Category Archives: Behavior

My Cloud, My Blues and My Parents

jkw blue eyesIt was summertime in East Tennessee, early evening. The driveway had finally cooled off enough for me to sit without burning my skin. The rest of my family was inside, but I was feeling blue again and wandered outside to be alone.

I was eight years old. By then, “my blues,” weren’t new, but I didn’t call them “my blues” yet. And that was the problem: I didn’t call them anything, and I needed to if I was going to be able to explain them to my parents. So I sat in the driveway and brainstormed.

Like many eight-year-olds, the most intense sadness I experienced on a frequent basis was that of being homesick. Perhaps that’s why my first idea was to tell my parents that I “felt homesick even when I’m home.” That would convey that I often felt really, really sad even when I had no reason to, wouldn’t it?

But maybe they wouldn’t understand that “homesick” meant “sad.” Maybe grown-ups didn’t remember what “homesick” was.  I kept thinking.

Earlier that day, my little brother and I had watched an episode of Winnie the Poo in which Eeyore was followed around by a dark raincloud. He would try to dodge it, try to fake it out, and try to spin away, but the raincloud stuck with him, blocking only his portion of the sunshine. That’s sort of how I felt, I thought. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was sunny and that I had plenty of things to be happy about; it was that this stupid cloud wouldn’t leave me alone, and I couldn’t feel the sunshine. Sometimes I would tell myself to fake it–answer questions about my day cheerfully, try not to get so annoyed so easily at my brother, just pretend to be happier. But every time I tried that, I felt mortified. Surely everyone could see the cloud. I felt fake and fake felt silly.

Ok, I decided, my parents would be able to understand the cloud. I got up and dusted the tar bits off the back of my legs.

It turned out my parents would have understood no matter how I explained it. They’re clinical psychologists, for goodness’ sake. But I was expecting some confusion. I thought I needed to buck up for a potentially embarrassing conversation. (It was weird, I knew, to compare myself to a melancholic cartoon character.)

My parents were in the living room: Dad playing his guitar, Mom reading. I sat on the floor facing them. “Mom? Dad?” They looked up, though Dad kept strumming.

I took a breath. “I always feel homesick, even when I’m at home!” I blurted.

Dangit! That wasn’t what I meant to say! I was supposed to use the cloud metaphor! Ok, ok, I’ll just start over, I thought. “Wait, wait…actually….it’s like this cloud I saw on Winnie the Poo…”  

When I had finished with the cloud, my parents looked surprisingly nonplussed. This couldn’t be good, I thought. They must not have gotten it. If they knew what I was trying to say—that I felt like a sad donkeysurely they’d look concerned. My metaphor must have failed. I needed a new one.  I had to improvise.

“Okay, or…it’s like if something ever tries to make my heart happy, my  heart can’t float up. I mean, it tries to, but it’s like… giant, ugly gray hands…yeah, gray hands, with lots of warts…they reach up from my stomach and grab my heart and pull it back down! So see, my heart can’t float up and I can’t be happy. That’s the problem.”  

Ok, that was it. That was my best shot. I looked up from my hands in my lap–hands I had been imagining as those gray, warty hands.

Now, my parents did look concerned. They get it now, I thought. In retrospect, perhaps they were mostly alarmed by the graphic quality of my metaphors. But I felt like I had gotten somewhere. I had spoken out loud of my blues, so they were no longer my private weight. Sure, by describing them to my parents I had made them real (doing so had been a worry of mine) but they were real enough to me already, I figured.  And I was sick of them and I was scared of them. I wanted my parents’ help.

It is difficult for me to say (though not difficult for me to imagine) precisely how different and how much more difficult my life would have been if my parents had not been overwhelmingly eager to help. When I say this, please note what I am not saying: I am not saying that my life would have been different if my parents had not been clinical psychologists. That summer did not mark the moment in which my parents became my therapists. (That moment never has and never will arrive.) It marked the moment in which my parents fully realized that I, their daughter, needed them, my parents, to help me cope with a unique challenge.

__________________________________________________

I have tried and given up writing this piece many times. Each time, I finish the section above, read it a few times over trying to squeeze out some momentum, and then I get up from my desk.

This process repeated itself until I finally realized why the two sections–the Day of the Metaphors and everything after it–have posed such uneven challenges for me. The answer, I think, is this: Surely no one, especially people whom I know and love, would blame eight-year-old me. No one would have told eight-year-old me to be ashamed.

Up until the Day of the Metaphors, I was a victim: a little kid who was being bullied by her own brain chemistry. If you don’t agree with my characterization of the “bully,” remember that until the day I tried to name it, the “bully’s” identity wasn’t yet the point anyway. The point was that I felt so sad so much of the time, and could not figure out why. Whether or not one agrees that brain chemistry was the bully, most people feel sympathy for a kid who feels bullied, no matter what the cause.

But, that day, I chose to exchange my victimhood–and its freedom from culpability–for answers, or at least for help seeking answers. I traded in passive innocence for active agency.  Asking my parents for help was the first of many decisions I would make about my mental health. And there it is–why everything after that moment is so much harder for me to write about. Decisions are much easier to judge than feelings. And what medium is more open to silent, scathing criticism than a blog post? (Those silent judgments, the ones to which I will never have the opportunity to respond, are the ones that intimidate me the most, far more than anonymous vitriol from Internet Crazies.)

But I decided to write this post anyway, and here is why: I do not feel required to write more than this post. That is, I do not feel obligated to expose the decisions I have made about my mental health to public debate or discussion. After all, my personal history–the body of decisions I have made–is not the point. The point is this: I believe that parents can be the most helpful allies any child or adolescent has when making decisions about and confronting the many challenges of mental health. Being an ally does not require field-specific knowledge or experience. When a child breaks her arm, a parent does not need to know how to reset the bone in order to be a good parent. A good parent just needs to accept that the bone is broken and be willing to help the child receive appropriate medical care. The same principles apply to mental health.

Perhaps it is a cop-out for me to simply make these assertions about the importance of parental support without providing examples from my own life to prove the point. That has, after all, been the approach I have taken with the rest of these essays. But any guilt I feel for shortchanging the evidentiary backbone of this essay is assuaged by my belief that while our individual stories may be entertaining or even useful to others, they are ours to give; we don’t owe them to anyone. Perhaps you are comfortable relating some but not all aspects of your physical health to others. Maybe you’ll mention a dentist appointment but call a colonoscopy a “check-up.” Mental health works the same way, whether or not it should.

Besides, the length of this essay is already violating every rule of online blogs. Still, perhaps I will return to this subject later. I do feel I’ve opened a bit of a pandora’s box here, but that lid was always bound to blow. This is a website co-authored by a clinical psychologist and her….let’s call it “emotionally complicated”…daughter; mental health was bound to come up.

And for now, I’m going to call that enough.

 

Thoughts on Hula Hooping, Rock Tumbling and Everything Else

IMG_1792About this time 11 years ago, my family was headed for the beach. Everyone was packed and ready to leave…except me. I was looking for more saran wrap.

The one roll I had found was now wrapped around and around the four-foot tall set of plastic drawers containing my jewelry-making supplies (wire, a dozen boxes of beads, pliers, etc.). My hope was that the drawers would stay securely closed for the seven-hour drive from Knoxville to the South Carolina shore. But I had run out of wrap and the bottom two drawers were still loose.

My parents knew their options: stop to buy more saran wrap, find loose beads in the car for months, or ask me to leave the supplies behind and thus endure a week with an extremely stir-crazy daughter. They required no convincing. We stopped for more saran wrap.

I was fourteen that summer; jewelry making had been my favorite hobby for about 2 years. But here’s the most important thing to know about my hobbies: I tend to get really, really into them.

I’ve accepted this, but still, sometimes I wonder. Could I learn to live with just one size muffin tin? Must I store clothing under my bed but devote an entire dresser to stationery? Or perhaps most importantly, how did I get this way? And is there a cure?

Sure, some of my extreme hobbying tendencies can be traced simply to me being me. But an equally large share of the credit goes to my parents, who not only refused to stamp out my hobbying extremism but also encouraged it at every turn.

Perhaps this was because they knew they were dealing with an inherited trait. My mother refers to her Bernina Sewing Machine as her fourth child. My father, walking in a new city without his camera, looks familiar but sort of naked, like your grandfather without his glasses. I’m no freak of nature, and my parents know it. So as kids, if my siblings or I showed any interest in something, our parents’ protocol was to encourage and enable. But it is possible that I may have taken advantage of this standard operating procedure, just a bit.

 

A Brief History of the Hobbies of Jennie

(including brief notations of the cost, material or otherwise, required of each)

Horses (actual, literary, and/or mythological) horse camp, books about horses, My Little Ponies ®
The Fine Art of Rock Tumbling rock tumbler, rocks, earplugs
Spying on Friends, Relatives, Neighbors binoculars, journals, Harriet the Spy (movie), Harriet the Spy (book)
Sculptee Animal Sculpting Scuptee, purchased in bulk, tools
Writings Short Stories about Hamsters eleven hamsters (as inspiration/pets/infestation)
Writing Short Stories about the Holocaust child counseling
Jewelry-making beads, wire, pliers, saran wrap
Soccer, cross country, track equipment, transportation, all available discretionary funds, nights and weekends, medical fees for injuries
Lunastix three sets of LunaStix (“Some tricks require extra sticks!”)
Juggling “professional” juggling balls (“plush,” “bounce,” and “traditional” models), The Calculus of Juggling (book)
Knitting yarn, needles, willingness to wear ugly scarves
The Study of History books, audiobooks, transportation to historical sites, four years tuition at out-of-state “but really historical!” university
Baking hobby adopted as an adult; materials self-provided*.
Hula-hooping hobby adopted as an adult;§ materials self-provided**
* self-provided, except for a KitchenAid mixer, taken borrowed from my mother, who pretty much never used it anyway, and didn’t even notice it was gone for six months. But I’m really sorry, Mom.

**Yes, as an adult. So what of it, thank you very much?

Note: This list is limited to those hobbies lasting a minimum of several months (rock tumbling, sculptee). Most (everything except rock tumbling and Sculptee) lasted several years.

I suppose parents might now have two questions:

  1. Good God, The Money. (Not a question, to be fair, but I acknowledge your point.)
  2. But, why? (What is the point?)

Question #1 is really a function of Question #2, so let’s skip to that. It is my contention that there are many “points” to be found in hobbies. And, if your daughter, like me, develops an intense infatuation with juggling one stick using two other sticks, I hope you’ll say, “Full speed ahead!” Or even better: “Ah, yes, but do you prefer rubber-coated or wooden?”

Do not mention or worry that you cannot see any “life skill” development to be found in sticks. She probably knows that. Even if she doesn’t, she’ll figure it out eventually, because you’re right: There is no future in LunaStix.

Still, perhaps she will learn some of what I have learned from a lifetime of devoted hobbying, including the following:

1. The Skill of Playing

As very young children, “play” is one of the few skills we possess. But think back to the second week of summer as a child. The newness of your freedom had worn off, and to your confusion, you discovered that you were bored. Knowing how and what to play wasn’t so easy anymore.

I recently found this list of “22 Things to Do When You’re Bored” in my bedroom at my parent’s house. I was seven years-old when I made it, but the impulse motivating the list’s creation is still familiar: I was desperate to find things I found enjoyable. Then, I needed my hobbies to fill long summer days without school. Later, I would need them to relieve the stress of AP classes and college applications. Now, I need my hobbies for fun and to unwind.

2. Confidence in my ability to learn new things and a methodology for improvement

To learn a new juggling trick, I would practice until my arms were too sore to move. I will readily admit that my life would not be drastically different if I had failed to master “juggler’s tennis.” However, my life would be really different if I had never developed a comfort with and methodology for trying new skills. Hobbies allowed me to cement this as a central component of my identity: I am able to try new things and I work hard to improve. As for my parents, I imagine this was their thought process:

DOES IT MATTER TO THE UNIVERSE?

  • No? Oh well.
  • Yes? Discuss at cocktail parties.

DOES IT MATTER TO JENNIE?

  • No? This too shall pass.
  • Yes? At least she’ll learn how to work hard and improve.

3. Multidimensional Vibrancy in the Every Day

In an ideal world, one’s career would be among the most fulfilling components of one’s life. For most of us, however, a true vocation comes only at the end of a long line of jobs. Especially during those times of working and waiting for something “bigger,” hobbies can ensure that the color doesn’t drain out of everyday life.

4. A Million Life Lessons

The list of lessons and skills I learned through my “hobbies” is too long to condense here. From years of competitive soccer, I developed a strong work ethic and the knowledge of how wonderful it is to be an integral part of a team. Through jewelry-making, I discovered that artistic creation can settle an anxious mind. Even juggling taught me something: It’s okay to be silly, and it’s okay to enjoy something other people don’t really understand. (On that note, most people will enjoy that you enjoy something, and hobbies aren’t “about” other people anyway.)

And yes, throughout it all, there was always a chance that one of the hobbies could have become a career. But, by now, I hope you’ll agree: That’s just not the point.

 

Note on photograph: No, I’m not hula hooping. But that pose is now one of my go-to hula hooping poses, so there ya go. 

 

 

One fine afternoon, my little brother peed on me from a second-story window.

Noah and JennieI was leaning against the house, worn out from my efforts to “become ambidextrous” by running circles in the driveway while dribbling a basketball with my left hand. Two stories up, Noah (five-years-old) saw his window of opportunity. So he cranked it open and let loose.

As he gleefully pulled up his pants, I ran from door to door, only to discover that he had already locked each. This was a premeditated attack. I was pissed, so to speak—so hot with rage that urine was evaporating from my clothing.

To be fair, Noah almost certainly had a reason for wanting to pee on me, but neither of us can remember what it was. In fact, aside from his impressive aim and foresight, that’s the real kicker of this story: It wasn’t that unusual. It was theatrically special, to be sure, but thematically speaking, it was hardly one-of-a-kind. Noah and I spent much of our respective childhoods engaged in nearly constant combat.

I suspect that many of the factors contributing to our discontent would be familiar to siblings of other families. As adults, we agree (look at that!) that the following played the largest roles:

  1. We were close enough (four years) in age to be competitive with each other—in conflict, not just play—but not close enough in age to be easy friends. As the oldest, our sister Rachel was the natural peacemaker and moral arbiter.
  1. We both frequently assumed the other was out to get us, and we were both frequently right. These facts tended to perpetuate each other so that once bickering became our default mode of interaction, it was difficult to break the cycle.

Our relationship was quite a challenge to our poor, beleaguered parents. My mother would frequently tell me that things would get better as we got older. She and her own brother used to bicker all the time when they were little, she’d say, but now they’re best friends. So, maybe, I thought.

Most of the time, our parents were forced into the role of referees. When two of your offspring are at each other’s throats, there isn’t really another option. Their goal, I’m sure, was to be neutral, but here’s the problem with that: A referee can never make a neutral call. Any intervention will be or will be perceived to be in favor of one child or the other. Even if both children are reprimanded and disciplined, someone will maintain that justice mandated a harsher penalty for someone else.

For this reason, the conversations I had with my parents outside of the moments of immediate conflict mediation were the most helpful in learning how to have a better relationship with my brother. These conversations achieved two objectives:

They helped me view my relationship with Noah less as a battlefield and more as an opportunity to grow.

My natural tendency was to view any interaction I had with Noah, especially those in which he was driving me crazy, as conflict—ergo, as a personal assault. The trick for my parents, I think, was to avoid disputing my claims that he was being annoying and focus on helping me focus on myself. They would say something like, “Yes, we see he’s being obnoxious. We’ll deal with that. You focus on not letting him get to you.” For me, this allowed the high road to actually feel like the high road, and not like retreat.

I should emphasize that hearing my parents say that they would deal with Noah’s problematic behavior, and trusting that they would keep their word, was absolutely critical. Like a lot of kids, I had very strong opinions about what was just and unjust. When I felt wronged, I wanted to know that someone would address the cause.

My parents helped me remember that my little brother was just a kid: a little boy who was, developmentally speaking, not actually my equal.

I needed a lot of reminding that Noah was not my equal in age or maturity, and therefore hardly a worthwhile adversary. Aside from occasional spurts of infuriating but impressive creativity (peeing on me, pretending that he had eaten my hamster, hiding my life savings in a shoe for six years, etc.), most of what he did could be classified as classic little brother impishness.

The problem, of course, was that I too was “just a kid,” so kid-like annoyingness was perfectly capable of getting under my skin—unless I focused really hard on being less of a kid than he was.

So, my parents explained, the secret was to remember to view him as “just a little boy,” four years my junior. The more I thought about that, especially in moments when I wasn’t already mad enough to spit, the more likely I was to remember to focus on monitoring my reactiveness when he ticked me off.

So did it work?

In some areas of life, I’m pretty sure that I was less challenging than most daughters. I’ve always been great about eating my fruits and vegetables, for instance, and I became keen on making my bed at a very young age.

But as for my relationship with my brother, I am 99% certain that I made nothing easy for my parents. But, Noah and I ended up okay. When we’re together (not all that often, as we live in different states now), we enjoy each other, and we spend a minimal amount of time bickering. He knows I love him and am proud of him. He also knows I wish I had been less hard on him growing up.

But I want to be honest here. I joke about our childhood conflicts because it’s my tendency to joke about most things, and because, thanks to Noah, many of these conflicts have quite a bit comedic potential. But I hope that my joking does not disguise that I do sincerely wish things had been different between us.

I say this not to be sentimental, but because I want to convey my belief that while things do often get better once combative siblings have grown up, I hope most siblings don’t give up on the time they spend growing up.

From personal experience, I know that takes a lot of parental effort. It requires parents to not only be the referee, but the coach and cheerleader of both teams. As a once tyrannical older sister, now softened in my old age, I hope I’ve offered some encouragement.