Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Serenity, Change, and What's up With This GOD Stuff?

Every year I look back on the events of the past 12 months and think, “Wow. Did that REALLY happen?” It seems that like so many others, God has read my list of best-laid plans and, like the consummate editor he is, made his own revisions – to everything - my work, my relationships, my children, my life.

This used to really piss me off. Still does, sometimes. Because then it’s just more dirty items on my laundry list of “Things I Have to Fix”. Shoot, God. I thought that job was going to work out. Dammit, God, I thought he was the one. For God’s sake, God, I thought my kid was out of the woods. All right, God, can you just give me a break here? I can’t manage all this. It’s too much. I’m losing control.
Exactly. That's not necessarily a bad thing, losing control.
Certain support and recovery groups use the Serenity Prayer as their mantra, but you can find it on posters and coffee mugs and internet memes all over, so it’s pretty universal. Come on, say it with me:
“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
It’s easy to say that and not realize what you’re saying. So let’s break it down.

First of all, the God thing. For those of you who don’t believe in God, look at it this way. GOD can stand for a lot of things: Good Orderly Direction, Gift Of Desperation, whatever it is that you look up to when you’re down. In recovery circles, they refer to this as your Higher Power. Your Higher Power is whatever you see that’s stronger than you, that you can rely on, that you can talk to in a time of crisis. It can be a deity, or a person, or a group – wherever you find your strength to move through this life. And you don’t even have to call it a prayer. Consider it more of a mantra, which is the cool thing nowadays anyway given all the mindfulness and meditation that is so prevalent - and effective - in our culture.

No, no no. That's not right.
Grant me the serenity …
You’re not asking to be given serenity. By definition, “grant” means to bestow or agree to, as in “grant a request”. It also means to admit or concede, so right there you’re kind of letting go and admitting you need something else – a power greater than yourself – to grant you this characteristic. Grant also means to transfer, which makes sense, because a Higher Power has what you need, and is willing to bestow it upon you if you ask. And what you’re asking for is serenity – calm. Peace of mind. Repose. This doesn’t mean you’re asking for everything to be FIXED, or GO AWAY. You’re asking that YOU be given the placidity to move through it all.

To accept the things I cannot change …
Whoa. What? You give me the hardest line right out of the gate. What do you mean “accept the things I can’t change”? Doesn’t that mean – gasp – letting go of CONTROL???? How am I supposed to change anything if I just sit back and say, “Well, there’s nothing I can do about that!”
Because there are some things – some situations – some people – in this world you can’t change. Especially if they’re not YOU – and most of them aren’t. Maybe you think if you could just say the right words to your friend she’d leave her abusive husband. You’ll even risk your friendship trying to convince her of something she doesn’t yet believe. Maybe you think if you put stiff restrictions on your teenager and monitor his every move he won’t keep doing drugs or abusing alcohol. But if he wants to do it, he’s going to find a way regardless of your rules. Maybe you don’t agree with a lifestyle choice a family member has made and you take every chance you get to let him know, and your relationship with him suffers as a result. You didn't change them anyway, you just pissed them off. It's not up to you. It’s up to THEM to find THEIR Higher Power and say the next line of the mantra for THEMSELVES, which is …

The courage to change the things I can …
See, you need courage, because the things you can change are right there in the mirror. You. That’s the only change you have even some semblance of control over, and that change can be as hard as shit on a cold day. It's realizing you're judging others and making “recommendations” on how they could better themselves or their situations. STOP IT. Unless you’re a therapist or they’re asking directly for your help and advice, zip it up and concentrate on yourself.
No, this isn’t being selfish, and in some cases, it will improve your relationship with those people you are trying so hard to change. Because here’s the deal. There are lots of ways you can learn how to better communicate with, better process and better understand those around you, and that’s by learning and listening. That can be sitting with a despondent friend who just needs someone to talk to and NOT telling them to “cheer up” or "go for a walk and you'll feel better." It's reading books or finding support groups to educate yourself on addiction in order to understand to some extent what someone struggling with the disease is facing, and realizing that your advice and restrictions are only fueling their fire because the addiction is not YOURS, it is THEIRS, and no one but THEM will ever be the deciding factor to get help.

In many cases, it will be deciding to change how you interact with or react to these people. Maybe you "love and let be", and accept the issues you have with them. Maybe you can no longer be their friend, or engage in a discussion about a certain topic. Maybe you realize it's unhealthy for them to remain in your home or be financially dependent on you. Maybe, for the sake of your own serenity, you need to make changes to relationships that are incredibly tough but also necessary for your own self-preservation. It isn’t selfish, especially if you find that those relationships are having a negative impact on you and your life.

And the wisdom to know the difference.
It’s a tall order, asking for serenity AND wisdom. But there is sometimes a fine line between knowing what you can and can’t change. The rule of thumb is that basically you can change yourself; others you can only love. You can get a new job, move to a new town, decide to enter or exit a relationship, dress a certain way, eat certain foods, take care of your body positively or negatively. That’s all on you.
You can’t do all that for someone else, and telling them what they need to do to change whatever it is you want them to change is an exercise in futility. Again, if they ask you for help, that’s one thing. If they want to change and they need guidance, that’s a different story. But you have to stop thinking – even though you may think you KNOW what is best and good and right – that you have the power to change someone else. You don’t – only they do. The sooner you know the difference, the sooner you can start bettering yourself and stop bashing your head against the wall.

One more thing …
Sometimes, two little words are added to this saying that make all the difference in the world. For today. Not for this week, or this year, or this lifetime. Just for today. Because as I eluded to earlier, “You plan and God laughs.” You don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, or the next day or the next. So don’t ask for serenity for those days until they’re here. Focus on today. Focus on now, and how you can accept what you can’t change, change what you can, and become smart enough to know the difference.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

49 and doing … fine.

For the past few years, I’ve written a blog on or around my birthday as kind of a retrospect as I plod through my 40s. Now that I’m kissing up to 50, it’s time to review my second-to-last year of my fourth decade. And as per usual, it’s been anything but usual.

I didn’t use “fine” in my title only because it rhymes with “nine”. I’ve found that “fine” has been my go-to word – as it is for many – that non-committal, non-controversial, non-conversation-inducing answer to anything from the indifferent, “How’s it going?” to the more interested, “How was your weekend?” to the landmine laden, “So, how’s your son doing?” “Fine” is safe. “Fine” lets everyone know you’re status quo. Nothing more to see here, folks. Move along.

No one’s really “fine,” though, are they? I mean, everyone has their shit. That’s one thing I’ve learned in this past decade. “Don’t compare your inside to someone else's outside.” Of course, it also doesn’t mean when someone asks, “How’s it going?” you launch into a laundry list of things that are wrong in your life. (I know people who do this. Hint to those people: Start using “fine.”)

However, there is some real benefit to sharing at the right time. I’ve been told by quite a few people that my blog is “honest,” “raw,” “blunt” and whatever other words are a nice way of saying “I cannot believe you actually wrote that down for everyone to see.” But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I don’t write what I write for sympathy or accolades. I’m not writing for the masses and I don’t want to be famous. It’s nice if people like what I write, sure. But what I LOVE – and what compels me to write every single time – is knowing that I can't be the only one – that SOMEONE out there HAS to be experiencing or feeling something similar. And nine times out of ten, that’s the case. I’ll get a private message or email from one person or several saying, “I’m going through the same thing!” or “Thank you for saying what I couldn’t say.” It HELPS people. It lets people know they’re not ALONE. And in this day and age of people texting versus talking and social media making it look like everyone’s life is perfect except yours, you need someone to say, “This is my shit. If you have the same shit, I’m with you. I get it. Let’s talk.”

So it seems ironic that I start this post by talking about being “fine.” I mean, I am FINE, generally speaking. I have a roof over my head, a good job and I’m healthy. I can’t complain that my basic needs aren’t being met. That’s more than a lot of people can say these days. But true to form, my life and the situations around me never seem to follow a straight line. I once referred to them as “God’s curve balls,” but now it’s more like God has one of those ball machines and he’s just pelting me right and left with them.

But the thing is, there’s this thing called “stigma.” And it’s rampant in our culture. “Stigma” by definition is, “a mark of disgrace associated with a particular circumstance, quality or person.” And unfortunately, stigma prevents a lot of people from talking. From sharing. From helping and healing. I am truly amazed at the people I have known – some I even had to release from my life – who were so judgmental about things they knew NOTHING about or had never experienced. And they were so ADAMANT in their judgment, too, so much so that I wanted to blurt out, “You’re an idiot and you don’t know what you’re talking about so just shut the hell up because you’re making a fool out of yourself.” But instead I said, “Well, if that’s what you think then that’s fine," all while cursing them under my breath.

See, it’s not fine. We need to either stick to topics we know something about or come into a conversation open-minded and asking questions. It’s OK to do that in order to learn. When I was going to see my son for the first time in a long time, I asked an advisor how many questions I could ask him without seeming to be probing or judging. She said simply, "Be curious."

Be curious. What a novel idea. Talking to someone out of true curiosity to learn about that person or their situation is probably going to be better accepted than an automatic defensive opinion. And if after your curiosity is satiated you choose to accept or not to accept based on knowledge and (preferably) experience? Well, fine.

Just think of all the stigmas we have out there. Mental illness is a big one. Sexual orientation. Gender identity. Ethnicity. Religion. Absence of religion. Addiction. And many who are outspoken in order to educate people about a stigma are usually labeled as a blowhard, or an outcast, or misplaced, or abnormal, or odd (except by those who are sitting in the wings going, "Me, too!") Kind of like the Island of Misfit Toys in Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer. See? Stigma against red noses. Sheesh. 

Someone recently asked me, “Does it ever scare you to hit the ‘Publish’ button after you’ve written something?” I said, “Sure – every single time. But that’s when I know it’s good. When it scares me.” However, there are a few stigmas in my life that I can’t quite hit “Publish” on yet. Boy I sure want to. Because I know there are many, many people out there who could relate, and who I could potentially help. But I’m not ready. The past year has been full of quite a bit of judgment as I’ve navigated some unfamiliar waters, and I’ve found that the only comfort comes from those who are swimming in the same pool, not those who are sitting up on the deck. Those of us in the pool help each other – when one of us starts to go under, the better swimmers throw out a life preserver, while the ones on the deck just sit there and wonder how the hell we even got in the water in the first place.

That’s stigma. And that’s what I’ve struggled with this past year. On the other hand, I’ve become an excellent swimmer. I became stronger this year than I think I have ever been, both physically and mentally. I’ve learned what I NEED in order to keep my head above water, but I’ve also learned that you may find that you’re treading water like crazy trying to keep someone else afloat thinking you’re saving them, when in actuality you’re both going to drown. And that’s when you have to say to that person, “It’s time you learned to swim.”

Here’s what I’m trying to say. Forty-eight definitely had it’s challenges – once again. But it was also a great learning year and a great growing year. I realized that my life is always going to be a little quirky, and I’m probably going to continue to find myself dealing with unique situations unlike many of my peers. But instead of trying to fight it and wonder why the hell I can’t just be “normal,” I’m embracing it, learning how to manage it, and offering flotation devices to anyone who might find themselves at the edge of the same pool.

“Come on in,” I’ll say. “The water’s fine.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

"I am the storm."

In the past few months, I've felt better than I have been since the summer of 2013. That was when shit hit the fan in my world, and little did I know how much shit and how big of a fan I would be dealing with for what seemed like would be for the rest of my life.

Quick recap: In May of 2013, I was let go from my job as part of a downsizing. Not my first rodeo with a mom and pop company, but hopefully my last. The next month, my mom, on the day she was supposed to receive her LAST chemo treatment for ovarian cancer, suffered her first of two brain aneurysms and had her first brain surgery. A month later, one week into my new job at a new company, she had her second aneurysm and subsequent brain surgery. My friend, mentor and advisor, Norma Mall, also died in July of that year. And that fall, my son’s life started spiraling out of control, taking me with it.

Little did I know that the next two years would be a veritable shitstorm, leaving me clinically depressed, overweight and completely broken. Looking back, those years were so full of tears, sleepless nights, panic, sadness, hopelessness and fear that I am truly amazed I am still here today. There are a number of people who deserve credit for helping me through this time; but ironically, most of them are people I do not know well. Friends drifted away as I pushed them away; only one or two remain. New ones I met shared one or more common denominators that drew us together, for just a season or longer.

By some grace of God (and a balanced cocktail of medication), I feel like I am emerging from the ashes of the past few years, albeit more like a burn victim than a phoenix, but whatever. It’s truly taken some hard work, soul searching and a huge amount of letting go. It didn’t happen overnight, and I’m not all the way there yet. But instead of seating my emotions in the front car of an endless roller coaster, we’re more like riding in a convertible over the hills of Kentucky.

Here’s what I’ve figured out:

I can’t change others (aka "Serenity Now.") “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.” Easy to say; difficult to realize. For so many years, I tried to parent the way I thought was best - because I was the parent and I thought that’s what parents did. But there comes a time when giving your best turns into giving too much and losing yourself in the process. This quote says it best: "I will not continue to set myself on fire just to keep you warm."

Even if you are completely sure what is best for your child, it will get to the point where you need to just stop, and realize that no change is going to happen unless the child wills it. So you stop parenting on the outside, even though it hurts to see your child flounder and make poor decisions and do things that you don’t think he should do. But in the end there is nothing – NOTHING more you can do but parent on the inside and let him know that you’re there waiting in the wings IF he should need you. So you take all that energy you were expelling and you work on yourself  - changing the things you can and gaining more and more wisdom every day.

I’m OK being alone. I mean this twofold. I enjoy being alone and doing my own thing. It’s been 10 years since I’ve been in a marriage and it’s true – the older I get, the harder I think it becomes to let someone in to my life on a daily basis. I like not having to answer to anyone and waking up on a Saturday with my own agenda. I’ve found that as much as I am envious of those I see on Facebook who go to this party and that social event and are always surrounded by a bunch of friends, I am not that person. I like my alone time and I have a few close friends, and that’s OK. Would I like to have someone to share life with? Yes, I would. I would love to meet someone who would not make me miss being alone so much. Someone with whom I’d rather be with than be alone. That’d be cool. But until then, I’m OK.

Calories in, calories out. It’s just that simple, and I credit my high school friend Mark Buesing for the mantra he’s been preaching for years that I just recently adopted. I mean, DUH. In the past month, I’ve started tracking what I eat and when I exercise, and I’ve learned a TON. Namely that I eat too many empty calories for no good reason. Like those stupid chocolates in the bowl at work. Now if I get a craving for one, I think, “This fun-size Snickers bar is 80 calories. Is it worth it?” Sometimes it is, and I work it off later. Sometimes I walk right by it. It’s awesome. I joined a gym right near work and realized I had forgotten how much I actually ENJOY working out. I gifted myself 10 sessions with a personal trainer that have been well worth the money simply for what they do for my mood, my confidence and my motivation. Hell, I’m going to the gym at 5:30 in the morning!!! Oh, and I’ve lost seven pounds since the end of September, thank you very much. Now this may sound vain, but being heavier than I have ever been made me hate myself to the point where I didn’t even want to go out for fear that someone would whisper, “Is that Amy? I barely recognized her – she’s put on weight!” I have a ways to go, but knowing I CAN drop it has given me promise.

I love my job and I better not f*&k it up. By the grace of GOD, I have somehow, at 48 years old, FINALLY landed at a great company where I truly feel like I have a CAREER rather than a JOB. A company with a retirement plan and great benefits that is well-run and did I mention less than five minutes from my house? It’s probably no surprise that I started this job in May, right around the time things started to turn around for me. Now it’s up to me not to screw it up. I’d love to make a difference here, advance here, and retire from here. There’s no reason I shouldn’t. I just need to keep my attitude in check, especially when it comes to being supervised by women younger than me. It can be a challenge balancing the fact that I know they know more than me or they wouldn’t be in their positions, but I wish they’d realize that I have about 10 plus years of experience on them and I’m more capable than I think they’re giving me credit for. Deep breath when this happens – don’t f*&k it up, Amy. This is a good one.

I can’t fix my family any more than my mom could (see Serenity Prayer.) My mom was all about family, and she absolutely hated it when things were not right with us, even when she was right at the center of it. I’m sure she’s not very happy with how we’ve done since she’s been gone. I guess I figured we’d all kind of bond together after her death just over a year and a half ago, since her illness seemed to bring us closer together. But that hasn’t been the case. I can’t remember the last time I saw or spoke to one, another won’t accept my sincere apology for something that happened nearly six months ago, and another I usually only talk to when something’s wrong. Who would have thought that I’d spend more time with my dad than any other member of my family? (Yes I know how lucky I am for sure about that!) However, I’d like to crawl into bed right before Thanksgiving and not wake up until after Christmas if it's all the same to you. But as much as this bugs me at times, I remember that if and when a crisis hits, all the crap will go away and we will be there for each other just like we were with my mom. And that will give her peace.

My happiness is my choice. A friend of mine is battling her second bout with breast cancer. In addition to her warrior attitude, she has an incredible and enviable Army around her (yes, I meant to capitalize that) who barrage her with uplifting support and gifts, help with her kids, meals and doctor appointments, and offer positive thoughts and prayers. A few weeks ago, I found a saying that I thought was so perfect for her because I could just imagine her face as she said it over and over. But the more I read it, the more I saw MYSELF saying it over and over, so much so that I taped it to my mirror so I can see it every day. It says, “Fate whispers to the warrior, "You cannot withstand the storm." And the warrior whispers back, "I am the storm."

My friend is in the middle a hell of a storm - I do not for a minute think that mine is worse than hers. Everyone has their storms, I realize. But over the past couple of years, I’ve weathered quite a squall myself, and came out of it completely drenched from head to toe, and I could have stayed that way. But I chose to dry myself off. I chose to face the sun again to warm me and lift me up. And that’s not easy – but I’ve stopped letting the things and people around me dictate my happiness. It’s not up to them – it’s up to me. As one of my son's mentors would tell him, “You choose, Buddy,” I now choose every day. I choose to wake up and decide I’m going to have a good day before the day even starts. I choose to exercise and avoid the Snickers (most of the time.) I choose to work hard at my job and blow off the annoyances as best I can. I choose to make the most of my life instead of looking for someone to make it for me. And I choose to “let go and let God” as much as I possibly can when it comes to situations and people I can’t – and shouldn’t – control or change.

For the first time in a long time, I’m hopeful. I know I’ll be faced with hard times in the future just like everyone else and yes, that does scare me – a lot. But for right now, I’m going to try to live my life the best way I can, choose to be happy and enjoy the calm (for however long it lasts) before the next storm.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Got drugs? I need them. Give them to me.

As a volunteer member of the Peoria Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, I’ll be at the Peoria Heights Police Department on Saturday collecting your old or unused prescription drugs during National Drug Take Back Day. This event is taking place at police departments and agencies across the nation to help curb the purposeful or accidental use and misuse of prescription drugs, as well as the improper disposal of such drugs into the trash or water systems – both potential health and safety hazards.

Last year the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and 4,076 of its national, tribal, and community law enforcement partners collected 617,150 pounds (309 tons) of unwanted prescription drugs at 5,495 collection sites. Begun in 2010, this brought the program's collection total to 4,823,251 pounds, or 2,411 tons — a clear indication of an ongoing need.

These drugs run the gamut from mild sedatives to potent pain killers that are subject to the taking by anyone with access to them — either on purpose or accidentally. This can be a young person looking to experiment, an aging parent who grabs the wrong pill bottle, or someone who chances that an expired prescription will do them no harm.

Fun Fact:

The Peoria Substance Abuse Prevention (SAP) Coalition's mission is to work to prevent and reduce substance abuse in Peoria County through collaboration, education and awareness for a healthier community.

The misuse of prescription drugs is second only to marijuana use as the nation's most commonly used illicit drug. A U.S. government report shows that more than 70 percent of people who first misuse prescription drugs get them from their friends, relatives or simply take them without asking.

(Start rant.) And here's the deal, parents. Even if you think "my kid would never" or "my kid's friends would never," WAKE UP. They could. They might. They do. So just get your heads out of the sand and get rid of them - just in case. K? (End rant.)

This is a no-questions asked, no judgment passed opportunity for you to dispose of prescription drugs safely, and it takes no time at all. Heck, if you don’t want to get out of your car, text me or wave me over and I’ll come to you (if I’m allowed to do that. I’m not sure. Just throw them out the window at me and I’ll make sure some responsible person comes over and grabs them.)

Here's the details.

National Drug Take Back Day runs from 10 am – 2 pm on Saturday, September 26th. Collection sites in the Peoria area include:

Peoria Heights Police Department (this is where I'll be!)
1311 E. Sciota Ave. in the Heights

Peoria Police Department
600 SW Adams St., Downtown Peoria

Bartonville Police Department
5918 S. Adams St., Bartonville

To find the event in your area, visit the DEA website at and enter your ZIP code.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Suicide: I get it. And you need to, also.

In case you didn’t know, today is World Suicide Prevention Day. It’s also National Suicide Prevention Week, as proclaimed by the American Association of Suicidology, a nonprofit membership organization dedicated to understanding and preventing suicide.

A few facts before I get into my opinions:

• Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death for Americans.
• The highest suicide rate is among people 54–65 years old.
• Suicide is four times higher among men than women.
• The most common method is firearms (51.4%), with hangings/suffocation and poisonings coming  in second and third.
• In 2013, 41,149 suicides were reported. However, nearly 500,000 people visited hospitals for injuries due to self-harm (granted, not all may have been suicide attempts.)

It’s funny how we seem to be able to talk about suicide and suicide prevention more than we can talk about mental illness. Interestingly, the National Alliance on Mental Illness provides research that finds about 90% of individuals who die by suicide have been diagnosed with mental illness. I’ll bet there’s a pretty large portion who have NOT been diagnosed, however, but still suffer from it. That’s another discussion that has to do with the mental illness stigma, insurance coverage, and ease of getting in to see a professional for help.

It’s easy to judge someone who has committed suicide, or someone who has attempted suicide. Even someone who may talk about suicide. It’s kind of like people need to somehow rationalize something they don’t understand.

People do this a lot. And it’s usually only then that they play the “Oh, he committed suicide. He must have had a mental illness” card. Oh, OK, NOW you want to talk about mental illness like you’re the expert. Got it.

Fun Fact: Don't tell a despondent person, "I know how you feel - I was depressed once for a few days." Now if you suffered from depression or another mental illness and feel comfortable sharing, that may be helpful. But if you don't, don't cheapen their feelings by bringing up your bout with sadness.

Honestly? I get suicide. I truly get it. I get that there comes a point where you think that you just can’t go on for one more day. I get that you can get to the point where you can’t deal with one more obstacle or issue. I get that you can’t pretend to be OK at school or work or around your family or friends for one more minute. Because along with suicide comes that inability to TRY anymore – to do that good old “pull yourself up by your bootstraps and get on with your day” bullshit anymore. It’s impossible. Hell, sometimes you can’t even get out of bed. Then what happens? You feel like a lazy ass who is feeling sorry for yourself and you can’t call that friend you’ve called already 100 times because you’re sure she’s sick of hearing you whine and cry. So that light at the end of the tunnel that everyone tells you is there becomes dimmer and dimmer.

And then there are those amazing people who are living with horrible tragedies that would put most ordinary people in an early grave like the loss of a child or spouse, a horrible illness or disability or financial ruin. These are the people you admire so very much and assume that they are SO much stronger than you and that you are SO much weaker than them. And watching them overcome more than what you are dealing with makes you feel even worse for not being able to deal with your own seemingly minuscule problems that – to you – are just mountainous.

Fun Fact: Telling a potentially suicidal person that “things could be worse” is NOT a good idea.

For those who think suicide is selfish, I beg to differ. Nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, the person feels as if they are doing others a favor by leaving this world. They feel they are a burden. They feel as if they should be “getting better” but they’re not, so they withdraw even more because they feel powerless to do whatever people may be telling them to do to get themselves out of it. They don’t want to hurt anyone. They just desperately want their own hurt to go away, and they don’t see that happening. They understand that those who love them will mourn them, but also figure that in time, things will go back to normal and they will breathe a little sigh of relief that they don’t have to worry about or take care of that person anymore. This is how the suicidal person sees it.

So many who are left behind want to know why. What was SO bad in this person’s life that caused him to take his own life? I mean, there is nothing that could have possibly been in that person’s life that was insurmountable. In fact, some see suicide as the ultimate overreaction.

I respectfully disagree. Our feelings and reactions are unique, and the ways in which we cope and process our demons are as different as snowflakes in a blizzard. A suicidal person may be fixated on not fitting in with his or her peers – he may think everyone hates him and that he is completely unlikeable. To others, he or she may seem popular. A suicidal person may hate how they look to the point that they cover up every mirror in their home, but to others they may be considered attractive. A suicidal person may feel as if she cannot take one more obstacle and that life keeps dealing her blow after blow. Her peers may see her as strong and independent – able to deal with anything that comes her way.

Suicidal people become obsessed with whatever it is that is wrong with their life and become even more despondent as they see it not going away. They’ve lost the energy to TRY to make it go away. They feel as if they’ve lost the support to help it go away – even if they haven’t even scratched the surface of their support. Because on the outside, suicide is talked about as selfish. An overreaction. Failure to be able to cope. So why would a suicidal person talk to someone who is going to tell them about somebody else who has it worse? Or suggest they take walk? Or get a pedicure?

Fun Fact: Telling someone who is depressed to “cheer up” is like Rose telling Jack to do a few bobs in the water and he’ll feel a lot warmer while they wait for the rescue boat to arrive.

People are well-meaning, and I’m not blaming them. Because a well-adjusted person of “normal” mental health doesn’t think like a suicidal person. It’s almost like the suicidal person is missing that little piece that not only tells him that everything is going to be OK, but allows him to believe it.

Yes, there is counseling. But for many, it’s difficult to make that first call. To know who to call. To find a way to get to that appointment. To wait three weeks to be seen. Then there’s the stigma of medication. The cost of medication. But mostly the stigma.

Then what’s left is the Suicide Hotline – which for many I’m sure has been the ultimate Godsend. For others – the act of picking up that phone and dialing that number is harder than committing the act of suicide itself. What are they going to possibly say to make me feel better? They’re just going to try to change my mind. When I hang up the phone, then where will I be?

I don’t have answers, but the first thing we have to do is end the stigma, get our heads out of our asses and start talking about this stuff. Quit pretending that it’s not ever going to happen to someone you know or someone you love. Start talking about mental illness and let’s give it the ticker tape parade we give to breast cancer prevention or Alzheimer’s, diseases that are much more readily “accepted” in our culture.

With everything going on in each of our lives, I know it’s hard to stop and sit down and make a phone call or arrange to meet a friend who you may suspect is going through it. It’s uncomfortable. You may not know what to say. Here are a couple of ideas:

“You’re right. This sucks.” Someone who is depressed or despondent doesn’t necessarily want cheering up, as counterproductive as that sounds. They want to hear that they are understood, and that their feelings are viable.

“I’m here if you want to talk” (walk, go shopping, get a bit to eat, etc.) Better yet, suggest a date and a time for a get together. Nothing big with a lot of people. Maybe there’s an art exhibit in town you know they’d like or a restaurant that has a special on a certain day. Make a date. For someone who is depressed, having something to look forward to – no matter how small – is crucial. Above all, do not cancel.

“You will not feel this way forever.” This may seem a little “Pollyanna,” but hearing this does give a despondent person hope. Hope that their feelings are temporary, hope that they’ll feel better, and that in a week, or a month, or a year, they’ll look back on this as just a point in time and nothing more.

“It’s not your fault.” Someone with severe depression hates that she feels depressed. She doesn’t know why she can’t bring herself out of this seemingly endless pool of quicksand. She knows that her issues aren’t the worst things anyone has ever experienced, but as I mentioned before, this only makes her feel worse. Telling her that you realize the depth of her sadness is not her fault - even if you don't fully understand it - releases an immense burden.

I know it’s uncomfortable to talk about. But I guarantee the other person is just as uncomfortable but may be more grateful than you can ever, ever image. So do it anyway. You never know what kind of lifeline – or life saver – you could be to that person.

Visit the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to find out how you can learn, how you can understand, and how you can help.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Day 105 ... The Thrill is Gone

Back in the day, I knew exactly how many days there were of summer vacation (104, according to Phineas and Ferb.) Accordingly, as the weeks in August grew as long as my patience grew short, I knew exactly how many days until school started.

I was the one who scoured the ads to find the best deals on notebooks, folders, binders and pens. It was always an expedition with my two kids to shop for supplies. "How are you going to stay organized this year? How about this binder with the accordion folder built in? Here's one that has a place for your pencils. Oh, don't get black. You won't be able to put your name on it with a Sharpie. Do you want the ball point pens or the roller gel? Regular #2s or mechanical pencils?" I'd even go so far as to shop several stores to ensure that they all had different colored folders for each subject. "Blue, black, red, green, purple... where's yellow? What about orange? I can't get pink... shit." (Apologies to all you "gender neutral" people - my kids don't dig pink. Sorry.)

In the days leading up to the first day of school, I was on a mission to squeeze every last ounce of summer out of its pores. Anything we had even mentioned we had thought about doing during those two and a half months we somehow managed to cram into those last few weeks. Lou's Drive-In? Let's go! Bicycle Safety Town? Missed that one too - let's go! One more day at the pool, one more cookout, one more night of catching fireflies, one more night of staying out late in the neighborhood with friends. The whole "start a bedtime routine a few weeks before school starts" was lost on me. IT'S STILL SUMMER.

That's all changed. Hell, last year I didn't even witness the first day of either of my boys' school. When my youngest started, I was out of state visiting my oldest. When my oldest started, I was back here in Peoria. Right place, wrong time ... story of my life.

This year, I'll see my youngest start 8th grade. But it's not quite the same. In fact, it was just over a week and a half ago that I was perusing my Google calendar and saw, "L - 1st Day 8th Grade" and thought, "SHIT! Really?"

But that was it. I didn't get that anxious feeling that I needed to run home and have him make a list of everything we didn't do this summer so we could pack it in to the next 10 days. I didn't even rush out to buy school supplies. Here's literally how this went down:

"OK. Wal-Mart. The bane of my existence. But I need bread, hamburger, shampoo, dog treats and toilet paper. Oh, look! School supplies! Let's see - probably seven classes, right? OK. Notebooks, right? Black, red, blue, green, purple ... that's five ... oh, hell. Another black, another red, another blue. He'll figure it out. Pens? Cheapest. Pencils? Cheapest. Markers and colored pencils - do they still  need those in 8th? I'll get 'em just in case. Binder? Hmmm... he had one like this last year ... all they have is black ... I'll put a cable tie on it so he knows it's his."

What once took me an excruciating amount of time now took 20 minutes, tops. And that  included trying to remember what kind of calculator he needed. TI200? RXiiC? R2D2? Meh. He won't need it on the first day anyway. And no matter that they were completely out of the obligatory antibacterial wipes we were supposed to send with them. I knew I had an (almost) full container at home.

Normally I would arrive back at the house with much pomp and circumstance. "THE SCHOOL SUPPLIES ARE IN THE HOOOOOOUUUUSSSSSSEEEE!" This time, I just dropped all the bags at the door and yelled at my youngest to come upstairs. "Here's your school supplies," I said. "I'd label everything with your name and subject, but whatever you need to do to be organized." "What about a backpack?" my top-of-the-food-chain kids asked. "Um..... there's gotta be one around here somewhere," I replied.

Yes, gone were the days where we perused stores and catalogs to find just the perfect backpack that would allow enough room for books but be ergonomically back friendly, with enough design to be cool but not childish.

Finally, I found an old GAP backpack that I used as a diaper bag when said 8th grader was a baby. "Here, this'll work, " I said as I tossed it at him. I swear it still smelled faintly of dirty diapers, but after borrowing one of the teacher's antibacterial wipes (OK - the container is HALF full) it was back to just like new.

I also didn't buy him any new clothes, or new shoes. Nor did I clean up his old shoes so he wouldn't look like a homeless person on his first day. I didn't make him pick out a matching outfit, either. However, I DID make him shower and clip his nails. I'm not a horrible mother. 

I'll make sure he goes to bed around 10-ish tonight, but since I go to bed around 10-ish as well, I"ll be none the wiser if he stays up past midnight. His cross to bear. Tomorrow, I'll get the obligatory 1st day of school picture on the front porch - that hasn't changed. Then he'll be off - another summer behind us, another year of school ahead, and a diaper bag that may or may not smell just a little funky.

Friday, July 31, 2015

The Best I Could Do

I never had dreams of being a parent.

Looking back, I never really thought about getting married. To me, growing up and becoming an adult meant living on your own and having a career. For some reason, the fancy white dress, handsome groom, white picket fence and 2.5 kids never really entered my mind. It's not that I didn't want it; I just didn't think about it.

So when I got married in 1995 and then pregnant in 1996, I kind of took it on like any new job or other challenge. I studied everything I could get my hands on, talked to as many people as I knew who had experience, and set myself up as best I could for this new parenting gig. I took my prenatal vitamins, ate right and exercised. I had a doula and a birth plan that outlined my wishes to have things happen as "naturally" as possible. I breastfed for a year, introduced solids at the recommended age, kept a baby book to record all the milestones and made sure my newborn son wasn't lagging behind in any areas of growth.

My plans to go back to work changed when my husband, a Major in the Army National Guard, decided to do a 10-month command course in Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. We moved there just three weeks after my son was born. I worked from home (halfheartedly) and my son spent five or six hours a day during the week with a wonderful nanny. I took him to Mommy and Me classes and met with a military child development specialist every other month to make sure he was on track physically and mentally. We went on walks every day where I'd spend hours talking to him about the sky and the trees and the leaves and the grass, because I heard it was important to talk to your baby, and not in a baby voice but in a regular voice. I never played that crappy kids' music because I wanted him to love real music, so I played the Beach Boys and other oldies songs because they didn't have any bad stuff in them. Most weekends, his dad was gone getting his EMBA, so we'd go to the park or to one of the playgrounds on Post to pass the time.

After Leavenworth, we moved to Chicago and by then I was no longer working at all. I started two playgroups in our neighborhood on Tuesdays and Thursdays so my son and I would meet people and have some social interaction. We joined a children's museum and went every Monday. We took art and tumbling classes at the local community center. On weekends, we'd play in the sprinkler in the summer or stroll through one of the big malls in the area when it was cold, or go home to see my parents when his dad was out of town or had monthly Drill.

After two years in Chicago, we moved back to Peoria and into a neighborhood teeming with kids. I hadn't thought about having another child - once again, it just never entered my mind. I loved my son, but I hadn't planned on being a stay-at-home mom and didn't really have the confidence in it that I had in my career. But after living on a street full of families with multiple children, we welcomed another son a year later.

It was then that I kind of embraced - or was worn down to embracing - true mommy mode. My husband had retired from the military but had taken a job an hour and a half away in Springfield that required him to be gone 14 days a month. To make up for his absence, I was determined to make every moment count so my children would have all the awesome experiences I had as a kid with a stay-at-home mom. Over the next few years we had neighborhood baseball games, endless rounds of flashlight tag, pumpkin decorating and carving, t-shirt tie dying, pizza parties, slip 'n slides, chalk sidewalk racetracks and snow forts. I walked my kids to school every morning and picked them up in the afternoon. Every once in awhile, I'd surprise them at lunch with ice cream or a cookie. I was a room mom and volunteered on the PTC.

During that time, their dad and I divorced. My biggest fear was that when my kids grew up and someone asked them about their childhood, the first thing out of their mouths would be, "Well, my parents divorced when I was a kid." I didn't want that. Neither did their dad. We actually went to divorce counseling to learn how parent effectively in spite of our failed marriage. The day after we told our oldest son, who was seven at the time, we all went out shopping for furniture for his new bedroom at dad's and then out to lunch. We never argued about visitation or what time to bring the kids home or who's buying this or that for them.

My ex and I never talked badly about each other to our kids. If anything, we talked each other up. Aside from a few bumps here and there where the kids tried to play one of us off of the other, we projected a united front. We all went to Disney World together. We spent every Christmas and most Thanksgivings together, and would occasionally go out to dinner as a family. We'd sit next to each other at soccer and baseball games and school concerts. People would comment that we had one of the best divorces they'd ever seen. I always thought we were better divorced than we ever were married. And when shit hit the fan a few years ago with our oldest son, we joined forces once again to make some very tough decisions - initiated by both of us, discussed by both of us, and decided upon by both of us - that we thought were best for him.

See, my ex-husband and I are very different people. He's laid back; I'm pretty rigid. He's more spontaneous; I'm a planner. He goes through life happy-go-lucky for the most part; I'm constantly anticipating the fall of the sky. His way of life and his rules for the kids are less stringent than mine. In some ways, he's a grown up who decided he didn't ever quite want to grow up. And that makes him incredibly appealing to my kids, especially my oldest one.

This used to bother me, and I'm not going to lie, sometimes it still does. But I know both of our roles in our children's lives are equally as important. I have said it more than once that my kids are lucky they don't have two parents like their mom and just as lucky that they don't have two parents like their dad.

My kids are lucky.

They are lucky that they have their dad and me as their parents. The boy who never wanted to grow up and the girl who never thought she'd marry and have kids grew up and married and had kids. And we did our very best.

Did we make mistakes? Yup. Lots of them. I let my son "cry it out" one night, only to finally break down and go in his room where I realized his foot was stuck in between the crib slats. Another time I drove across town before I realized he wasn't buckled in his car seat. When he came home crying because he said the kids were bullying him, I yelled at the kids before hearing the whole story and giving him the power to work it out for himself. I sent them both to school when they were sick, only to get a call less than an hour later that they had a fever/threw up/have pinkeye. I couldn't handle either of them being disappointed so I made sure that I always "fixed" anything bad that happened to them. I monitored their online grades so closely that I knew if they were failing a class even before they did, and already had a plan outlined as to how to get them back on track. I cleaned their rooms, did their laundry and their dishes, picked up their toys and rarely had any chores whatsoever for them to do. I never let them handle money so they would learn its value and how to manage it. And those are just MY mistakes. I'll let my ex-husband tell you his.

I'm sure if you ask my kids they can tell you a plethora of additional things I did wrong. But here's the deal. I did the best I could. And I think I did more good than harm. I truly believe that there is no job harder in this world than being a parent. I used to tell people that if it were in fact a real job I would have resigned long ago. But that's not how it works - and the days you love it just barely outnumber the days you don't think you can go on. So you keep trying your best, because you know what's at stake. You're raising another human being. He's looking at you and that in turn makes you look at yourself and think, "Regardless of whether I think I'm effed up or not, I'm going to try my damndest not to eff up this kid." So you suck it up and wake up every morning and do the very best you can.

My kids won't realize this unless they become parents - and frankly, that's up to them if they want to go down that road. And until then, my oldest son may continue to blame me for his shortcomings, or his issues, or his problems, or his faults. He may say my Type A personality dominates his dad's Type B, but what he needs to understand is that sometimes it takes the Type As and Type Bs together to make the proper decisions - especially when those decisions are big ones. It's the strong-willed one telling the passively mellow one that something needs to be done, and the passively mellow one calming down the strong-willed one so she doesn't go too far.

So no, I don't think I am the root of my son's issues, nor do I think that how his dad and I parented him is to blame, either. In fact, after thinking back on the last 18 years of parenting - that parenting I never thought I'd do - I'm confident and even have - dare I say it? - a touch of serenity - that I did the absolute best job I could do, and therefore refuse to carry that burden of blame. And if he looks back on his childhood and thinks he got a raw deal, then that's something he needs to work out on his own.

There are very few things I'm proud of in my life, because I have made an assload of mistakes in just about every arena. I have many regrets. But I don't regret having my children, and I don't regret how I parented them overall. In fact, I'm actually kind of proud of it. I've abandoned many things in my life for a variety of reasons, but my kids weren't one of them. There is nothing I have put more effort into and there is nothing I've ever tried so hard to be better at every day. And as far as my adult child is concerned, well, I'll always be his mom, and I'll be here in the capacity in which he needs me to be. But I will never, ever apologize to him for how I parented him ... because I know I did the best I possibly could.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

To my son on his 18th birthday

Dear Son,

I can’t believe I’m writing this. I can’t believe this day is here already. I know it sounds cliché, but it seems like just yesterday that I held your 8 pound, 15 oz. bald beautifulness in my arms for the very first time, and I will never, ever forget that moment. In that moment, I looked at you – and you were utter perfection. Not a flaw, not a problem, not a care in the world. Just a promise. A promise of anything and everything that you could become.
Eighteen years to the day later, I look at you with that same feeling – that you are in fact a promise, but to yourself and yourself alone. Not that I won’t be here for you – you should know that by now. I have always been and will always be your biggest fan. But the days of me writing the script are about over, Son, and now it’s up to you.

I’m not equipped to tell you what you need to do to be a man. I raised a boy, and I raised you with the morals and values that I felt were important for you to grow up and become an upstanding adult, and I hope you carry those with you wherever you go. That alone will be part of your manhood, I pray.

But I do know a few great men, namely your grandfather - my father. I know you feel the same way about him. So I want you to think of him, and men like him, and remember some of the qualities that make them what I simply call “good people.”

Qualities like humility and selflessness. I know technically you’re still in your teen years, and those are by nature selfish ones. But you will soon find that most people don’t give a rat’s ass about what you’ve accomplished, and they don’t remember how good you were to yourself. What they will notice is your actions and what you do for others.

I once had a boyfriend who was pretty full of himself. One day, I’d had it with him regaling me with tales of things he had done and how puffed up he was about himself and said to him, “You know, my father is a great man, but he’d be the LAST person to tell you that. Great men don’t need to.”

It’s true. And great men also have a great work ethic. I know you’ve learned this to an extent in your experiences over the last few years, so hopefully you’ve gotten a glimpse of the truth that nothing good comes easy. Oh, sure, you may get a break here and there, but don’t expect it, and don’t wait for it. And working hard “for a while” doesn’t automatically guarantee you “deserve” a break. You don’t. Think of the men who work three jobs to support their families and still barely make ends meet. Even the millionaires didn’t get there sitting on their talents. They worked their asses off – and not just for a couple of weeks or months. Years upon years. There’s no “end” to working hard. You should always work hard at whatever you do. You CAN do it, even if you don’t WANT to. And if you enjoy it? Well that’s gravy on the biscuit.

That’s another thing. You’re going to have to do a lot of shit you don’t want to do – plain and simple. In adulthood, you can’t pick and choose like you could when you were a kid. In fact, there will be days when all you do is shit you don’t want to do. And you won’t get a medal or a pat on the back for it, either. The attitude in which you approach this is going to say a lot about you and how your life’s going to go.

And while I wish you enough success that you have all the material things you need and a few you want, you’re going to have to quickly learn discipline, and you’re going to have to keep that trait in the forefront of your mind. Discipline means bills get paid first, and credit card debt is not a road you want to go down. Discipline means work before play, and making sure play doesn’t interfere with work (think late nights and early mornings.) Discipline means evaluating short-term gratification versus long-term gain. Remember easy/hard, hard/easy? Take the easy way out now, it’ll be hard later. Put in the hard work now, you’ll make it easier on yourself in the long run.

Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” This is going to be tough for you, because for the first time you’re going to be out in the world with nobody telling you what to do and what not to do. They say the world is your oyster. It can also be your worst enemy. And some things may be dangerous even in moderation for you. You’re going to have to be vigilant about that. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s right, and just because others do it doesn’t mean you should. Recognize your dragons. Know your triggers. Embrace your strength to turn away, and reach out to positive reinforcements when you need to. You know where they are.  

The same thing goes for love, and I know from experience that this will be trial and error. It’s easy to fall for the ones who aren’t good for you. It’s easy to fall for the ones who you think you can “save.” And you’ll do it more than once. What I hope for you is that you find someone who brings out the best in you, and you in her. I hope you don’t lose yourself in that love, but are committed enough that you make her a priority in your life. Be loyal. Be kind. Be respectful. And by all means, be careful. I once read, “Boys fall in love every day. However, falling in love, and picking up the pieces if they fall apart, is part of manhood.” I’ve had my heart broken, and I’ve broken a heart. It’s a pain like no other, but we both survived, and you will too. But don’t let it jade you. We’re not all the same, you know.

Finally … listen. Listening is a true gift, and one that gives back every single day. You’ll learn more than you ever thought possible by listening versus waiting for the other person’s mouth to stop moving so you can speak, and formulating your response instead of truly hearing what they have to say. Listening will serve you well in your schooling, your work and your relationships. There is no greater compliment than being told you’re a good listener. And you never know what part of your own story could get solved or improved by listening to someone else’s.

My son, it has been a privilege to be your mother for the past 18 years. It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure, but there is this thing called unconditional love that I discovered the moment you were born – and someday I hope you experience it too. Only then will you be able to understand how much I love you, why I do some of the things I do, and why I care so damn much.

There’s a very popular poem that you may or may not be familiar with, but it much more eloquently puts into words what I’ve tried to do above. Read it, live it, and know that even when you’re a man, my son, you’ll always be my light, my joy, my sweet baby boy.

Happy 18th birthday, Son. I love you today, tomorrow and always, more than words can say.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tips on Raising Teenage Boys (or, "How to Push a Rope Up a Hill")

I'm probably not the best one to give you this advice, or I may be the best person in the world to give you this advice. I've always done things the hard way in my life, and rarely done them right the first time. I second-guess every decision I make and have the confidence of a one-legged man in a three legged race. And single parenting for the past 10 years hasn't given me the luxury of a sounding board to check in with for a consensus.


Looking back on my now six years as a parent of a teen - and a tough six years at that - and coming up on two years with the second one, I feel compelled to share some tips with you that might make this venture into Hades a little less hot. And note that I have two boys, so I'm speaking of them, since I know that having teen girls is a whole other hell that I've been blessed not to experience. Yes, I prayed to have boys. I was sure if I had a girl she'd be just like me, and nobody - including me - wants that. So anyway, this advice speaks to those badass moms of boys, God have mercy on your souls.

Seize the moment
When your kids become teenagers, it's like the body of that cute little kid who smelled like baby and felt like a silk blanket has been possessed by a hormonal, sullen, messy and incredibly odoriferous demon. It's your job to realize this, and know that if you look hard enough, that cute kid who brought you a handful of dandelions and called you "Mommy" and loved you so VERY much is still in there somewhere, and may in fact appear randomly from time to time. He might ask if you want to watch a TV show with him. Or let you sit next to him on the couch. Or do something the first time you ask him. Or robotically respond, "Love you too" when you tell him you love him. When he does this, don't make a big deal about it or you'll scare the spirit. Simply enjoy the moment until it passes. Don't blink. It'll be pretty quick.

Let him test the waters
Give him freedom. I mean, "I'm 16, for God's sake, Mom. I'm practically an adult." There is no correct response to this. Of course, the correct response to ME would be, "Actually, Honey, your prefrontal cortex - you know, that piece of brain right behind your forehead that's involved in complex decision making? Well, yours is not yet developed enough to be capable of the kind of reasoning that allows most grownups like me to make rational decisions." But I can't say that. Because I'm stupid. Just ask my teen.

However, it's easy to go along in life looking at your kid like he's still 10 years old. During the teen years, you need to let loose of the leash a little bit so they can figure out what they're made of. What they can handle. What they do when they can't handle it. And this is dicey for the mom, because I have to gauge when to step in and when to just watch from the sidelines like a huge-ass linebacker is bearing down on my kid and he doesn't even see it yet. I just kind of close my eyes, hope for the best, and mentally make a grocery list of all his favorite foods he can eat while he's recovering.

On the other hand, don't be an idiot. That prefrontal cortex thing is a real thing. Teenagers can be really, really stupid. It's our job to walk that thread-thin, fine line between, "Sure, honey, you can have a sleepover at your buddy's house" and "Sure, honey, you can go camping with those two boys and three girls." Lots of factors involved there. Lots to ponder. Is the sleepover at the buddy's house really just a sleepover at the buddy's house? Do you call the parents? Will they sneak out and go do something that's not a good idea at all? And if they do, is that just a rite of passage and you should just look away?  And the camping thing. Will there be an adult?  Should there be an adult? Is this kid a good kid? What's the deal with these two boys and three girls? Do you have condoms? WHY DO YOU HAVE CONDOMS? Thank GOD you have condoms. WHY DO YOU HAVE CONDOMS?????????

This is why I say "giving freedom" is a dicey issue. And absolutely exhausting, especially if you're me, who second guesses every decision I make. But you have to give them the freedom to an extent, or they'll take it themselves, and that won't go over well for a lot of reasons you don't want to think about but that I have had to deal with firsthand.

Don't be Mighty Mouse
OK, if you're old enough to know the theme to this cartoon, raise your hand. "Here I come to save the day!" was MM's go-to phrase. It doesn't apply to teenagers - not completely. If I made one mistake (and I made THOUSANDS) it's that I saved my oldest son from too many situations. I was momma-raised in the period where you breast fed forever, wore your baby until your back gave out, and didn't reprimand him for fear you would "wound his spirit." What bullshit.

If you want your kid to have a backbone and be independent and learn to do things for himself, you can't be late for work because you had to rush to school and drop off his homework. You can't call his coach and ask him why he doesn't play more on the baseball team. You can't completely change your plans because he said he'd walk home from his friend's house and now it's raining and you feel the need to go get him so he won't get wet. And don't sigh, roll your eyes and be the martyr because you asked him to take the garbage out/clean his room/fold the laundry/walk the dog and do it yourself. Well, walk the dog, probably. But the rest? My son once told me, "Mom, I know if I don't do this stuff, it'll drive you crazy and you'll end up doing it." He may be stupid, but he's no dummy.

Learn how to talk - er, I mean, listen
I have learned a great deal in the past year and a half about how to better communicate with both my sons. I have learned a few reasons why (other than the fact that I'm "Mom") they don't come to me about things. Namely because I'm Mom. And in the past, I lectured them ad nauseum. Because I'm Mom, and that's what moms do, right? Yeah, no. Lecturing is about as effective as spraying Roundup on your lawn and thinking it'll just kill the weeds. It won't. It will kill your whole lawn. And don't ask me how I know this.

Anyway, first rule here: Listen. Best piece of advice I ever received: "There is rarely anything in life that requires an immediate response." My son might be complaining about a situation with a friend. Instead of jumping in and solving the problem for him, I don't say a word, except an occasional, "Huh" or "Really?" to let him know I'm listening. Or I'll ask him what he thinks his options are to solve the problem (all the while biting my already-bleeding tongue because I of course COULD solve the problem for him.) Most of the time if I just listen, he will work it out on his own. Then I give him kudos for doing it, in a casual, "Looks like you figured it out - good job" kind of way, and pat myself on the back for doing something right for a change.

My oldest son LOVES to push my buttons. He says things under the guise that he is being "open and honest" when really he just wants to delight in my overreaction. I'm onto this. Whereas in the past, "I'm getting a tattoo" would have led me on a 10-minute tirade as to WHY he should not get a tattoo and how he hates needles and does he remember how many nurses it took to hold him down when he needed his yearly shots, the last time he broke this news I simply said, "Huh."

Same when he said he was getting a motorcycle. And changing his name. He knows how I feel about these things. He's not expecting me to say, "Now THAT is a great idea!" And the thing is, he's going to (potentially) do it whether I freak out or not. When he's 18. And with his own money. And when he's not under my roof anymore. And when he doesn't have the money to pay for what he's supposed to pay for, he'll have his own consequences. He doesn't need them from me at this point.

On the other hand, my younger son does still talk to me about a lot of things. And maybe from what I've learned from my first boy, I've been a bit more successful in communicating with my second. The thing is, it's all about place and presentation. You can't expect your son to spill his guts to you when you require a mandatory meeting with him and stare at him at the kitchen table. Gulp. Ain't nobody got time for that.

My son's and my best conversations usually happen in the car, when we're not looking at each other. And yes, I still employ the advice mentioned above, and truly try to listen. If he does have a dilemma, I ask him what he thinks he could do to solve it. Or if he can't do it on his own, who could he go to? If he is truly in a bind, I tell him, "If you don't find a solution on your own and you want my help, let me know." And you know what? He's come to me with a school friend issue, for example, and said, "Mom, I figured things out on my own." BOOM. Life Skills 101: Instructor: MOM. Grade: A+.

Miscellaneous Jedi teachings
Teach him to do laundry. Show him how to cook basic items at a relatively early age. If he loses or breaks something expensive like a phone or an iPad or whatever other stupid technology these kids who have no business with this technology insist they must have, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T JUST BUY HIM A NEW ONE.

Have him volunteer. Tell him to get a job as soon as he's able. He needs to see how the workforce is and what is expected of him above and beyond, "Make your bed," "Mow the grass" or "Clean your room." Make sure he's polite, which should have already been instilled in him but is sometimes forgotten in those selfish teen years. He opens doors for people. He looks people in the eye and shakes their hand. He helps old ladies or men with their groceries. Whatever. There's no excuse - even teenagerdom - for not being a respectful gentleman.

Last very important piece of advice
KNOCK. Always. You'll thank me for this one, I promise.

There's so much more, but reliving the teenage years in prose is almost as exhausting as living them in real life. The thing is, it's a crap shoot. You might be lucky enough to have your teen continue to like you and acknowledge your existence - and if you do, consider yourself blessed. But based on my experience, following these pieces of advice won't make your teen LIKE you anymore, but you'll be more tolerable to him and most importantly, it will take a bit of the burden off of yourself. Because you're gonna need your strength when they turn 18, move away, and all you can do is watch ... and worry ... and love from a distance ... and hope you did the best you could.

Monday, May 18, 2015

"It all goes by so fast" isn't all a bunch of crap

In less than two weeks, my eight pound, 15 ounce, bald, beautiful, bouncing baby boy will graduate from high school.

Let me rephrase that.

In less than two weeks, my six foot, five inch, curly-haired, beautiful 17-year old baby boy will graduate from high school.

Damn that went by fast.

I use to haaaaaaaaate it when an "older mom" would glance over at me with a snide smile while I tried to reason with this same 3-year old kid as to why he was NOT getting any candy and he'd better just STOP THAT RIGHT NOW OR WE ARE GOING TO GO TO THE CAR. (Spoiler alert, young moms. THAT'S WHAT THEY WANT. THEY WANT TO GO TO THE CAR. DON'T GO TO THE CAR. STAY IN THE STORE, BE MISERABLE, MAKE EVERYONE ELSE MISERABLE, AND GET YOUR SHOPPING DONE. Because they probably won't let you back in for awhile.)

But I digress. Anyway, there'd always be this know-it-all lady who would chuckle and say in this little sing-songy voice, "Don't blink! They grow up so fast!"

I wanted to punch her in the face. Seriously? This could not be over fast ENOUGH. This SUCKED. It was like taking that girl from the Exorcist on errands, only he was a boy. And not possessed. Allegedly.

Looking back, the toddler years certainly seemed to drag on. Maybe those years just weren't my forte. I was waiting for this needy, sticky, whiny thing to become human so I could go do cool stuff with him. I remember looking forward to him NOT taking naps so we could actually take a day trip together and he wouldn't have a complete meltdown by 1 pm.

Don't get me wrong. He was a freakin' cute little kid. I would literally stare at him and wonder how I could have possibly made something so beautiful. I loved holding his tiny little hand in mine and I loved kissing those chubby little feet and I loved it when he fell asleep in my arms. I loved it when his hair finally did come in and it was just this shiny blond, curly mop that contrasted with these bright blue eyes that were so clear you could see yourself in them.

Looking back, I remember sending him to school and thinking, "This is it. This is the end of me having all the influence over him. From now on it's going to be friends and teachers and peers and the world telling him what they think he should do."

I was pretty much right - and I think that's where time started to fly. Because looking back, the grade and middle school years were kind of a blur, like this time vortex of bake sales and book fairs and carnivals and room parties and field trips and back to school picnics and awards ceremonies and student showcases - with some Boy Scout den meetings and Pinewood Derbies and camp outs thrown in.

Then BOOM. I suddenly have a freshman in high school. 

That was four years ago. I wrote a blog in August of 2011 entitled, The First Day of the Next Four Years of His Life, where I told him (subconsciously, of course, because who talks directly to a teenager?) that I would always be there for him, a few paces back, watching out for him as he stretched his wings and learned to fly. And I meant it. And I have been. But it hasn't been easy.

In fact, it's been an excruciatingly long and difficult four years for both of us - years that I don't think I ever could have envisioned. I remember blinking, but no time would pass. I remember wondering what I did wrong all those years leading up to this. What I could have done differently. Why this blond haired, blue-eyed, beautiful creature couldn't feel about himself the way I felt about him - and why he didn't believe in himself the way I believed in him.

The hardest part about being a parent is realizing that you don't have all the answers. That you can love a child for nine months before you ever meet him and that love will grow more than you ever dreamed it could. And just when you thought it couldn't grow any more it does, but it's still not good enough. That all the homemade playdough and bubbles and water balloons and finger paints and sidewalk chalk and playgrounds and Kindermusik classes and pee wee sports and zoos and sprinklers and ice cream and play dates won't guarantee that your child will be safe from the horribleness of real life.

So in desperation and defeat, you let others step in. And that's hard. That's so, so hard. But they help. And you as a mom feel a sense of worthlessness - that you dropped the ball and you can't pick it up. That you had to have someone else save him when you couldn't. But as much as you feel this way, you're so very, very thankful that they did. So very thankful. Because in less than two weeks, this mom is going to watch her six foot, five inch, blond haired, blue-eyed, beautiful baby boy walk across that stage and receive his high school diploma. And on that day, I will once again be amazed that I could love him any more than I do right now.

And I will wonder how it all went by so fast.