couple having an argument

In an abusive relationship, tiptoeing around others’ feelings means sacrificing your own

“Mom, you’re drunk,” I said from my place on the floor in front of the television.

“No, I’m not,” she spat from the sofa, her sentence punctuated by a click-hiss.

“Yeah, you are,” I said, leveling my eyes at her as she raised a fresh can to her lips. The M*A*S*H intro music wrapped up for the second time, which meant it was after midnight. My mother seemed to ignore my retort, and so I turned back to watch more cynical repartee between Hawkeye and Houlihan.

I was only allowed to stay up this late on the weekends; since my father had to work on Saturday mornings, he would go to bed early while Mom and I shot the shit until the wee hours.

Many of our best conversations happened as reruns of The Golden Girls and M*A*S*H played in the background. With each can of cheap beer, and each puff from the roach that sat in the ashtray, the boa constrictor of my mother’s anxiety loosened its hold just a little bit.

Her lips loosened, too. She said things I could never believe I was hearing — confessions of her bad behavior as a teen; tales from when she and my father first met; random details from her life that I hadn’t known before. I felt uniquely able to open up to her during those times, and though I never felt comfortable enough to tell her about the big bads that had weighed upon me for the previous several years, I got closest on those Friday nights.

I was only twelve and, while I would steal my parents’ cigarettes after they went to bed and chain-smoke them in the basement, I was categorically opposed to drinking. Something about the way it affected people just didn’t sit right with me, but I couldn’t quite place my unease.

Looking back, it seems so obvious.

As we talked, and she slurped down can after can of beer, my mother would get progressively more drunk. I, on the other hand, would stay sober and be completely blindsided when her mood shifted and a peaceful, even comforting, conversation, became a shouting match.

On this particular night, it would seem that I was beginning to understand the connection between the beers and the swords that took up residence in her tongue after too many of them. She’d snapped something baseless and paranoid at me, and I’d called her out on it.

“Go to bed,” she growled behind me, as Radar came into the frame.

“No,” I said, not taking my eyes off the television.

“Go to bed.” Louder.

“No.”

“GOTHEFUCKTOBED.”

“No. I want to watch this. I’m not going to bed because you’re drunk. I’m going to watch the rest of this episode, and I’m not going to talk to you anymore.” I was close to yelling.

We continued on like this for a minute before I heard my father’s footsteps thundering down the hallway.

“Go to bed,” he said, glowering down at me through slits.

“No,” I said, tears of fury streaming down my face. “She’s drunk. I didn’t do anything wrong. I’m going to watch the rest of this episode. She can go to bed.”

My dad was pissed. I don’t blame him; I would have been pissed, too. I cannot stand to have my sleep interrupted — just ask anyone who’s ever shared a home with me. And my mother was his wife, and she came first — both literally and figuratively — and what I do blame him for is letting that fact dictate what happened next.

I was not a light kid. I was over a hundred pounds at the age of twelve. But that didn’t stop my father from bending down, grabbing me by one arm and one leg, and beginning to drag me down the hall and into my bedroom.

I remember nothing else from that night; I don’t even remember if my father got me all the way down the hall, or if I relented and walked myself to bed. I don’t know if that was one of the nights that I was awakened from the next bedroom by my mother’s vomiting, though that happened more than once.

After dozens of these blowups, though, finally I saw that it would always need to be me who absorbed it. No matter how awful, how nasty, how hurtful, my mother was to me, Dad would take her side in this abusive relationship and my frustration would just compound.

My mother never apologized for these arguments. Maybe she didn’t even remember having them, or maybe her memory was so skewed by her intoxication that she believed I was the one who caused them. Or maybe she avoided apologizing because an apology would have been a tacit admission that there was a problem. And in our family, if we don’t name it, it doesn’t exist.


Photo by Roman Carey on Pexels

I was sitting on the couch, reading a book, when he came home from work.

I smelled him almost before I heard him; whatever had kept him out until 3am the night before was still oozing from his pores.

“What are you doing home so early?” I asked, for no good reason. I knew already, and also I didn’t really care. We’d been living together in this one-bedroom apartment for a year by this point, but things had been circling the drain for months.

“They sent me home,” he said, tears forming in his eyes.

“Like, for good?”

“I don’t know,” he said, sniffing. He disappeared into the bathroom and the shower turned on. A few minutes later he was back again. I could no longer smell the booze from the other side of the room. Progress. But he was muttering in a way that I reckoned couldn’t be healthy.

Finally his words came into focus. “I never did anything to you,” he said.

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. I’d never done anything to him, either. He’d broken into my emails while I was out of town and gotten the idea that I was interested in getting back with the guy I’d dated before. (I wasn’t, at the time.)

I was so sick of this self-pity bullshit. This was not the happy-go-lucky, life-of-the-party guy I’d met at the local pub the previous summer. This was an unstable, mentally ill alcoholic who made up stories in his head and then spewed them at whoever would pay attention to him.

I had been tiptoeing around him for far too long in this abusive relationship, hoping that his paranoia would pass if I didn’t call it out. Today, though, I’d had enough. Today, I just needed to march right into it.

He repeated his refrain again, like I hadn’t heard him the first time. “I never did anything to you.” The tears flowed freely.

Oh, poor you, I thought, disgusted. I said, “And you’re so self-absorbed that you actually believe that.”

The air went out of the room. His already-red face turned crimson. He grabbed the closest breakable thing, hurling a drinking glass at a framed print hanging on the living-room wall a few feet from me. Both the glass and the frame shattered all over the floor, and there was now a hole through the print and into the plaster. He stared at me, eyes aflame, daring me to try and stop him.

“Get out,” I said to him.

“No.”

My heart was pounding in my throat, and I stood there paralyzed for a minute, silently standing off with him, wondering what my next move should be.

I contemplated calling the police. He’d gotten a DUI a few weeks before, though, and I figured a domestic disturbance call could have pretty negative consequences if it went on his record. It would do more harm than good, I reasoned, and so I didn’t call the police.

Instead, I patted my pants pockets to be sure my car keys and cell phone were both inside, and I walked out the door.


I had stayed in this unhealthy and abusive relationship for months, like I’d stayed in so many others before it, because I didn’t value my own well-being as much as I valued the comfort of others. Following the lead I’d learned as a child, I tiptoed around issues that everyone knew were there, but no one would talk about, in an effort to keep people happy.

But I always ended up sacrificing my own happiness as a result.

When I walked out of that apartment and drove away, it was because I realized in that moment that my happiness was just as important as anyone else’s.

Thirteen years later, I still need to remind myself of this fact, each and every day.


This story was originally published on Medium.com.

Woman with short hair and diamond earrings resting her head atop a closed briefcase

I’ve been wearing the same clothes for three days, maybe four. The last time I exercised was… I can’t even remember. Three weeks ago, maybe? 

It’s not that I’m being lazy. There just truly doesn’t seem to be enough time to get all the things done. And all the other things seem to be a much higher priority than…than my own needs?

Hmm… that doesn’t sound right. Feels like those should come first.

I’ve been doing some things to take care of myself. Each morning, for example, I make myself coffee and breakfast before I do anything else. The to-do list has also continued to be immensely helpful and, if I’m measuring my success by the number of boxes that are checked off, I’m knocking it out of the park. I color my hair every two months and blow it out every Friday.

It’s progress, but if I can’t find time to shower and exercise (which was on the list to begin with, but which I just gave up on writing in after awhile because it was so demotivating never to be able to check it off), then I’ve got a long way to go. 

When my son was just a couple weeks old, and I was struggling to produce enough milk to feed him properly, I sat in his doctor’s office weeping behind my face mask.

“How are you sleeping?” he asked.

Sigh. “Generally, okay, but last night we were at my in-laws’ house and nobody got any sleep.” 

“Why were you there?”

“Because our house is under construction.”

“And why didn’t anyone sleep?”

Fresh tears. “Well, it was hard to be in the house because my father-in-law just died.”

An understanding nod. “And how often are you pumping?”

“Every time he eats.”

“Which is…?”

“Every 90 minutes or so?”

“Is there anyone who can help you?”

I shook my head. “Quarantine.”

“Do you have a therapist you can talk to?”

I didn’t feel like I needed to talk with my therapist, though I’d had one until very recently and she would have been happy to help me with what was going on. “All the stuff is normal,” I said.

“Nothing about your situation is normal,” he responded.

And he was right. Everything was messed up right then, and it continues to be so. Nothing is normal. For us, with the home construction and my father-in-law’s death and the newborn, the messed-up-ness seems compounded a thousandfold. And the kids are home, and there’s nowhere to go, and their friends are all in their own houses, and we are all stuffed into two rooms, and my husband and I are both trying to work, and, rather than working like a valve to release steam gradually, my top just blows off from time to time from all the overstimulation and feelings of ineffectiveness and inadequacy.

I tend to believe this is just quarantine fatigue, because of everything that’s going on. When the construction is done, and when the kids go back to school, and when the baby gets a little older, things will be less overwhelming. They’ll slow down, and there will be fewer items on the list, and we’ll all be able to take a deep breath.

But what if it’s not just quarantine fatigue? What if this is depression and I’m minimizing it, as I’m wont to do? 

I suppose the outcome would be the same. There would still be the same mountain of items to accomplish, the same coping strategies to try and avoid losing my cool with my kids, who are really innocent victims in this whole mess. Awareness really is the first step.

Actually, I think taking a shower should be the first step. I stink.

Until next time,

-NK

 

 

 

Little girl with shoulder-length blonde hair and a long-sleeved white shirt covering her face with her hands

Children learn to work out their feelings by observing the adults in their lives

It All Started with an insignificant event

“Just stop,” I said to my seven-year-old daughter as we pulled out of the school’s parking lot. “We’ve talked about it. It’s over. You need to move on.”

“But — ”

“Enough,” I said, raising my voice another notch. “It’s not even that big of a deal. I don’t understand why you’re so worked up about it.”

She balled up her fists and I imagined I could hear the steam escaping her ears. In the rear-view mirror, I could see she was full to burst — cheeks filled with red; eyes filled with tears. “You’re not even listening to me!” she spat, at the top of her lungs. “You won’t even let me talk!”

Deep breath. Patronizing voice. “Honey, I did let you— ” Crap. I stopped myself. No, I hadn’t, actually. When she’d gotten in the car and immediately started in on her daily lament, I’d offered a statement to the contrary and shut the conversation down.

She was anxious about researching an animal for science class.

“You’ve got plenty of time,” I said.

She was frustrated about math homework.

“You’re great at math,” I said.

She was having friction with a friend.

“You two will work it out,” I said.

I thought I was being supportive. Giving her a positive perspective would shift her mindset, and the anxiety, frustration, and friction would go away, right?

Wrong. My daughter is nothing if not persistent. And these problems weren’t going to go away just because I polished them up, all nice and pretty.

The truth is, I didn’t want to deal with her feelings. I wanted to move on. I had already decided, before she ever opened her mouth, that whatever had her worked up was insignificant. And it was, to me. But to her, it was very significant indeed.

Another deep breath, this time out of exasperation with myself. “You’re right,” I said, softening my tone. “I’m sorry. We’ll be home in a couple minutes. Do you want to sit with me and talk about it?”

She nodded vigorously, tears of relief rather than rage sliding down her windburned cheeks. “Yes, Mama. Yes, please.” She took her own ragged breath and relaxed back into the seat.

When we got home, my seven-year-old sat on my lap, while my five-year-old silently leaned against us. I asked what happened, and how she felt about what happened. I paraphrased what I thought I was hearing, and asked for clarification. I asked how I could help her through the situation, and what strategies she could use on her own. I asked what she needed — from me; from Dad and sis; from teachers and support providers at school.

At the end of the conversation, she hugged me tightly. “Mom, you’re the best. Thank you so much.”

And I wiped a tear from my cheek as I held her even tighter, thinking about what an asshole I am.

All she wanted was to be heard. She wanted me to ask questions, to learn what she was thinking and how she was feeling, and to really take the time to understand why this thing, which seemed so insignificant to me, was taking up so much of her emotional energy.

And I cut her off. Shut her down. Made it clear that my comfort was more important than her feelings. What kind of mother was I, anyway?

The Pattern Seemed All Too Familiar

When I was a kid, I felt misunderstood and not listened to. I had no idea what to do with my feelings, because no one seemed to have the time for them. While I don’t think I ever got as heated as my daughter did in the back seat of the car that day (because I would rather eat my emotions than get smacked) I do have very clear memories of balling up my fists, weeping silently, screaming into my pillow, and crying to my dogs because I couldn’t seem to get the humans to understand me.

Some big, bad things happened when I was a kid — things that were scary, and dangerous, and affected my physical and mental health for a long time afterward — and I never once opened my mouth to tell my parents.

Not telling wasn’t a conscious act. I didn’t, the day after I was sexually abused, decide I wouldn’t tell my parents. Rather, I realized I couldn’t. Hundreds of little micro-incidents over the years had conditioned to me to swallow my feelings and needs, or risk being berated, dismissed, or thumped upside the head.

I received their message, intentional or not, loud and clear: I really should just leave them alone with all my nonsense kid problems.

The thing is, kids grow up to be adults. And if kids’ needs aren’t met, they often grow up to be dysfunctional adults. If you don’t believe me, just ask me.

Children live almost entirely in their feelings. They can’t rationalize away their pain, or fear, or anger, no matter how many times grownups tell them it’s irrational. The prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that’s responsible for judgment, prioritization, and decision making, doesn’t even fully develop until approximately age twenty-five .

So expecting my second-grader to understand that whatever has her on high alert is no big deal is akin to teaching calculus to a houseplant: She’s not going to buy it, no matter how hard I sell it.

My seven-year-old is a little kid with big feelings: happiness is perceived as elation; unease morphs into despair; nervousness and anxiety become near-crippling fear. And, I’ll admit it, these extreme emotions are most definitely not my jam.

Just because I’ve been conditioned to label negative emotions as an inconvenience, though, doesn’t mean that my child doesn’t get a chance to feel them, talk about them, and work through them.

Reflecting on my own experience makes me realize that I must make time for my daughter’s feelings, even if they seem irrational or make me uncomfortable. Probably especially then, because that’s when she needs the most help sorting through them. And, probably, I do, too.

Children learn what they live

Yesterday morning, my kids were having an argument at the breakfast table while I was in my bedroom, getting dressed.

“You didn’t let me sit next to you on the bus,” said Little Sis.

“Mary wanted me to sit next to her,” said Big.

I had to chime in, because I’m told that siblings are supposed to take care of each other. “Girls, both of you should be looking out for each other on the bus,” I called down the hall.

Big sis burst out in tears. “I just — I feel like I’m a bad sister!”

Oops.

Little: “You’re not a bad sister! I just want someone to sit with on the bus.”

“But I feel like if I don’t sit next to Mary, she won’t want to be my friend anymore.”

“She’s still going to be your friend if you sit with me. We can sit next to different people every day.”

“But that’s what happened with Natalie in first grade.” My seven-year-old lowered her voice, and her tears were less urgent, more reflective. She was genuinely afraid to lose a friendship, and torn by the feeling that she needed to decide between her sister and her friend.

“Well, just because it happened with Natalie doesn’t mean it will happen with Mary,” said her little sister softly.

Both kids had de-escalated, and I lost track of the conversation at that point, but I returned to the kitchen a few moments later to find my two beautiful children in the midst of a warm embrace. They patted each other’s hair, and each told the other what a good sister she was. “I love you,” they said.

Two young children dressed in similar clothing, sitting on a green uphostered chair and hugging

And I definitely was not crying. No, not at all.

On my best days, I cannot express my feelings the way my five- and seven-year-old children did just then.

I lacked a healthy emotional model to follow when I was a child, and never really developed one until after I was married. But somehow, somewhere, my two little tiny humans learned that it was okay to acknowledge, explore, and discuss their feelings — not just with the grownups they trust, but with each other.

Still not crying.

And my kids never fought again, and now we are all experts at expressing our feelings and listening to each other. The End.

Ha ha, just kidding.

My kids still fight. I still find myself trying to wriggle out of talking about uncomfortable feelings. I still get impatient with my children. Sometimes, my first reflex is still to minimize their pain, the way that mine was minimized when I was a child.

Every day, though, I work to recognize this impulse and curb it. The last thing I want is for my children to grow up thinking that, if something big and bad happens in their lives, they shouldn’t bother me with it.

Thankfully, I was blessed with two persistent children: two strong little girls who speak up for themselves when they don’t feel heard; two budding young women who know that their feelings and experiences, even the icky ones, are important; kids who know our family can work through anything together, and that we’ve got each other’s back.

And if that’s the only thing they ever learn from me, I think I could live with that.


This story was originally published on Medium.com.

Young child leaning over the back of an office chair with their head resting on their arms, looking lonely

Social isolation has preyed on everyone’s vulnerabilities, and our children are the silent victims

In my house, social isolation began after my first- and third-graders came home from school on March 12, 2020. We all saw it coming, but we had no idea back then that as we came up on American Independence Day nearly four months later, we would still be holed up together in the three rooms that currently make up our home. 

I had a baby. Two family members died, and one moved to a long-term care facility. Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, my birthday and my daughter’s. My husband’s 40th. All quietly gone by as the doors to schools, amusement areas, and friends’ homes remain closed due to social isolation.

When the stay-at-home orders began, some posed it as an opportunity, a challenge: Bond with your family! Take up a hobby! Learn a new skill! 

Unfortunately, that’s not the way it’s played out for many families who have been in social isolation as long as we have.

Working parents were suddenly left with no childcare, and those who had the fortune to be able to continue employment from home were now charged with caring for and educating for their children while also trying to achieve their job responsibilities. 

Much has already been said about how practically unrealistic that situation was and continues to be. But as the other side of this social isolation grows farther away than we ever could have anticipated back in March, I’ve been reflecting on how my children themselves have changed in these few short months. 

Social isolation has managed to find all our vulnerabilities and exploit them, to the point that all our most troublesome qualities are heightened and, since we can’t leave the house, our healthy coping mechanisms have become close to nonexistent.

For children, this is exceptionally concerning. This is such an essential and impressionable time in their young lives, and I’m beginning to fear when this is all over, when we settle into whatever the new normal looks like for us, they will emerge changed people — and not necessarily for the better.

Social development and relationships suffer when you’re stuck with family day in and day out

For my children, school provided built-in social opportunities that just aren’t there when you’re surrounded by family all the time. Kids don’t get the opportunity to talk through their learning or work on problem solving with other students when their only communication is relegated to a computer screen. Increasingly, they’re able to opt out of the classroom rituals that make them feel like part of a community.

With parks closed and social distancing guidelines in place, there’s no replacement for running around hunting grasshoppers or practicing the newest gymnastics move with a rotating group of other children at recess. 

Sending the kids away in the morning and receiving them in the afternoon also provided a line of demarcation for us adults, a boundary between work time and family time. With all the distraction inherent in helping the kids with their school assignments and otherwise caring for them throughout the day, those boundaries have become extra blurry. Children end up feeling like they’re in the way and interrupting whenever they talk to their parents — because, usually, they are. That’s why adults don’t typically take their children to work with them.

And, after spending all day corralling the kids and trying to persuade (threaten) them into managing themselves from 9–5, it’s pretty hard for parents to be as emotionally available as we want to be in the evenings. Not to mention the work we missed out on during the day that somehow needs to get finished.

Relationships with friends and family members that would typically be nurtured outside of school are also stunted when kids are confined to a nuclear family group. Divides begin to build between us that weren’t there before — divides which are heightened by the differing risk tolerance (and, unfortunately, political beliefs) of different families. Things we parents would have never discussed before become reasons our children can’t see each other now, leading to even more social isolation.

Mental health suffers without coping mechanisms and outside support

I realize not everyone receives mental health support, but for those of us who need it, this is a particularly trying time. Three out of the four members of my family who know how to talk receive some level of outside services, and we have all suffered with not seeing our usual providers in the typical way during this time.

Virtual therapy just isn’t the same as in-person therapy. I know we’re all trying and it’s the best we can do, but trying to establish the deep connection needed for effective therapy just doesn’t work when you’re sitting in your home, surrounded by all your junk.

Therapy time used to be sacred. It used to be a place where you could walk in, close the door, and be alone with someone whose only goal was to help you work through your issues for an hour. During quarantine, it’s become a distracted, disjointed attempt at maintaining the bubble gum and duct tape that holds your sanity together. 

It’s hard to make real progress when your kid, partner, or little sister is banging around on the other side of the computer screen. It’s hard to concentrate when the baby is crying or the doorbell is ringing, even if you know someone else is going to attend to them.

As a result, anxiety and depressive symptoms — in this house, at least — are at an all-time high during social isolation.

Coping mechanisms, meanwhile, are all but forgotten due to our collective heightened state. And when the adults’ coping mechanisms have fallen by the wayside, how can we help our children remember theirs?

Physical activity and nutrition suffer without the routines and opportunities that used to be available

Exercise used to be a non-negotiable in my family. Both my older kids were involved in organized physical activities at least a couple times a week, whether it be gymnastics, softball, dance, or some program put on by our local recreation department. I went to the gym most days and often took the girls with me; my husband exercised and meditated regularly.

We prioritized having a fitness routine, because we know how difficult they can be to re-establish in earnest after a period of inactivity. 

But, with organized sports halted indefinitely, gyms closed, and everyone crammed into the house together, it’s impossible to keep to the routines we had before. Outside activity is weather-dependent and, as with virtual socialization, when no one else is involved, it’s easier for the kids (and, let’s face it: the adults, too) to opt out.

As exercise routines have gone by the wayside, discipline around mealtimes has also gradually eroded. 

Anyone avoiding crowded places so as to protect themselves and family members from possible infection with the coronavirus is at the behest of grocery delivery services, which are convenient but can be problematic. Delivery windows might be a week into the future, and by the time the order finally arrives, it is often missing some key items.

Proper produce and meat have been especially hard to come by. Snack items, on the other hand, are readily available and require no preparation, leading us all to fill our bellies with unsatisfying junk and value a balanced menu and set mealtimes less and less.

It seems all our efforts over the years at intentionally embedding fitness and healthy eating into our lives have been thwarted, and I truly worry for my children’s health.

Educational development suffers without trained professionals with consistent expectations

Many parents have been frustrated with schools’ and districts’ implementation of distance learning during social isolation, particularly the fact that kids of many ages can’t really be independent with it. The most concerning aspect, though, is that every district — and, many times, every school within a district and every teacher within a single school — has implemented it differently.

Special education, counseling and related services were likewise unevenly implemented and, in most cases, can’t take place in any meaningful way online anyway. Social groups aren’t effective when kids can’t be in the same room together. One-on-one or small-group instruction often takes for granted that students are in a classroom with the necessary materials; parents have varying ability to procure or print these materials, and the practicality of conducting such sessions is seriously limited when the teacher can’t observe the student. Counseling relies on a sense of privacy it’s nearly impossible to achieve with the rest of the family around.

And this is all assuming the technology works flawlessly and kids are able to focus and attend to it for a sustained period. Many kids with various learning differences can’t.

And, let’s not forget, traditional classroom teachers were trained to teach in a traditional classroom. Remote teaching is an entirely different beast with its own set of benefits and challenges, and the learning curve has been steeper for some than for others.

The net result of all this is that kids are going to start the next school year in vastly different places academically — even more so than usual — and many will be missing skills from the previous grade level that have been taken for granted in years past. The need for remediation will be greater but at the same time less predictable than usual because teachers didn’t have the chance to properly assess kids’ strengths and needs prior to the end of the school year. 

And kids with special learning or socio-emotional needs, like my nine-year-old, will suffer the most.

Whatever the new normal is, it’s going to be harder than we expect for our kids to fit into it

At the beginning of quarantine, many of us thought we were walking into a brief respite from the norm. For a couple weeks, we thought, we could relax our rigid schedules, take a break from our exhaustingly persistent obligations, and even recharge.

For a hundred thirty days and counting, we’ve all been living in a kind of social isolation survival mode, and it’s taken a toll on all of us. 

But while our sights are set on how to get through each day, our children are getting more dysregulated by the minute. Our day-to-day maintenance has come at the expense of the structure and support kids need to continue growing into balanced, well-adjusted humans. 

My girls each have different strengths and needs. My oldest, an athlete who has a learning disability and is at strong risk for anxiety and depression, won’t struggle with her diet or exercise but will probably have anxiety attacks when expected to return to school, even though that’s what she desperately wants. Her little sister, who is ahead of her peers academically but prefers more sedentary activities and refuses to eat fruit or vegetables, will return to school just fine but likely refuse to engage in the sports she used to enjoy or eat the balance meals I send with her.

So it will be with many children.

Kids who were anxious about going to school before will be a hundred times more anxious when they have to go back after being gone for months on end.

Kids who had trouble being motivated into physical activity will be even more reluctant to rejoin their sports and activities.

Kids who were behind academically or socially will return even farther behind.

Children are resilient, but this is time they’ll never get back. As our social isolation stretches farther than we ever expected, I’m increasingly concerned their paths will be forever altered once we emerge into the world once more.

woman in white crew neck t-shirt covering her face

Comparing my trauma to others’, and saying mine was “not that bad,” undermines my healing

“Nikki’s got such a positive attitude about stuff,” I overheard my mom saying to a friend of hers when I was a young adolescent. “Everything happens for a reason, she always says.”

It was true. I never seemed to let the setbacks in life get to me. Something shitty would happen, and I would think to myself, Well, that’s over. It sucked, but it could have been worse. Hearing my mother gush about my positivity, I doubled down, taking all upsets, large and small, in stride. After all, I figured, I shouldn’t waste my time dwelling on something that was already over and couldn’t be changed.

I used to think this blind acceptance was a good thing. It certainly served me well, growing up in a house where uncomfortable feelings weren’t supposed to exist, and if they did, you were expected to deal with them swiftly and privately.

But, as I try to work through the roadblocks I’ve unintentionally set for myself over the decades, I’ve been realizing that, for all these years, I’ve been saying my mantra out of order.

It could have been worse, but it still sucked.

There. That’s more like it.

It may seem like a subtle difference, but that simple rearrangement has been nothing short of life-changing for me.

I feel like an imposter when i acknowledge my own trauma

When I was eight or nine, I endured unwanted touching at the hands of a relative. This experience, along with a handful of other factors, worked behind the scenes for years to set me up for a youth full of seeking attention and love in some very dangerous places.

As I was growing up, I would hear about extreme cases of child sexual abuse and think, My sexual abuse was not that bad. Eventually, I even came to wonder if it had been abuse at all.

In college, I was psychologically abused to the point of tears on a daily basis for over a year by someone I considered to be my boyfriend, but who made it a point to sleep with as many other women as he could — women who were prettier, skinnier, better than me — and then tell me all about it when he was drunk and angry.

I read stories about physically abusive relationships, ones where one partner physically harms, or even kills, the other, and I think, My abusive relationships were not that bad.

In 2018, I had two miscarriages in the span of five months.

I am aware of friends and family members who have lost their living, breathing children. My  miscarriages were not that bad, I tell myself.

I have such empathy for the anguish of others. These people — these survivors — are my kin, and they have suffered immensely, and I feel their pain even more deeply than I feel my own.

And that’s the point, in a way.

Comparing my situation to other, similar situations, has been my way of separating myself from my feelings about the trauma I’ve experienced.

Nice try, but that doesn’t get me off the hook, as much as I’d like it to. Burying that trauma, and the feelings and actions it caused, has led to some pretty profound and lasting dysfunction involving how I process new situations, and how I work with my loved ones through their emotions.

It’s true: No matter what I’m going through, there are people in the world who have it worse. But that doesn’t make my experiences any less real. It is possible to empathize with others while acknowledging and working through my own pain.

But what will the others say?

Last night, as I was about to drift off to sleep, I came across John Gorman’s amazing and candid story about how controlled use of Ketamine (under the supervision of trained professionals) helped him disappear his depression and anxiety. I immediately connected with the story, particularly with John’s description of his mother’s reaction to his depression at the age of eight: “Your life is not that bad!” she said. I thought back to this piece, which has been simmering for weeks now.

Sadness, anxiety, and depression are uncomfortable, and I grew up in a home where these feelings were everywhere, but went mostly unacknowledged. “Suck it up and don’t bother me,” is the vibe I most remember.

Every time I write about my childhood, I imagine my mother reading my words and saying exactly what John’s did when she read his unwitting admission of depression at the age of eight. “What are you talking about, Nikki? Your life was great!”

And, by extension, I imagine sharing my story of sexual abuse, or emotional abuse, or pregnancy loss, and being dismissed and minimized by others who think my story isn’t extreme enough to have created such lasting trauma. And who do I think I am, anyway, to claim a place among real victims?

Rational or not, it’s a strong fear, and one gained implicitly by witnessing the minimization of victims (including myself) over a lifetime. If things are bad — if someone is being abused, or having a depressive episode, or experiencing a miscarriage — and we acknowledge it, then that means that we need to do something about it. And doing something about it is so hard.

Certainly harder than burying your head in the sand, along with all those negative feelings, and going about life pretending Everything’s Just Fine.

Because, after all, it could be worse, right?

My subjective experience is real

That is real.

That is the truth.

These things hurt. They affected me. They made me sad, and anxious, and depressed. They affected the choices I made and the path I took in life.

I still believe that everything happens for a reason.

But I realize now that minimizing my feelings by comparing my experiences to the most extreme possible version is only getting in the way of my healing.

Just because these experiences didn’t kill me, doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt. And I owe it to myself to allow that hurt to move through me, uncomfortable or not.


A version of this story originally appeared on Medium.com.

Photo of a pack of multi-colored pens placed upon the to-do list page of a spiral smart notebook

Making and sticking to a to-do list helps me prioritize all my tasks, and makes finite the infinite list of things that need to get done.

I’m snappy lately. I don’t mean to be, and I don’t quite know even why I’m so snappy, other than the fact that there is an endless supply of things to do and a limited time in which to do them.

It’s par for the course as a mom, especially during this time, and especially with a baby added into the mix. On days when my kids’ schedules are all misaligned and I can’t seem to focus on one thing for more than a couple minutes without being interrupted by someone needing something from me, or running through the house, or being loud while the baby is trying to get to sleep, it’s overwhelming. On days when my kids want to make something in the kitchen but don’t want to clean up the aftermath, it’s overwhelming. On days when I have 1,000,001 tasks to do but only time for a quarter of them, it’s overwhelming.

And when I’m overwhelmed, every single little thing seems designed to scratch at my nerves. When I’m overwhelmed, I can’t figure out where to start because there are so many things that need doing and they all seem equally important. When I’m overwhelmed I express it as nagging, yelling, and generalized irritation. My eating disorder also goes a bit haywire, and lately that’s been bubbling up in the background. It’s a vicious cycle which leaves me feeling helpless and ineffective.

So, what to do? It’s hard to accept there’s anything I can do in these moments, helpless as I feel. Things are unpredictable around me. I can’t figure out how to take care of myself because it seems  like it needs to be scheduled into an unpredictable schedule. 

Well, first I make a list. I’ve been adjusting the format of my to-do list since the baby came, and I have something now that’s moderately workable. I schedule bite-sized pieces into each day, and I have a list of tasks and self-care activities on the side bar. I can make my list even while I’m distracted, and then when the distractions lift I can pick up something from today’s list to check off. When I find myself with time outside the bite-sized pieces, I fit them into the day and check them off. Certain things I can only do with full concentration. Others I can do while hanging with the kids or while nursing. 

My to-do list is a way of taking back some level of control. There’s a certain freedom in knowing that, while the true  list is endless, I can make it more finite by writing it down. It’s comforting, though I rarely check off even the finite number of items on the list.

I realized this morning I hadn’t made my list yet, and now that I have I feel quite a bit better. This, in fact, is one of those bite-size pieces I was talking about earlier.

Check.

-NK

brown teddy bear wrapped in bandages

Saying “I turned out just fine” is a way to avoid facing a traumatic past

When I was too young to remember, I dislocated my shoulder. Or, perhaps more accurately, my shoulder was somehow dislocated. As family lore goes, I was home with my father, who had left me on the couch looking at the “Funny Papers” section of the newspaper and gone into another room. Moments later, I began wailing and he ran to my side, only to find me inconsolable. He could find no source for my distress, and so he rushed me to the hospital.

Mean Mothers’ Jerk, the doctor called the injury, which apparently had become normalized enough in the early 1980s that, rather than call child protective services, hospital staff chuckled and gave it a cheeky name. I can only imagine the knowing look the nurses exchanged over my father’s shoulder before moving on to the next patient.

I’ve been assured many times over the years that, despite its colloquial name, my father did not in fact cause this injury — that it just happened somehow. I’ve always been a bit uneasy with many parts of this story, from the mysterious nature of the injury to the casual attitude of the medical staff. I may never have the full story of what happened that day, but now that I am an adult, and a parent, I have some theories.

How it happened, though, isn’t the point. Soon enough, the injury itself was healed and mostly forgotten. I don’t remember anything about the circumstances that led me to the hospital that day. But, just like most of the injuries I sustained during childhood, it turned out to have lingering consequences.

I am a master of Compensation

My neck started bothering me when I was in my early thirties. After waiting, characteristically, for the pain to become rather unbearable, I went to see a physical therapist. He was good at his job, and I certainly put his skills to work. Each week, he’d find a new movement I wasn’t performing properly and set about retraining my muscles to work the way they were supposed to. It seemed my body was beat up from head to toe, and I didn’t even know it.

What I realized after months of physical therapy is that I am a master of compensation. When a movement is bothering me, I find a different way to accomplish the movement, which doesn’t bother me, and I adopt this new movement pattern for life. The result is often an out-of-whack body that looks super normal to everyone else.

It turns out the earliest example of this is my dislocated shoulder, which, by the time I sought treatment, was so weak and droopy that it was pulling my neck out of alignment. I’ve been working for months to get my body’s muscles working the way they’re supposed to, but it’s not an easy journey.

It took decades for this dysfunction to reveal itself, and it’s going to take a lot of work to fix it.

Dysfunction Doesn’t Go Away

This is the story that came to mind as I sat on my therapist’s couch, trying to answer the question, “What would it mean for you to dig down and reveal those emotions you haven’t allowed yourself to experience?”

“I dunno,” was my reflexive and truthful response, delivered with a shrug that would give any teenager a run for her money. Reluctantly, though, and sensing she wasn’t about to let me get off that easy, I thought for another minute. And, at first, the story about my dysfunctional shoulder is what came out.

I’m fine, is what I really wanted to say. I went through some shit as a kid, but I turned out just fine.

As I sat facing my therapist that day, recounting a particularly horrific incident from my childhood, able only to laugh manically and dismiss the entire event as absurd, I began to realize something I’d been avoiding facing head on. The possibility had been creeping into my awareness as I endured numerous personal challenges during the last year or two.

I’m. Not. Fine.

I’ve just compensated so convincingly that I look fine.

Close-up image of a young woman with brown hair, wearing a turtleneck and looking upward.
Image courtesy of Pixabay

I can’t muster feelings for the trauma I endured in my childhood, or many challenges I go through as an adult, because I figured out a way of minimizing my trauma by avoiding feeling the uncomfortable ones. I replaced shame with indifference, fear with humor. It’s as if I combed through my life, editing out all the icky feelings in favor of more palatable ones. All in the name of avoiding discomfort — mine and everybody else’s.

The result was the appearance of someone who is well-adjusted. I passed really well as someone who had dealt with her shit and come out the other side, and who didn’t need any help processing her emotions about the latest upheaval in her life, thankyouverymuch.

Turns out, though, I was all out of alignment, achy everywhere without really knowing why.

Before I could begin the process of healing, I needed to dismantle the myth that, despite the trauma I’d endured as a kid, I’d turned out just fine.

I needed to stop minimizing My trauma and get to know the real me

Just as my physical therapist had to dig through all the workarounds I’d unconsciously devised over the years to avoid addressing the physical dysfunction below, I’ve now got to peel away three and a half decades of emotional compensation if I want to see what’s at the core.

Do I want to? Will my life be somehow better if I stop minimizing my trauma, if I let myself access and process the feelings I buried so long ago? I’m still struggling with the answer to that question. What I’m coming to realize, though, is that one of the core beliefs I hold about myself is — well, maybe not wrong, but not quite right, either.

I went through some shit as a kid. But I did not turn out just fine. I turned out, well, kinda broken. And it’s going to take a lot of work to fix me.


A version of this story originally appeared on Medium.com.

Person washing hands at the sink with foaming soap

The same energy that drives us when feeling overwhelmed, is the same that can motivate us to focus on the work that’s most important to us.

I was browsing a mom group on Facebook the other day and another member mentioned “rage cleaning.” As I read her words, I felt like all my secrets had been laid bare. 

Here I was, thinking I was the only one who scrubbed and scoured through angry tears, using the elbow grease to exorcise the thoughts I can’t say aloud until a milder, kinder version finally forms. Apparently, I’m not alone.

It’s a Sunday morning and my kids have been up far too long. The older ones won’t stop talking, the baby just wants to nurse, and my husband is taking his time meditating. 

All I want is something for myself. A few minutes of silence. A workout where I don’t get interrupted with an emergency sibling conflict. Even a drive to the drugstore all by myself.

I can’t get it, so I rage clean. Or rage cook, in this case, because everyone needs breakfast. But I definitely rage clean after we’re finished eating. It does nothing to tamp down the overwhelm.

I need peace, so I can focus my thinking around this whole Patreon thing. I want to learn the ins and outs. I want to figure out how to offer you, my Patron, something of value as you support me in my life’s work. I want to know how to deepen my connection with you so we can truly support each other. 

It’s a rabbit hole, to be sure. But the same energy that feeds me in my moments of rage cleaning will also sustain me through that rabbit hole, picking up bits of carrot on the way – tidbits that will help me build a stronger relationship with you.

After breakfast everyone disperses. The older kids build a fort; Daddy takes the baby. I sit with the dog at my feet, the only sound now coming from the kitchen fan, and disappear.

An hour later, I emerge. I’ve got the beginnings of a plan, and a lot of energy to make this work. This is a new journey for me, and I’m glad to have you along.

-NK

I didn’t realize how my mental health had suffered until a trusted friend suggested therapy

“Are you seeing anyone?” asked Deirdre, as we sipped wine and dipped fresh-baked bread into a paste of crushed tomato and olive oil. The band was between songs and, for the moment, she didn’t need to raise her voice to be heard.

“Nah,” I said, with a shrug and a faint smile, dismissing the very idea. I knocked back the last of my sauvignon blanc and stared ahead at nothing.

My friend would be moving out of state that weekend, and we had managed to find an evening when we were both free, so that we could meet for dinner and say our goodbyes. We’d been there for half an hour, and I’ll be damned if I can remember a single thing she’d said. It seems I’d been doing most of the talking.

“You must be so busy,” I said, changing the subject. “Are you just cramming in all the packing and visits and work prep and everything?”

She nodded. “Yeah, it’ll be pretty much nonstop until I leave. I had dinner with my friend, Ellie, last night,” she began, and then paused, straightening up. “You know, come to think of it, Ellie’s a therapist,” she said. “I think you two might mesh together well.” A meaningful look and a pause. Was she suggesting I needed help with my mental health?

“Yeah?” I shrugged. “Well, talk to her, if you want. See what she thinks. I’m fine, though. Really. I’ll be fine.”

The week before, my husband had been taken by ambulance to the emergency room for an anaphylactic reaction. He’d been tended to by emergency personnel on my living room floor as my children wailed, “I don’t want Daddy to die!” in my ear.

But I was fine.

The week before that, I’d been in a different ER with a postoperative infection, which I’d sustained two days before that during a procedure to remove tissue from a failed pregnancy — my second such operation in just a few months.

But I’d be fine.

I had two young children who, like any children, might desperately need each and every inch of my being at any given moment and without warning.

But I was okay.

I had abandoned my career — or at least that’s how it felt — just as I’d landed my dream job, because it was such a burden on everyone else in my life.

But I would be alright.

I had no real sense of identity because every moment of my every day was spent serving everybody but myself.

I’d be fine, though.

I wasn’t against seeing a therapist. In fact, I routinely recommended therapy to friends struggling with mental health challenges. I’d even seen a couple therapists myself. I just thought that I didn’t need one right now.

I worked myself through all life’s situations and setbacks; I had done so for my entire life. I was strong. I simply couldn’t see how talking about my feelings to another person was going to make me feel any better.

When Ellie called me to set up an appointment, though, I broke out my calendar and wrote her in, thinking, Well, it couldn’t make things any worse.

A few days later, I ventured into the unknown of my mind for the first time in years.

I’m not even sure Ellie introduced herself before I started in, and I didn’t come up for air until the session had ended. I left the office exhausted — from sobbing and talking for a full fifty minutes without pause — and also with the certainty that I would be back the next week, and the one after that.

I didn’t really have a purpose or a goal in mind when I began working on all this, other than to just get the words and the thoughts and the feelings out of my head and into the air. But, after months of deep introspection, I’ve learned a surprising amount about myself, and I’ve been challenged to really rewrite the theory of mind that I unconsciously developed over the last several decades.

I want to share some of what I’ve learned with you, readers and friends, because I am certain I’m not the only one who’s had these thoughts, feelings, experiences, and insecurities. Sometimes my stories will be heartbreaking; sometimes they’ll be hilarious; sometimes they’ll be just plain bizarre. But I hope that you find something here that you can carry along with you — something that at the very least will make you feel less alone.

I’m hoping that some of my words reach not just your eyes, but your hearts as well. The journey to reclaim my mental health, and to form my own identity, starts here.


A version of this story originally appeared on Medium.com.