Here I am again, to talk about mental health again. Specifically, mine, but if you ever want me to write about your mental health, let me know. I would actually love to learn and write about other people’s experiences, whether they be good, bad, or totally indifferent to mental health at all. It’s kind of funny how sometimes I’ll be talking to someone in person, and they will ask questions about my health and preface them with things like “I hope this isn’t too personal”. No, friends, it’s not too personal. Just like it’s not too personal for me to ask how your broken foot or injured arm is healing. Why such a miasma of secrecy around our mental health? I suspect it has something to do with the language used around mental health and to describe those who are mentally ill. But that’s another blog post for another day. Maybe in a couple of months when I get around to writing again.
Today I want to talk about mental health and parenting. And I’m going to tell a story that really bums me out and makes me feel a lot of shame. According to my close and personal friend Brene Brown (not really, but she’s a genius and I want to put her in my pocket), when you speak shame it loses its power and allows you to take control of the narrative. So that’s what I’m doing.
Monday morning as I was in my room getting dressed, I heard really loud, slow, sarcastic-sounding clapping coming from the kitchen. Then I heard Alex, my oldest, speak to Morgan, my middlest, in a terrible, hateful, condescending, shaming tone that sent Morgan storming to her room in tears. Upon walking to the kitchen and assessing the situation, I learned the source of the outburst was spilled water. Alex was angrily wiping up the water that Morgan had, apparently, spilled. We discussed if her reaction and the way she spoke to her sister was appropriate and kind, and I suggested an apology might be in order. A genuine apology, I stressed. Apologies were given and Morgan dried up her tears, mostly. She initially responded to Alex’s apology with an insincere “It’s ok.” When I asked her if it really was ok, she changed her response to “I forgive you”, and I suggested she might want to apologize for knocking over Alex’s water bottle, even though it was an accident. At some point during this interaction, Alex and I discussed that you just can’t talk to people that way. Ever.
Which makes me the biggest hypocrite in the world. I can’t remember the words she said to her sister, but I can hear the tone like a recording in my head. I recognize it. And I know exactly where she learned it. It’s an exact replica of the one I’ve heard myself use, toward my children – mostly toward my eldest – more times than I will ever care to admit. Times when I’ve lost my temper over something stupid. Something as minor as spilled water. Times when all the stresses of the day, week, month, have piled up and that was the last thing before I broke. But stresses never stop piling up. And when you’re struggling merely to hold yourself together, you feel broken all the time. And you hear yourself speaking to your children in a tone you would never, ever use with another person. A tone that makes you ashamed even as the words flow angrily and unstoppable through your mouth.
I felt like I was hit in the head with a brick. When you’re so mired in your own pain, it’s hard to see the pain you cause in others. Maybe one day your vision clears a little, and you find it’s mirrored back at you, plain as day. Yes, I know parenting is hard, and we all have moments where we’re not the parent we want to be. I think that’s ok, sometimes. That sort of thing is part of learning how to be a parent. I find myself telling my kids, especially Alex, that I don’t really know what I’m doing, but that I’m learning, and she’s my guinea pig. She likes that almost as much as when I talk about boobs and periods and pooping. But when you make the same mistake over and over again, enough that you have taught it to your children – that’s not a good thing.
And then came the second brick. While I know that my mental health probably spent a good year, let’s be honest, spiraling downhill, it didn’t start there. While for the years before that I was able to keep everything “under control” using natural means – yoga, breathing, etc., that I still believe to be highly effective – my illness was still there, lurking. It emerged more in times of stress: in the way I spoke to my children, in my lack of patience, in the days when nothing was ok and I was sad and mad all day and couldn’t really find a reason for it. It emerged on the days when I cleaned the entire house and did an-hour-and-a-half of yoga and cooked dinner and cleaned and put the kids to bed. It was there. I had just decided it was my normal.
Eight months, yep, that’s eight months – into treatment, I’m starting to think there might be a different kind of normal. But how do I explain to my thirteen-year-old that it’s not ok for her to talk to people like that, but it was ok for me to for all that time because I was struggling with an untreated mental illness and residual unprocessed trauma? How do I get past the worry that that is my voice in her head? That that is how she talks to herself? I don’t think I do.
So this is what I will do. I think I will remember that it’s never too late. I will talk to her. I will tell her that I recognize that she has heard me speak like that many times in the past, and it was wrong of me. I tell her that it’s not how we speak to anybody, especially ourselves. I will remind her that I am working on doing better at a lot of things, and I will suggest we work on this, together. We stop and think, or count, or breathe before we burst out. I will try and make a commitment to speak in a kinder, softer voice, so that one day, hopefully, as I’m in my room getting dressed, that is what I will hear coming from the kitchen.
It’s never too late.