A table laid out with desserts

Binge Eating Disorder Masks A Host of Unmet Needs

I walked past the dessert table, again.

I had been admiring it from across the room all night.

I’d walked through the buffet line and served myself a pile of stuffed shells, garlic bread, roasted broccoli, and bacon-wrapped scallops, only to find the dessert table at the end, taunting me.

It wasn’t yet socially acceptable to take one. People would notice if I did.

I sat at the table and realized I had forgotten to get a napkin. I took the long way back to the front of the line to retrieve one. My mouth watered as I eyed the mini cannoli (my favorite), the cookies & cream cake (also my favorite), the lemon cake (my absolute favorite), and the Italian cookies (which I hate, but which I will eat anyway if they’re on the dessert table).

I don’t need dessert, I decided, turning my eyes away from the sweet pastries. I’m not going to have any. I’ll fill up on my dinner, and then I won’t have room for dessert. I grabbed another slice of garlic bread.

As I ate my dinner, nagging at my children to eat their vegetables and trying in vain to focus on the adult conversation, my eyes kept drifting toward the now-forbidden fruit.

I cleaned my plate, soaking up excess marinara sauce with my second piece of garlic bread, and all the while I could feel that creamy, sugary goodness calling to me.

People started to get up, to drift toward the place that I had deemed off-limits. “I’m stuffed,” I said to my husband as I stood to dispose of my plate.

The trash can just happened to be next to the decadent display of baked goods.

“Ooh, I don’t think I can resist a cannoli,” said another guest. Casually, I turned my head toward the desserts, as if I’d just noticed them for the first time.

“Yeah, it’s the best bakery in town,” I said, plucking one up for myself. Okay, but just this one.

I returned to my seat and ate the cannoli, very responsibly. I then dusted the powdered sugar off my hands and followed the sound of my children’s gleeful cries into a different room.

I watched the children play. I scrolled through my phone. I listened with one ear to the spirited conversations around me . And, after a few minutes, I wandered away.

I found myself back in front of the dessert table without quite knowing how I’d gotten there.

The room had cleared out save for one of the caterers, who was bustling back and forth, disassembling the hot dishes and walking them out to the truck.

With a plastic knife, I cut one of the lemon cakes in half. I never get to eat these. And they’re my favorite, I said to myself.

I’ll stop after this, I promised. I unhinged my jaw and shoved the entire thing into my mouth, so no one who happened to enter the room would see me eat it.

By the end of the evening, I’d had a cannoli, one of each type of cake (including the second half of the lemon), and a generous handful of cookies. And all of this was in addition to a dinner that had already left me feeling uncomfortably full.

This is binge eating disorder.

Plate laid out with banana and cookie desert, drizzled with chocolate
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels

Binge Eating Means I Can’t have just a little of anything

Beginning at age eleven or twelve, I would often open and finish a box of crackers or cookies in one sitting. Ever since I can remember, on the rare occasion we had a home-cooked meal — and especially when we visited a buffet-style restaurant — I would eat until I needed to undo the button (and sometimes the zipper) on my pants. More than once, I have systematically eaten an entire bag of candy, even the flavors that I don’t like, just because my eyes fell upon it. If something is almost gone, even if I don’t want any more, I’ll finish it. I am a card-carrying member of The Clean Plate Club.

My compulsion extended to sex, at a very early age. I went out seeking it, and I consumed it, pretending the invisible hand guiding me was my own. And, as with binge eating, I felt like shit afterward. I knew that I shouldn’t have done it, and I couldn’t understand why I’d done it anyway.

It was no different with drugs. When I was sixteen and started using cocaine, I quickly learned that people who use cocaine are not finished until all the cocaine is gone. I should stop. I should save it for later. My friend is coming over and expecting for me to share. I’ve had too much. Nothing was loud enough to drown out the voice shouting, “Just a little more.” But, always, eventually the baggie would be empty, and the dread would set in, and I would feel so distraught that I couldn’t imagine living another day.

It’s been suggested that, since so much of my young life felt so empty, I used food and other substances as a way to fill myself. I’m told it’s possible that, with so many things out of my control, I grasped whatever I could in order to feel like I had power over something.

But that never sat quite right with me. If I used food, and drugs, and sex, so that I could feel in control, then why does it so frequently feel as if I have no control at all?

Why is it that, while my mind knows what I should be doing, my body is unwilling to cooperate?

If I know I’m causing harm to myself in the long-term, why can’t I just short-circuit the shame and the guilt by not doing the binge eating that’s slowly killing my soul in the first place?

There are some cracks in my foundation

One of the first and most enlightening things I learned in my teacher preparation program was Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, which is essentially a ranking system for human needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy takes the form of a triangle. At the base of the triangle are the foundational things a human needs for survival, like food and shelter, and above them, safety and security. At the middle is the need for love, belonging, and esteem, and at the tip is the need for self-actualization and enrichment.

As the story goes, we humans can’t concern ourselves with our high-level needs if our low-level needs aren’t being met.

But, it’s a little more complicated than that. In my case, while some of my base needs were being met, others weren’t. The result was an uneven, lopsided development, grown out of a foundation that could support me quite strongly in some areas but not at all in others.

For example, I’d been told how smart I was since the day I was born. That part of my psyche was nurtured and enriched, and as a result I have always been precocious and intellectually curious. I always earned really good grades, even when my mental health was in the toilet. I grew easily into the top of Maslow’s hierarchy, in this one area of my life.

My inability to reliably obtain the basics like food, security, and love, however, stalled a large part of my development in the base of the triangle. Because of this, for much of my life, I’ve been on a perpetual quest to find protection and love—typically from sources that couldn’t (or wouldn’t) provide it, at least in the long term.

Binge eating is a vicious cycle

That compulsion to seek became ingrained in my unconscious behavior, long before my rational brain developed. Each dessert I ate; each acknowledgment I received from a guy; each line of coke or speed — they all gave me this quick hit of elation, and that became all I knew of pleasure.

But then after a day, or an hour, or a minute, the joy would wear off and the seeking would begin again, and if I couldn’t find what I needed, I would drown in both desperation and shame.

The things that I had unconsciously seen as a means to exerting some kind of control over my life, began to control me instead.

Now that I know all this, why am I still Binge eating the entire dessert table?

As I got older, cleaned up, and began a healthy romantic relationship, food was the only thing left for me to contend with. And, as a woman living in our society, I have been the unwitting recipient of vast amounts of “truth” regarding self-control and food.

Contrary to what diet culture will tell you, willpower is not the panacea of food health. It exists only in limited quantities, and for people like me, who suffer from binge eating disorder and live in a constant state of survival mode, it is not always available when we need it.

When I am most anxious, most escalated, most vulnerable — that is when my base-level adaptations come out, and my inner five-year-old is incapable of understanding that the sundae I eat now will leave me feeling bloated and miserable later, or that if I eat a sundae a day, my long-term health goals will be compromised.

Simply put, my need for that quick hit of pleasure often still trumps my long-term desire to be fit, healthy, and happy. And it’s not about willpower at all.

It’s about that little girl who slipped through the cracks while the rest of me grew up.

And, now that I know all this, I can begin to patch those cracks so that she can grow up, too.


This story was originally published on Medium.com.

Woman wearing black shorts and a white, long-sleeved shirt sitting on a bed with her arms crossed in front of her

Years of psychological abuse by my “friends” took a toll

Are you still friends with me? I wrote on a scrap of paper. Below, I wrote the words Yes and No. I folded the note and wrote Amber’s name on the outside.

When our third-grade teacher turned toward the chalkboard, I nudged the boy next to me, reaching out with the note and motioning toward the girl with chestnut-colored hair seated in the front row. I watched the note progress up the aisle, my heart thumping in my throat, fearing both the consequences should I be caught passing notes and the possibility that the girl who I considered to be my best friend might circle No.

The teacher turned toward the class. I snapped back to my task, trying to will my eyes away from Amber and toward the work on my desk.

A moment later, the scrap of paper dropped down in front of me.

Maybe, she had written in.

I felt sick. This was even worse than No, leaving me on the hook to wonder what I would have to do to make her like me again.

Amber was capricious in a way that I had never been able to predict or comprehend. One day, we would be catching grasshoppers and braiding each other’s hair at recess; the next, she wouldn’t even acknowledge my existence. We had sleepovers together from time to time, but at school the following Monday morning she would often refuse to talk to me, or, even worse, she would tease me — a pastime in which the other kids gleefully participated.

checklist with yes and no options
Photo from Pixabay on Pexels

Each day, as I arrived at school, dread pooled in the pit of my stomach as I waited to see whether or not Amber “liked” me that day.

I was an innocent kid, sheltered and naïve. Trusting. I was also desperately lonely. I can’t remember a single friend I had in first through fourth grade, with the exception of Amber. It made me a perfect candidate for psychological abuse .

“Hey, Nikki, do you want a bite of my banana?” Amber sang one day. As I reflect over the decades, I imagine her face in caricature: beady eyes; brows angled to a cartoonish degree; a smirk on her lips.

In the moment, though, I took her at face value. She had never offered me food before, but I didn’t think anything of it. And, anyway, I’m not one to turn down free food.

I shrugged, leaning in. “Sure.” I don’t like bananas that much, but getting something from Amber was better than getting nothing.

I had already taken a generous bite before I noticed the crowd that had gathered. As the food hit my tongue, I twisted up my face in disgust and spit the mushy mess out into my hand.

“Ew!” I cried, holding the half-chewed bite in my hand as I grimaced at Amber, the taste still acrid in my mouth. “What was that?”

“Horseradish!” she guffawed, and as I ran to the nearest trash can, the rest of the crowd erupted in laughter behind me.

Another day, as I was walking with my hands full, she tripped me. I fell on my face, unable to catch myself, and split open the bottom of my chin. I never spent much time feeling my chin before that day, but it was sore for months afterward and I was convinced that the tip of my chin had been broken off.

Amber moved away sometime after that, but I still felt the force of her manipulation. Her psychological abuse still touched me even from towns away. She was the master to my puppet, tugging at the twin strings of my need for approval and the belief that I was unworthy of love.

Somehow, by the age of eight years old, Amber had learned how to exploit my deepest needs, my biggest fears, and I — praised daily for my abundance of conventional intelligence — was none the wiser.


I moved away, too, and I found another Amber without even looking. This version came in the form of a duo, with one clear alpha, Loreli, and one obvious beta, Kelle, who together were basically my only friends.

When Loreli liked me, I felt like my life was worth living. But there were some days when Kelle would whisper, “Sorry,” and then say more loudly, “We don’t like you today.” And I would then be alone, once again subject to the whims of psychological abuse by an abusive and unpredictable girl.

I didn’t agree with some of the things Loreli did, but I felt pressured into doing them too, so that I could remain friends with her.

Loreli smoked cigarettes. I did not. “What?!” she asked, incredulous. When Loreli came to sleep over one night, we stole some cigarettes from my parents and, from then on, I was a smoker.

I didn’t inhale, though, I told her later on.

“What?! It’s not even worth it if you don’t inhale.”

By the age of twelve, I was smoking — and inhaling— daily.

Loreli was sexually active — or so she said. I was not, though I’d been sexually abused by a relative the year before and was still — am still — coming to terms with that. “What?!” she said when she learned of my inexperience.

I lost my virginity before she did, it turned out, and it wasn’t until I learned this that I felt duped.

She was a liar. She was a manipulator. She had tricked me into doing what even she had been unwilling to do. It was psychological abuse, plain and simple.

I’m so stupid, I thought. I felt so worthless.

And to top it off, I had messed up my life to — what? To impress her?

Well, it’s too late to turn back now, I said to myself as, rather than acknowledging my folly and turning back, I crept ever further down my new path — even after Loreli left school and stopped calling me.


Amber and Loreli weren’t the only unpredictable women in my life. At home, I was watching my mother self-medicate and behave erratically, and I felt powerless and insignificant in that relationship as well.

Many of my first physical relationships were equally unsatisfying. I perpetually sought a love that was absent from the circles in which I was seeking it.

The closest I got to a real sense of belonging was with a group of girlfriends I had in seventh and eighth grade. There were five of us, and we were all very close for a time. We had nicknames for each other, and we spent time together before and after school. We called each other on the phone, and we even created a logo for our group.

These girls, though they’d grown up with her, hadn’t been influenced by Loreli the way I had. None of these girls was sexually active. (I was.) None of them smoked or did drugs. (I did.) And none of them arbitrarily exerted power over their so-called friends in order to make themselves feel loved and worshipped and worthy.

But I did.

I am horrified, looking back now, at the things I did and said to this group of girls. I intentionally excluded certain ones from the group and pressured them all to do things they were uncomfortable doing. (Mostly, mercifully, they resisted.)

The girls whose parents were most involved in their lives began distancing themselves from me.

“My mom says you can’t come over anymore,” Ashley said.

“My mom says you’re a bad influence,” said Carolyn.

“Fuck them,” I said. “Sneak out.”

Angela’s sister, who was five years older than me, threatened to kick my ass if I talked to her sister again.

I was so indignant about losing my friends, and so painfully unaware that I was the one driving them away, that I completely turned my back on all of them and continued to self-destruct.


My oldest daughter, today, is just about the same age I was when I met Amber. She has already been subject to psychological abuse by her peers, used as a pawn by a girl her age in a controlling relationship, and I am terrified it will happen again.

My path has already been set. I didn’t “Turn Out Just Fine,” but neither can I go back and change the way I behaved based on my early relationships. I’ve done a lot of work to unravel what caused me to relinquish my own self-worth so freely, but that’s not my concern right now.

Right now, my concern is raising two beautifully self-aware girls — girls who don’t fall into the same patterns of psychological abuse I did, because they know beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are worthy of love, and that anyone who tells them differently is not fit to be in their lives.


Author’s note: I cannot speak for the girls I knew as a child, but I do know that abuse is a cycle and that it is possible these young ladies were abused themselves. If you or someone you know needs it, help is available. Watch your kids for signs of abuse; it doesn’t always look like you’d expect it to.


This story was originally published on Medium.com.

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.