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M&M Days

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Sept. 14, 2012

Don’t even ask me why I thought of M&Ms. I was having a hard day today–after having had a hard day yesterday–when the image of an orange M&M presented itself to me. Not having the energy to fight off this tiny UFO, I capitulated. So today I am an M&M. Yes, the candy. I know it’s dumb, so save your breath.

I’m orange and shiny on the outside. I am smooth and pleasingly shaped. A perfect little pod of Happy. I create a cool and pleasant “click” as I collide companionably with all of you other M&Ms in the larger M&M community.

Except that there is brown stuff inside me. Brown stuff which is threatening to liquefy at any moment. In fact, maybe it already has. Well, and you would assume it’s chocolate and shrug it off. But what if it’s not? What if I happen to be the one poop-filled M&M in all of M. County, XX, and you just haven’t figured it out yet?

I dropped by our administrative offices today to pick up some materials. The ladies who work there are great, great people; and I look forward to stopping in. I am not exaggerating. I ADORE them! But today was difficult. My neediness scared me, and I had to get out fast, before I had an accident. I longed to join their little fun-size bag of office camaraderie even if it meant volunteering for grunt work. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t. The caring and warmth of these women would have resulted in melting, and who knows where that might have lead? One little sneeze, one unintentional elbow or funny look, one chance remark….In fact, one false move of any sort would have started the hairline crack in my Happy, and poop would have happened.

Just being in the office this morning took great effort. It was hard to focus on the small talk and the task at hand because of the energy drain inherent in having to operate on Manual Override. On the one hand, I noted how much healing, growth, and self awareness I have under my belt at this ripe old age of 48. I realized, with surprise and gratitude, that I rarely have to operate on manual at all these days. On the other hand, this insight meant that today was a trip back into the familiar land we counselors like to call emotional dysregulation. Ain’t it grand? Come to think of it, that thought is probably why the M&M was visited upon me in the first place. M&Ms: pretty on the outside, crazy on the inside. M&Ms: melt in your mind, not in your hand.

I am just so darned experienced that I can (mostly) hide the craziness and (mostly) function normally until I wrangle the gerbils back into the cage. You can do this too, and here is a quick lesson. You just have to ask yourself about every 30 seconds: Am I being appropriate? What would a Normal Person do now? Then you do it. And you hope nobody sees the brown stain slowly blossoming on seat of your shorts. Afterwards, you go have a good cry and take a nap because Manual Override takes everything you’ve got.

It’s challenging to be professional at best, non-life-sucking at worst, when you crave a haven of unconditional love. Instead of unloading on the Executive Director, who is one of those Moms around whom you can’t help but feel safe, I had to try to be that normal person. Surely the chocolate-filled M&M wouldn’t throw herself on her superior, an overworked mother of three young boys (who is, by the way, at least a decade younger) and demand care. I am a counselor, for God’s sake, and this woman is my boss. Certainly Normal Me would not cry and feel left out because the director now has, as her office administrator, the woman who has been her best friend since childhood. They get to hang out together all the time! What–do I want her to be my best friend? YES! I mean, wait, NO! No offense intended. That’s the poop talking. I hope the office owns a canister of Febreze.

What is wrong with me!? Do you know that in the last two days, I’ve been doing my errands in a daze, once briefly forgetting where I was and feeling lost? This afternoon, I found myself unable to remember if I had eaten breakfast. Yes, counselors, we call this dissociation. I was in a haze like this once in the days after learning of the death of a dear friend. Same kind of weirdness.

I have friends. Very, very, very good ones! Well, yes, but they are very busy, and I don’t want them to think I’m dumping on them.

What I need most is to call my best friend, Hanna; or Skype with her; or write her a long letter. She knows my whole life. She always, always understands me, and she never gets tired of me–even when I have to process a-million-and-one iterations of the same matter, in my completely obsessive and annoying way, in order to bring my mind to rest. Sadly, reaching her is tough. She lives in Europe, and she works full time, and her husband tends to take over every conversation, but still….

Oh no! I just remembered: She fired me 9 months ago.

My direct supervisor, Tim, is very wise. Yesterday morning, I met with him to consult about a new case, a new couple I had met for the first time the day before. I was trying to figure out why worry had kept me from sleep. I was uncharacteristically distressed and felt completely stuck. The husband had assured me he didn’t have anything he needed to discuss in counseling. The wife had maintained she had come only in support of her husband. Hmmm, where did that leave me since they had asked for couples counseling and intended to return.

Part of what disturbed me about this couple was the wife’s denial. She had been alarmed enough about her husband’s behavior and the potential for violence to set up counseling. However, once she got him into my office, she had pooh-poohed (more excrement) and minimized everything. Obvious manifestations of mental illness were, in turn, labeled charming, fun-loving, rational, insightful, and demonstrative of superior intellect. Tim wondered if she had acted this way because she was scared of him. I’m not so sure. The couple owned a kennel, by the way, and spent a lot of time scooping…poop.

I lamented to Tim, “How can you know something and not know something at the same time, especially when it is so obvious?”

A long pause followed.

“Interesting you should ask that,” he replied with care….”I don’t think I can ever recall your saying a case kept you up at night. You don’t have to take this case, you know.”

It took a few moments for his meaning to penetrate. I had both known and kept myself from knowing so many things. At so many junctures. About Hanna and her husband Niko, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. My eventual refusal to collude with their reality had cost me their trust and a lifelong friendship.

“I can’t help them,” whispered. And then I just felt like crying.

I referred them out.

Later I climbed onto Jesus’ lap, curled up, and buried my face in his chest. He held me and told me I was good, and He stroked my hair.

His hand felt like my Dad’s.

This post is the latest in the thread The Story of Hanna. For the prior post in the thread, click here. For the next post, click here.

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Hunger

Image credit here.

Image credit here.

Some nights my eyes flutter open just as I am drifting off. Panic rises in my chest. I curl into my hollow, scooped-out belly. Tears quiver and shudder, silent in the darkness, born of feelings which slumber when I am awake.

I need my mother.

I need to touch her and smell her. I need to drink her in for the day she no longer walks the earth.

I don’t understand the urgent messages which bypass my logic and shake my body. Maybe they are not meant to be understood, for to analyze them is to diminish their pull and mystery.

My flesh issues from hers. Our viscera are forever bound, transmitting dispatches almost too subtle to apprehend. Only in the gloaming of sleep can they find their mark.

I am a defenseless child, sniffling in the night: Mommy!

She is blinking back sleep when I arrive around 9 p.m. on Saturday for a two-day stay. I love her for primping, yet it distresses me to see her curling-ironed hair and powdered face. I want Mom au Natural, the mother of my youth, who appears once this old girl stops caring about appearances. I love her naked face and her straight, fly-away hair. I love her mom musk. It’s just a little bit stinky.

We hug, and we can’t let go. Who is clinging to whom? I feel her still-strong back under the thin padding of age, and I am reassured despite her stoop and slowing gait. I breathe into her neck, and I nuzzle her whiskers, which both scratch and soothe. I kiss her cheek, and I kiss her cheek again. I hug her, and I kiss her cheek once more. I cannot release her. Stay with me forever, Mommy!

My mother looks weary and fragile in the bright lights as she moves about the kitchen with intentional steps. Her efforts are redolent of Estee Lauder and longing. And meatloaf, of course. She has my dinner warmed and ready, just in case. Just in case her girl is hungry. Tit for tat. We are both starved.

I eat. Every bite is delicious. I am afraid of taking too many nibbles, of eating her all up. She must be protected, conserved.

I command: Tell me when you want breakfast, and I will make it. Whatever you want. I want to serve you for a change.

She wants to please me. She tolerates my efforts the same way she managed those 8 a.m. Mother’s Day breakfasts in bed. Soon she is up from the table and bustling. She can’t help herself. Her love is palpable. But more than love is involved in these appetites. My mother must feed me so that I can feed her.

She consumes me hesitantly at first, without appearing to do so. Her hunger is gentle and timid, and I can bear it.

Mom was gifted but under-educated, insightful but unaffirmed. She has become opinionated but difficult to confront. She lacks the confidence to mount overt challenges, preferring sidelong jabs instead. She remains independent but lonely. My mother is so proud of me, so pleased to see me, that she has to check herself. Over the next two days, we walk and talk. We eat and talk. She talks and talks and talks, my listening presence both validation and repast.

I listen raptly and study her intently, filling my larder with rations I hope will not have to last for the rest of my life.

I see her crazy eyebrow hairs, her still-beautiful face. I pore over her fingers, which are bent into unnatural shapes by the slow progress of arthritis. I know her secret and take her right hand, needing to touch her palm. The graft from her stomach is brown and baby soft where she reached up and grabbed her mother’s scalding coffee. It comforts me.

I spread my spiritual arms to luxuriate in presence and in memory. Cookies baked, stories told, brows smoothed, books read. Gwen and Mom and I squeezed into a wing chair, one girl nestled on either side, as she reads The Wind in the Willows. I see us at the dining table with our friends as she supervises the annual gingerbread house and cookie decorating event. I can think of no other mother who allowed such prodigious, glorious, mess making! I recall her guided adventures through the wilderness of the forbidden creek. I feel pride in the fact that she was always chosen second—after Mr. Plotnick–for neighborhood baseball. You should haves seen her at bat! I hear her outrageous howl as she watches British television. My father never failed to become apoplectic over her “raucous laughter,” and that was part of the fun. Our walks around the sprawling suburban block with our terrier, Bonnie, were not chores, but events.

I have the best Mom ever! In my softened state, I am a honey-filled sponge.

I stockpile as fast as I can. I jump at every crumb.

My mother is filling as well, although she lags behind me. I wonder if age is responsible. She has regained some of her energy and form and is in touch with her hunger. In fact, she is becoming plucky.

By Monday morning I note signs of my impending saturation.

My mother doesn’t listen. Not really. She loves me beyond measure. This I know. But she has difficulty listening. Viewpoints and choices outside her range of comfort do not register–or they do not register as valid, which is almost the same thing and likely worse.

Mom asks me about myself. I open my mouth, and my responses become convenient segues into her stories. Another time, I feel tender enough to risk the slow wade into grief over the sudden death of our beloved Demont, a friend and brother since college despite infrequent contact in recent years.

My mother makes the attempt to hear me. She does. She tunes in closely when I speak of his daughter. I lament: How will she pay for college now? Aha. The fact that Shereen was born out of wedlock signals to my mother that her suspicions about Demont, whom she had warmly welcomed into her home on several occasions, have been warranted all along.

Oh, look! Mom notices something interesting as we drive the rolling hills. Demont is forgotten. Mom points out the window and begins to narrate passing scenes. She repeats stories I already know. I don’t think she knows how I feel or what has taken place. And I don’t tell her.

In the past, I have gently confronted my mother about her religious and political tirades. I have told her how anxious and trapped I feel when she goes on and on, assuming I am on the same bandwagon or that I need to be instructed about The Ways of the World. My mother is often able to curb her diatribes, at least in the short term, though leakage inevitably occurs.

Last year, she asked me point blank: Do you think I am racially prejudiced? I gave a point-blank answer: Yes. A long walk-and-talk was required. She was Very Hurt and Misunderstood. I used all my counseling skills and let her pick my bones clean. I velveted my paws out of love but I did not recant. What I did do, and this is not necessarily admirable, was spin her around with words which left her unsure of my meaning so that she, none the wiser, took from our talk the apology she needed in order to reassure herself that she is a Good Person.

Arguing back doesn’t hold much promise for change. I am not one to bang my head against the wall repeatedly just to see if the wall is still hard. My mother is doing the best she knows how, and she does work at expanding her views. She has come much farther than her parents and brother. I’ll give her credit for her efforts. And some sighs as well: Has she not noticed that our children have begun to stay away?

By the time I pack my bag, I am close to fed up. Mom’s logic is emotional, squishy. She is sentimental. With dewy eyes, she must touch, squeeze, hug, pat, and rub to better draw out my juices. I have reverted to childhood defenses: I am hard and smooth and logical. I cannot not tolerate this slop.

I feel guilty accepting the half-peck of peaches, the tub of gummi worms, the two bars of Belgian chocolate, the three bags of dog treats, the four jars of jam, and the partridge in the pear tree. I know I am starting to have unkind thoughts. Damn her, anyway. I do not want to see her I’m-trying-to-be-brave smile and martyred gaze as I step into my car. I do not want to know that I am leaving her unsatisfied, the visit an hors d’oeuvre, a down payment. Love has become an intellectual phenomenon, and I need to get the hell out of here.

It’s been just over a week since my return. My stomach is starting to rumble.

The Chicken or the Egg

The Chicken or the Egg

A little girl lives within the wrinkling woman.

She answers only to Pippi—if she answers at all. She is semi feral.

Pippi looks at me with her cool, unblinking grey eyes. Her head cocks slightly. And then she is gone, pigtails swishing. She moves like lightning.

For the longest time, I didn’t know she was there. She skirted the corners of my vision but was gone before my mind could fully apprehend her.

Things went missing here and there but I still doubted–until one day when she went too far. She carried off a jar of green olives I had been saving for myself. I caught her sitting against the bricks of my childhood home in the secret spot beneath the shrubs. I know where kids like to hide. Her toes were happily kneading the clean dirt while the rest of her was engrossed in my olives. One by one, she popped them in her mouth, sucked their delicious brine and then, as penance, swallowed the lifeless pulp.

I watched her for some time before she noticed my spying. We sized each other up in silence for several moments, and she did not run. Her calm unnerved me. It was I who backed away. I had the odd feeling it was I who had intruded instead of it’s being the other way around.

I tried offering Pippi food and clothing. The clothing she had was worn and dirty, her bare feet stained green with grass. Something sticky and now dirt covered ran down her chin and neck. I am pretty sure she had been in my peach tree. She ran from me every time I held out my hand.

I learned to pretend. Usable items ended up on my doorstep in a paper bag designated for charity. I looked the other way when articles disappeared. Other times, I made a big show of leaving the house after grocery shopping or cooking a good meal. Of course, I forgot to lock the door behind me. Warm sugar and spice cookies were her favorite.

I guess Pippi needed to know I wouldn’t try to control her. A wild creature senses that dependence can be dangerous. What if she allowed herself to rely on me? She might lose the stamina and skills she needed to return to life on her own, and that could be fatal.

Over time, we have become friends of a sort. Pippi can talk, but she says little. She doesn’t seem to have need of it, as she prefers the ways of leaves and earthworms.

Once Pippi decided I was no threat, she became comfortable enough to continue her singing in my presence. I learned she could read when I saw her sitting in the boughs of her beloved apple tree last August singing Christmas carols from booklets she could only have pilfered from my attic.

I took an enormous risk one day and hired a neighbor to build a sturdy tree house in her tree. I knew she would never ask. But would she accept? She did. As if in thanks, she walked into my kitchen the next week in broad daylight and whispered: “Cookies and milk, please.” We celebrated communion.

We’ve entered a new chapter. Every now and then, Pippi sneaks into my bed at night and curls up against me. I pretend not to see her even as I stroke her head and listen to her sighs of contentment. I cuddle her the way Jesus does me.

The Big Red Robe

The Big Red Robe

My big red bathrobe is 100% cotton and should smell like a clean towel. Yet for some reason, it has always been a little stinky. Laundering doesn’t help. But according to one daughter, the robe smells like love. Kids are funny that way. And scents are evocative. So I guess I’ll go with that compliment and try not to invalidate it by recalling that another daughter once publicly declared that my armpits smell like heaven.

My Dad died in Feb. of 1990, over a year and a half before our first child arrived. The Christmas before his death from cancer, he and my mother went on a grand shopping spree. I believe he sensed he would not recover.

One of his gifts to me was this red robe. I appreciated the robe but I never liked it. It was so thick, so heavy, so ENORMOUS that wearing it made me clumsy and sweaty. The sleeves were so long I could never roll them up far enough to do dishes without getting them soaked. Mostly, the robe hung in my closet and awaited its true calling.

As our children came into the world, the robe started to come in handy. I wore it as I nursed them. I rocked them in it when ear infections kept them up at night. It was big enough to wrap us both cozily within its folds. When the girls were a little older, we’d sit together inside the robe, each of us taking one sleeve and closing the robe around us. Claire wore it at breakfast so she could smell the love. Wearing it when they were sick helped the girls feel better.

I will never be able to get rid of that smelly robe now. And I no longer want to.

Thank you, Dad.

This post is part of Family Rules. For the prior post click here. For the next post, click here.

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