The Sadness

He emerged from the bedroom for the first time as an eleven year old with hair sticking out in unusual places and seemed a bit slow getting started for the day. I remembered that last night he’d wanted to talk but I was too tired.

After cooking his birthday dinner my head was feeling tight and I was done talking so I’d said we’d talk in the morning.

“Did you still want to talk about something this morning mate?”

“Yeah.” he said tentatively with maybe just the tiniest break in his voice. “What should I do today?”

He was obviously still raw. He’d been dobbed in for doing something he hadn’t done, then been punished for it at school despite doing his best to explain. It was his eleventh birthday and he’d been hoping for the best day ever. Now today he doesn’t want to go to school. It was his mates that dobbed him in and he didn’t know what to do about it.

He said even mum didn’t know what to do either.

Christ. If his mum didn’t know what to do what hope do I have, I wondered. She’s the relationship guru.
Tears welled up in his eyes as he sat in front of an over-filled bowl of Weet-Bix and wiped them away on the sleeves of his green woollen school jumper.

Mum had said he had lots of friends. He wasn’t so sure. I wasn’t sure either. At his age, friends come and go. Besties today, but acquaintances tomorrow. Things are fluid in primary school land. But what should he do today? I read between the lines. How could he play with his mates as if nothing happened when they stabbed him in the back yesterday? And how could he confront them and fix it? Would anything make it right?

“Do you have to do anything today?” I wondered if he had detention or any other consequences from yesterday.

“No.”

“So if you don’t have to do anything … that gives you options right? You might not actually have to do anything at all”. I explained that sometimes when I try and fix things when I’m sad or angry, I usually muck it up and make things worse.

We stand in front of the bathroom sink and brush our teeth. I put my arm around his little shoulder. I’m still thinking. I feel his sadness. Easy answers evade me. I try to talk with toothpaste in my mouth but it it’s just garble. I spit in the sink on top of his spit and say “You know what mate? It wasn’t right what happened to you yesterday… but it’s not wrong to feel sad.”

“What do you mean Dad?” He sounded open. Gotta love how inquisitive kids are.

“Well, feeling sad is just part of being human. Everyone feels sad at times. Do you remember that book we read about the boy who had anger*? Sadness is like that too. Sadness goes away if you take care of it.”

“How do I do that?”

“Well, do things that you feel like doing today to care of yourself and allow that sadness to pass away by itself. Be kind to yourself and your feelings.”

“Like maybe play with Reid instead of the others?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea. He’s a good kid. Or maybe just hang out with Ella and Erica or go to the Library. Whatever makes you feel a bit better.”

Then my brain kicks in and I come up with something. “Hey I’ve got an idea. How sad are you on a scale from 1-10?” I ask.

“Umm maybe about 5…?” He said thoughtfully. Not as bad as I thought. I thought he’d put it up around seven or eight.

“I’ll tell you what we’ll do. You write down on a bit of paper what you think your sadness will be like at bedtime and I’ll write down what I think it will be and then tonight we’ll have a look and see how close we are.”

“We’re going to Ella’s for a BBQ tonight aren’t we?” he asks.

“Yep”

“So I’ll probably be happy after that.” He’s catching on.

We wander over to my study, and grab a sticky note each. He thinks, then scribbles, and sticks his note inside the front of the top drawer. I write on mine and stick it inside the drawer and slide it shut.

EPILOGUE

It’s 10.30 pm as we pull into the driveway. I smell like chops and sausages. The kids are exhausted from their swim and I just want them in bed. I check on the little one. She’s not happy that she can’t find the ripped off hem from her comfort blankie so she’s sooking. I threaten that I’ll find it and confiscate it if she doesn’t stop. She stops.

The middle one has made a hammock by hanging his doona on the underside of the top bunk. He’s curled up inside it looking like a possum in it’s mother’s pouch.  I’m too tired to care. He hands over his MP3 player that he’s not allowed to listen to because he hasn’t been focussing at school and is distracting others – according to the teacher who rang me while I was at work today.

The newly eleven year old has disappeared. He’s the responsible one. Doesn’t need checking on. I lift the lid on the fish tank and sprinkle some food in. I just want to go to bed. Dad’s arriving tomorrow … house is in a mess…. radiator in the Hilux needs replacing…. Then I remember the sadness.

The eldest appears. He’s remembered too.

“Dad! My sadness – It’s gone. It’s a zero!” This was better than expected. I feel happy – proud too.

“That’s great mate. Let’s check our numbers” I say.

He pulls his out first. It’s a three. Now my turn. A two. Happily, we were both cautiously wrong.

His problem hasn’t been fixed, but like dark clouds scudding across blue skies, the sadness has been allowed to pass and maybe, just maybe the problem isn’t as big as it first appeared to be either.

 

*Anh's Anger is by Gail Silver and published by Parallax Press.

Parenting with Mental Illness – The Downside

In my last post on parenting with mental illness where it dawned on me that when in recovery, we do have certain advantages in parenting, there is also a dark downside for children. You see I’ve come to also realise over the last few months that I’m experiencing more anxiety that I thought I was and that I was either misinterpreting it, or refusing to acknowledge it because of my determination to get better. A two-day mindfulness seminar put paid to my suppression though. Slowing down enough to actually observe what was going on inside me (thoughts, feelings and sensations) revealed the anxiety simmering away in there.

How does this affect parenting? Hugely.

I’ve noticed (in another lightbulb moment) that much of the time I’m parenting out of anxiety. Anxiety is informing my decisions and how I behave toward the children. If they’re getting a little rambunctious  in the rear seat, I remind them of the rule about no rowdiness in the car, but sometimes even just a little laughter, giggling and squirming can actually really irritate me. This means I repeat the instruction, by which stage they’re too excited to calm down and they continue  – muffled giggles now. At this point I’m beyond irritable, I’m angry. I smacked them all after a trip recently with a chinese fan one of them had. Another trip, I made them stand outside the car to “cool off” even though it was raining. I nearly wound down the window on a highway and threw a telly tubby out after it was swung by the small one into the big one’s face (accidentally of course). Imagine what I’m like if there’s an argument in the back seat!!!

In actual fact to be honest, none of their behavior was bad. They weren’t doing anything wrong, they were just being kids. When they’ve grown up and left home, I’m sure going to miss that giggling. I know that if I’m doing better, I probably wouldn’t even react – in fact I’d probably giggle with them. Seeing three squirmy kids eyeballing each other and making one another laugh really is a funny sight and would make a great memory. Unless you’re experiencing anxiety.

Parenting out of depression and anxiety means we’re not parenting out of values. We’re just trying to control our children in such a way as to manage our symptoms. It’s unfair to kids to somehow make them responsible. I really regret doing this, and now that I’ve realised it, I’m trying to pay attention to it, but it’s really hard to separate out my motives sometimes.

I’ve noticed with my wife that the kids do certain things to trigger her anxiety, but it’s more around fear. She will try and control them so she doesn’t feel afraid for their safety. This is really stifling and the kids and I hate it the nagging. “Stop doing that!”, “Come away from there”, “Move away from the edge”, “Get down from that tree, “Don’t touch that”, “Stay closer to me”. She doesn’t even like them walking the 100m from the bus stop to home without being supervised because they have to cross two streets. The fear and anxiety is just too much for her.

Having said all this, I guess the question in my mind is “will this harm my children?” Hopefully not. But it’s certainly not what I want for them or for us. I want to live a life and parent out of my values not my illness. I want what’s best for my kids, not what’s least harmful.

Emotional Language

I’ve noticed that my nine year old son often gets negative and frustrated. He regularly comes home from school irritated and saying things like “I hate school, I have no friends, the teacher is unfair” and other broad sweeping generalizations. Some days he tells me he doesn’t want to go to school, and once he told me he’d like to die. He can also get quite angry with his little brother and sister at times too. Sometimes he seems to have so much pent-up emotion that it’s obvious, he really has no idea what to do with it. He’s feeling it, but it’s overwhelming him.

There are two scary things about his moods and mindset when things don’t go the way he expects. The first is that he seems to be very much like me when he’s frustrated. I guess that’s understandable. We inevitably reproduce who we are in our kids – good and bad. When he’s looking like mini-me, you’ve no idea how much that presses the buttons of his mother. The second, is that I think he, being the eldest has been exposed to the conflict in our marriage the most in terms of his awareness of what’s going on. The venom, the arguments, the freeze-outs and stonewalling, the simmering tension, I think, has taken its toll on him.

It’s obvious that he, like me, doesn’t seem to know how to handle his emotions. It’s really only in the last few years, I’ve been coming to grips with my emotions, so I’m trying to pass this on to him, so he doesn’t end up like me.

An emotional language, is the ability to identify and describe your feelings. Women are naturally good at this. Their ability to describe how they’re feeling is much more nuanced than men, because they’ve had more practice for a lot longer. Ask a man how he feels about something, he might say “I feel good about it” or “I don’t feel too good about that”. Hardly specific or useful.

Last night, I helped my son journal his emotions. He’d had a bad day at school. I asked, how did you feel? Angry, irritated, frustrated, sad, annoyed, disappointed? I’m trying to give him an ability to accurately name his emotions. Then I asked what he was thinking when he had those feelings. “It’s not fair, we weren’t told about the changes, I wanted to do something different”. I’m trying to help him see the connection between thoughts and feelings, so that eventually he’ll learn to challenge his thoughts, to try and lift negative emotions. I asked him what were some alternative thoughts and we brainstormed together.

I asked him how long those negative feelings lasted and what changed them. I’m hoping to teach him mindfulness, where he’s aware of his feelings in the moment, and he’s grounded and is aware when negative emotions are fading. I want him to get to know the things that lift his emotions so he can be more strategic about using those things.

Finally I want him to understand that emotions rise and fall over the course of a day, or a week. We have low emotions and high emotions all the time. I helped him to see that his mood was good around tea time and afterward – so he doesn’t globalise and say “the whole day was bad because of what the teacher did this morning”.

Emotions go up and down depending on how we view the events of the day as they unfold. Being grounded and aware of them and being able to name them is the art of mindfulness. Challenging our views and thoughts about certain events can help manage our emotions. Knowing those things that can boost or lift our emotions is important, and you can only discover them by being mindful. Also realizing that emotions come and go and that experiencing a full range of emotions is part of the richness of the human experience keeps what we’re experiencing in the moment in perspective. Our current mood won’t last.

I hope that by teaching him a nuanced emotional language, that it will become part of a toolbox that strengthens his resilience and well being. The alternative to having a good emotional language, is denial and suppression and those tricks failed me miserably. I hope he can avoid the mental illness that I’ve experienced.