part is that I had to show her what the original 52 Pickup was like, except she refused to pick up the cards. I guess the joke was on me this time.

change of scenery

Vacation is like deodorant; it can cover up things that stink, but when you reach the end of the stick things start to stink again.

We really needed a vacation, and for a few days it was in doubt whether we would get to go at all due to Nicole’s mental health, but she improved to the point that we could realistically leave home for a week. She flew with my wife to North Carolina because she gets too anxious to be in the car for more than a few minutes. I drove the 10-hour trip with all our stuff and picked them up at the airport.

We spent a lot of the time sitting at the beach house, watching the endless waves, feeling the breeze, and doing very little. I checked work emails a couple of times, and I worried about the cats and the house, but otherwise our problems were left behind for a much needed break. The sound of the surf made me feel more calm and relaxed than I had for quite a while, and I could feel the stress melting away.

Oh well, at least we had a few days of relaxation before the next crisis appeared. Nicole caught an uncommon fungal skin virus from somewhere, and it took over the rest of our vacation. After a visit to an NC doctor and another doctor after returning home, hopefully the treatment will kill the fungus.

So we’re back at home now. The cats were fine and happy to see us, and I had to mow twice because the grass was several inches too tall, but nothing bad happened while we were away.

We’ll see what happens with everything that was going on before the trip. Will Nicole’s mental health improve or go backwards? Will my wife choose to see someone about anxiety, or just talk about it because she’s too stubborn to take meds? Will we need to replace our septic system at considerable expense? Will I walk away from my job? How long will it be before I say “fuck it all” and go on my own vacation?

Strangely for me, I didn’t spend a lot of time overthinking about everything during the drive to NC and back. I think I concentrated more on the act of driving, in part due to the rain and the traffic delays. I had lots of music, which always helps me stop thinking. Yes, I sing in the car, but very poorly and an octave lower; I also drum on the steering wheel. One time I lost a drumstick out of the car window, so I had to listen to Def Leppard. (I know, that’s bad.)

shine sweet freedom

My wife is finally out of lockdown. She still feels a little fatigued and weak, but that may be from sitting or laying down for 10 days. Two of the cats seemed indifferent to her return to the living room, but the blind one crawled on her lap very soon after she sat down.

I made a rough mp3 file of different cuts from songs in my collection which have something to do with being free (although I missed a couple of songs, but oh well). I called it the “Freedom Medley”; tell me what you would think if you heard this after being in isolation for 10 days. When she came out of the bedroom this morning, I greeted her by playing it on my phone. She liked it.

have yourself a merry covid christmas

My wife still has symptoms, but is feeling a little better than earlier in the week. She has the bedroom, bathroom, and the craft room to herself, but the rest of the house is off limits. Today is Day 6 of her isolation, and she is going stir crazy. She has a hard time sitting still and not working on something (just like her dad). The strategy is working though; neither Nicole or I seem to be getting sick. I suppose I could be asymptomatic and not know it, but I don’t think so. Either way, we are both getting tested, but we couldn’t get tests until Tuesday the 28th (which would be day 10 of isolation for Annie).

Since Uncle Covid came for Christmas, we obviously had to cancel dinner with our son and Annie’s parents. I’m still going to make dinner for the three of us, with a turkey and only a couple of sides. We are planning a video call with Dan, and maybe the in-laws (if they can figure it out). I don’t know if we are doing presents tomorrow or waiting. Annie is going to sanitize and wrap presents, so maybe Nicole will get her presents on time. I don’t really care, I’ve kinda lost the spirit of the whole thing. I just want Annie to rejoin us.

We are very aware that our current situation is fortunate in comparison to those who are in the hospital either fighting the illness or dying from it. There are people losing loved ones today, and tomorrow, and every other day. There are exhausted and shell-shocked health care workers who keep coming to work because they’ve dedicated themselves to helping sick people. I admit that as inconvenient as this week has been, it could be so much worse.

I hope your Christmases are safe, warm, and well-medicated.

scrooged by covid

I had just written a post about how I used to love Christmas, then I hated it, then I loved it again, and now we have a mutual understanding, and how my wife loves Christmas much more than I do.

Then came an unfortunate plot twist.

Christmas is canceled due to Covid. My wife caught it from someone who came to her work while sick. We are all vaccinated btw. Now she is quarantined in our bedroom for another week at least, and I’m sleeping on the couch. Needless to say, this puts a damper on the holiday spirit. I’m sure she’ll be okay, but she has felt pretty poor yesterday and today. She’s pretty healthy, so I’m not too worried about her recovery, but I’m a little concerned if I or my daughter gets infected. We both have multiple risk factors. No symptoms yet, and we’re being careful, and I got a booster a month ago, but it could still happen.

Kind thoughts, please.

saving christmas

Everyone seems more sentimental or reflective during the holidays. Many people have warm, fuzzy memories of Christmases full of snow and fun and family time. Of course too many people have bad memories, or just sadness; maybe that just proves that most families are more messed up than people want to admit. I’ve always thought it is strange to put such an emphasis on family and giving and feasting during this time, when the rest of the year should be equally important.

I’ve always had mixed emotions during this season. When I was little, my Christmases seemed pretty good. I got lots of presents, not knowing or caring at the time how much of a financial strain it was for A-Mom. As I got older and realized how much she sacrificed to save up the money to buy me things, it became a lot less fun. That, and the Old Bitch screaming insults and telling us how everything we did was shit, and dodging the 20-year-old stacks of newspapers that couldn’t be moved or thrown away.

The biggest thing missing for me was the fact I had no brothers or sisters, aunts and uncles and cousins, and especially a father to share Christmas with. All we had was our dysfunctional fighting unit: me, A-Mom, and the Old Bitch (no one wanted her, especially her family). Later on when “the foster kid” lived with us, it brought jealousy and competition to the holiday. I wanted to have a house filled with warmth and love and lots of family, not bitterness and hate and anxiety.

My best friend saved Christmas for me when I was 16. Lisa invited me to come over to her house on Christmas Eve, and A-Mom let me go (because she liked Lisa too). It was like something out of a dream for me: a warm fire, lots of family in the house, music, games, happiness, love, no anger or yelling or fighting. They made me feel like part of their family for the evening.

I was almost overwhelmed, and a little emotional. Lisa took me to her room to talk about it, and I tried to explain how it was just what I had wanted for so long, and it all seemed so perfect. “Perfect,” she laughed, “you think this is perfect?” She told me both grandparents and her mom were already drunk off their ass as usual, her dad had broken something in anger in the garage, and her brother was pissed off at dad and spending the night at someone else’s house. I didn’t care, I said, and it was true.

[recycled from 2011, but refreshed and edited for your pleasure]

doors and rubber rooms

What’s the old saying? When one door closes, it hits you in the ass, then you’re stuck in a dark room and you’ve misplaced the key? That’s how my life feels now.

I didn’t get the job I was hoping for, but I’m not really too shattered about it. My hopes were tempered significantly a few days ago based on a conversation I had at the office with a former coworker. He told me some behind-the-scenes info which made it pretty clear the hiring manager was looking for someone from the field to fill the job. At least I know for sure now, and I can stop thinking about it.

But then another door opens. A new job posting appeared on the job board, one which I am definitely qualified for. I’m not sure if I actually want the job, but I am looking for a change; I can’t continue with what I’m doing for another 15 years. There would be a modest pay increase and more responsibility. It might be another bang-your-head-on-the-wall type of job, but it would be a different and more lucrative wall than the one I am banging on now. Maybe it will have padding. Maybe I belong in a rubber room without doors. That remains to be seen.

Speaking of mental health, we finally have a psychiatrist appointment for my daughter. Now I just have to get her out of bed and get her to the office for the appointment. She understands now that she is totally empty on meds and I can’t give her any more of mine. I’ve cut back a little on my lamictal for two weeks now to be able to give her enough to wean her slowly off the drug rather than have nasty withdrawal symptoms. I’m feeling a little funny, nothing serious, but I need my full dosage again, and she gets it now.

Everyone needs things from me. Fuck I get tired of doing things for other people all the time. I don’t mind helping people, but the steady stream is wearing me down at work and at home. I took my little vacation in May all for myself, and it was wonderful. Unfortunately I can’t do another getaway right now. Instead, I eat my feelings.

I need to remind myself of things I am thankful for and be grateful for what I have. Maybe my attitude will be a little better if I can do that. The bipolar depression doesn’t help in this regard, but it’s something I can work toward.

Finally: I have a therapy appointment looming, and he wants to work through a mindfulness exercise with me. I’m still skeptical, but we’ll see how it goes. Update to follow.

father time

It’s time for my annual episode of mixed feelings about Father’s Day.

When my son was born on Fathers Day, I had this feeling that life would never be the same, and it has been true. It seems cliché to say, but when I sat in the hospital room, holding my son while watching a baseball game, I had a feeling of unconditional love which I had never known before that day. I had similar feelings when my daughter was born, but at that time it was mixed with relief and thankfulness that I had survived a bad car accident to reach that point in life.

I have never thought I was a great parent, mostly because my bipolar disorder caused me to ruminate about mistakes, elevated my anger and emotional instability, and caused me to be mentally absent for long periods of time. Looking back though, I realize I did the best I could, that all parents make mistakes, and that the kids don’t hate me. The conversation at Thanksgiving made me feel so much better about myself, and I don’t think the kids realize it.

The negative emotions surrounding the day stem from the fact I have never had a father. I didn’t have that influence on my life, someone to play ball with, someone I could pattern myself after or enjoy being his son. Because I was adopted by a single woman who never got married, I saw poor examples shown by imperfect people with problems of their own, and I didn’t really understand how there is no such thing as the perfect dad. I knew I didn’t want to emulate those men, but I didn’t have a healthy idea of who I could emulate.

When I found my birth father’s family in 2019, I was a little bit sad to learn he had died several years previously. I also found out I have three half-brothers, but they got to spend time with my father. I wish I had been able to meet him, because he sounds like a good guy at heart, but part of me would always remember that he left me behind. I’m not good with new relationships anyway, as evidenced by how much difficulty I have had maintaining a relationship with my birth mother.

Enough rambling. If you are doing something nice for your father, maybe let him know if he was a good parent. That would make a great present.

lack of compassion

I was telling my therapist last week how I have no self-esteem and a very poor sense of self-worth. I define my worth by what others see in me, and I project my negative thoughts onto them. I assume they see the worst in me, and my inner critic reinforces those mistaken assumptions.

My inner critic has voices; sometimes it is my own voice, sometimes it is the voice of peers or strangers from my past, but most often it is the voice of my abusers who told me repeatedly how little value I have and how ashamed I should be. Several years ago I wrote that my anger had lost its hold over me, but that is not true for the voices of the past.

The therapist asked me if I could be more compassionate toward myself, and I told him truthfully that I have no idea how to do that. I don’t know how to give myself a pass for being an imperfect, fallible human without thinking of myself as defective and broken. What about others, he said; for example, how would I comfort my wife if she were feeling bad and was hurting emotionally? I told him honestly that other than an uncomfortable hug, I don’t really know.

My wife is very likely to lose an uncle to COVID in the upcoming days, and maybe her aunt as well. She wasn’t really close to them for the past 25 years, but I know she will be sad about it, and she might have some tears. I have no clue what I will do when that happens. I care about the feelings of loved ones and strangers, and I sympathize with their sadness, but I feel like awkwardly comforting people close to me is a duty I have to do.

It doesn’t seem very compassionate to say that her aunt and uncle brought this risk on themselves by choosing to listen to the Orange Cult Leader, and they are suffering the natural consequences of dismissing the danger caused from being anti-maskers and anti-vaxxers. She knows that of course, and we share the same opinion, but that won’t stop her from being sad. I will feel like I have to comfort her because it’s my job as her husband, but I don’t feel comfortable doing so.

The inner critic is right: I am emotionally defective. My therapist better bring his A-game.

where there’s smoke, there’s pizza

I think I’m coming down from the recent manic episode. Monday I got my first good night of sleep in several days. My tension headaches are still there, my anxiety is still elevated, and I’m still twitchy, but sleep has returned.

So why am I up at 2:30 writing blog posts, you might ask? My daughter decided to bake a frozen pizza just after midnight. Apparently there was something that had dripped in the oven, so when she turned it on the “something” started to burn. She opened the oven door to put the pizza in, the smoke came pouring out, and the smoke alarm went off.

In the meantime, I was just waking up from a dream in which Tony Danza was showing off some exceptional drumming skills while on the set of a tv show. His character carried a pair of drum sticks in his back pocket, apparently for drumming-related emergencies. As he was finishing another paradiddle on a kitchen countertop, I woke up to the sound of the smoke alarm.

I hit the snooze on the alarm clock first, and when that didn’t work I realized what it was. Awake in a heartbeat, I jumped up, put on pants, and went rushing out the door while shouting at my wife “SMOKE ALARM”. I got downstairs and found my daughter standing in the kitchen with a chagrined look on her face. I pushed the button on the smoke alarm and went back to my still-sleeping wife and told her it was under control. “Mmmph,” she responded, as she settled into the covers.

Of course I’m wide-awake at this point, and so of course I turn on the computer and start reading to calm down. Two hours later, I’m still awake. I will try to take a nap in my easy chair before the night is over.

not so bad

During our Thanksgiving dinner, my adult children spontaneously took turns thanking my wife and I for the job we did raising them. I was grateful for this, especially coming from my son, who keeps his feelings closely guarded.

At the moment I was a little bit stunned, and I didn’t know what to say. I can’t take compliments, so of course I responded with something self-deprecating. I told them I appreciated them acknowledging our efforts, but that I was sorry for not being mentally present most of the time due to my bipolar. My son said that I kept it hidden well, because he would not have known I felt that way without me saying so. Then it became a little awkward (“Awkward Moments” is my middle name), and the conversation took a different turn.

Thinking about it later, I take comfort in knowing that despite my flaws, and in the face of my fears of being a bad parent, they thought I was pretty good. It took a long time to have that conversation, but it helps me reconcile years of self-flagellation about my ability as a parent. Since 2004 I have blogged thousands of since-deleted words about how terrible I was and how I blamed myself for irreparably harming my kids. Expressing those thoughts did nothing to help me and in fact made me feel worse about myself.

After hearing their thoughts, I feel much better about myself. I’m still flawed, but maybe I’m not such a bad person after all.

in-laws

I’ve been thinking about the brevity of life. We have our loved ones with us for an unknown amount of time, and you never know when that time will end.

My wife’s parents are old, in their late 70s. I know they’ve been “getting older”, but “old” seems to sneak up on people. They both have health issues: my mother-in-law has atrial fibrillation and has a pacemaker, and problems with depression and anxiety; my father-in-law has various things going on with his eyes and knees and digestion.

They handle their age with such grace. They are endearingly stubborn, befitting their midwestern roots. They try not to complain or dwell on the daily aches and pains of getting old. But they don’t fool themselves, and they don’t avoid the fact that their twilight years have arrived.

Despite the longevity in both their families, I fear they might not be with us much longer. I think about how Anne might cope with their passing. I wonder how I will feel, because I will be just as sad.

I look at the in-laws as if they were substitute parents. When my adoptive mom died many years ago, before Anne and I were even married, they helped me deal with A-mom’s affairs and showed me kindness and compassion. They cared for me as if I were family, not just as a boyfriend of their daughter. I will be forever grateful for that.

cheerleader

All parents are cheerleaders for their kids to a certain extent, but my adoptive mom was the whole squad. As I got older it became embarrassing when she would tell people how smart I was, how good a singer or musician I was, or how skilled at baseball I was. Even when I was proven to not be the best in those endeavors, she would stubbornly hold on to the belief that I was better than anyone else. She would complain to the coach when I didn’t get enough playing time, and she would tell the choir director that I deserved a solo when I really didn’t. I was her precious genius with superpowers, and she mollycoddled me to the point of smothering.

Despite A-mom being a cheerleader for me to the rest of the world, she never seemed to encourage me very much at home. She never sat me down and said “you can make it through college, you’re smart enough.” I felt like my motivation to succeed came from myself, partly to escape poverty and partly to prove wrong the people who told me I wouldn’t amount to anything.

I wonder if she didn’t feel like she could help me anymore once we escaped the abuse in Treetown. Maybe she felt like I was grown up at that point, which was far from the truth. I wish I had someone to help me through the transition from high school to college, but the reality is I did it all by myself. I don’t think she wanted me to leave home, and I think she was quietly happy when my first attempt at freedom failed and I moved back home.

I don’t want to be unfair to her. We were poor, and we didn’t the financial opportunity to take advantage of special tutoring or coaching or music lessons. In addition, we were both recovering from years of abuse, and we were still in a raw emotional state, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. We needed therapy more than we needed music lessons, but we had the mistaken belief that Jesus would help us more than psychiatrists.