Tough Days

When we went to get our little Judah Buddha this morning, he greeted us with his normal huge smile. And he was covered in vomit. Dried vomit.

Which means he threw up sometime in the night, all alone, with no one to help him. And then he went back to sleep on his vomit-covered pillow. Needless to say, I felt horrible.

After my husband and I did the double-team cleanup, I asked him, “Do you feel guilty for not hearing him last night?” And he said, “No. He was smiling.”

I still felt guilty. So I called my mom. “Oh that happens,” she said. “If he really wanted you to hear him, he would’ve cried loud enough. He was probably tired and just went back to sleep.”

Ahh, that did the trick to abolish my mommy guilt. Try it–all you have to do is ring up a Baby Boomer to get a little dose of guilt squashing. And if that doesn’t work, call someone your grandma’s age.

Which makes me recall the time I asked my grandma how she found the time to make dinner with two toddler sons.

“Oh I just put them in their playpen out in the backyard,” she said.

“But Grandma, you lived  in Rochester, NY. It was probably freezing.”

“They were wearing jackets.”

My brother was in jail when he found out our father had died.

Earlier that year, my family discovered the depths of my brother’s drug addiction were much, much worse than any of us imagined. Once I convinced my father I was not exaggerating, he stepped in and became my brother’s confidante. His only confidante. And then he died.

Having a family member struggle with the abyss of drug addiction has been one of the most counter-intuitive, emotionally complex things I’ve ever gone through.

All the things you’d think were right (go down and put his ass in rehab, get him away from his posse and shower him with love, give him a job and an opportunity to see beyond his situation) do not work. (We’ve tried them.) And so to some degree you give up. You don’t give up hope, but you wait for the person to decide they have “hit bottom” and are finally ready to end the nightmare.

At my father’s funeral, my brother told me he had not yet hit bottom.

This experience led me to the book Beautiful Boy: A father’s journey through his son’s addictions by David Sheff. Sheff learns of his son Nic’s addiction to methamphetamine during Nic’s freshman year at college. Which is a far cry from what he told his father at age seventeen, admitting to using “some drugs ‘like everyone,’ ‘just pot,’ and only ‘once in awhile.’

Now that he knows the truth, Sheff laments, “I learn that now that he is over eighteen, I cannot commit him…Had I seen this coming, I would have forced Nic into rehab when I still could have made the decision for him.”

His son snowed him, just like my brother has been snowing my family for ten years. Just like our children may one day try to snow us.

“An alcoholic will steal your wallet and lie about it. An addict will steal your wallet and then help you look for it.” — from Beautiful Boy by David Sheff

I’ve felt heartache, fear, disappointment, regret and sadness that I couldn’t/didn’t/can’t save my brother from his personal hell. But most of all, I’ve felt anger. Raging, ugly anger. Anger over his lies, anger that he hasn’t taken all the opportunities given to him to live a new life, anger that he’d allow himself to get to a place unimaginably low, and disgust over his lifestyle, the smell of his clothes, the scars on his hands.

But we all know anger is a mask for sadness.

And when I allow myself to stop and really feel what I feel over this person I adore, what rises to the surface is an overwhelming, frantic grief and profound loss.

And when I think about what my mother must be feeling, my heart nearly explodes. She doesn’t speak of her true feelings very often, but she once confessed to driving up and down the drug district of her town looking for him, expecting to see her son lying in a heap on the side of the road. Thinking of myself in her situation, searching for my own son on the side of the road, is almost too much to handle. Too far to let my mind go.

My young sons have not yet experienced tragedy, victimhood, true fear. They don’t know about domestic violence, child predators, suicide, going broke or divorce. They don’t even know about playground teasing, not fitting in, being too small or too big or not good enough in the eyes of their peers. Or whatever other early events that might lead a person to drugs.

But their perfect view of life will get shaken eventually. And I pray like hell I can give them the set of tools to handle those emotions without turning to drugs. Which isn’t to say they won’t do it anyway.

“The meaning I have come to is that Nic on drugs is not Nic but an apparition. Nic high is a ghost, a specter, and when he is high my lovely son is dormant, pushed aside, hidden away and buried in some inaccessible corner of his consciousness…Nic is in there and he–Nic, his essence, his self–is whole, safe and protected…[Yet] Nic may never again emerge.”

I don’t know if my brother will ever again emerge, yet with each detox and promise to get clean comes the hope that this horrible chapter is finally over, and that the long journey of true recovery and sobriety, can finally begin. I accept that I cannot control when or if this ever happens.

But what about what I can influence? What about my own children?

Some children will experiment a handful of times and then move on (like me). While for others, it’s a gateway to the unimaginable. How will you know which is which?

David Sheff’s child was gifted, bright, loved by all, and got into Berkeley. So what if he smoked pot once in awhile? (Except that, of course, it was so much more than pot.) Sheff took all the reasonable steps–he spent more time with his son, they went through counseling, he sent his son out of the country for the summer.

I think back to high school, and the kids who got sent away to military school or something just as extreme-sounding. Their parents took drastic measures to remove their children from harm. Are those kids better off now?

What would I do? What will you do?

When I was on maternity leave with my second son, I somehow made it to one of those morning mothers’ groups in the dead of winter. Just like the mom’s groups I dragged myself to with my first son, I was the only mom there.

In this case, though, the group was hosted by an infant and toddler expert–one of those wise, patient types who dedicated her career to non-profit work and whose wisdom seemed to transcend a lifetime.

“How are you doing with your newborn?” Wendy asked.

“Oh him? He’s fine. It’s his toddler brother I can’t seem to handle,” I blurted.

As it turned out, Wendy loved toddlers (and authored numerous publications about them).

This was a concept I hadn’t ever considered–there are people who love toddlers? Those little dictators who have Category 5 hurricane breakdowns hourly? The ones who fall apart at every transition point throughout the day? The ones who see you on the daycare playground at the end of the day, scream “nooooo!” and run the other way? The ones who could qualify for the Baker Act as “a danger to themselves and others.”

Fortunately, Wendy seemed to have all the time in the world to help me see the magic in my own little guy. I left the mom’s group  that January morning with a shift in my thinking and a list of new tricks to engage my oldest son’s mind in a new way.

That was more than a year ago, and after volumes of research combined with getting to know my older son’s temperament better, I’m enjoying him more and more. Wendy’s suggestions on play that was not toy-based made me hungry to discover other ways to surprise and engage my children. (Which is one of the goals of this blog–to pass them on to you as I find things that work.)

And today, after surprising my 2.5-year-old with an under bed storage container filled with 25 pounds of uncooked rice, I actually thought, “I’m going to miss this stage.”

This stage when it’s relatively easy to “wow” him. This flash in time when he responds to my creative efforts with pure wonder and complete lack of sarcasm.

So thank you, Wendy, for helping me find ways to embrace this season in my children’s lives rather than trying to rush through it. Thank you for shifting my perception and for taking time to sit with a frazzled new mother of two that cold morning.

Today was one of those days when I started checking the clock at 11am to see if it was time for my husband to come home.

Both of our kids have been sick–the puking, fever, diarrhea sick–and stuck in the house for almost a week now. The 2.5-year-old was much better today and probably could have/should have gone to daycare.

How do I know he’s better? Because he spent the day hitting, kicking, throwing, refusing to nap and coming up with other fun ways to channel his “I’ve been in the house all damn winter” frustration. Meanwhile, the 1-year-old is still vomiting and having diarrhea explosions. And I’m running on fumes after several nights of changing vomit-filled sheets and playing with bath toys at 2am.

Which made my job as a mom incredibly trying today.

I hate how I feel during days like these. It reminds me how I felt all last winter, when I was (unknowingly) living through postpartum depression and anxiety–cagey, unable to leave the room for fear of someone (aka my baby) getting hurt, and like I don’t have the creative reserves as a mother to know how to turn the situation around.

The difference between today and how I felt last year, though, is my ability to recognize that I’m in the middle of a tough day. I’m now able to see above the chaos, even when I’m in the middle of it. To think to myself,  “What would turn this situation around? What does this moment need?”

Unfortunately all the (pretty cool) things I came up with today didn’t turn the situation around. What’s the message in this? What’s the lesson?

All I know so far, 15-minutes after handing off the screaming bundles to my husband and hightailing it upstairs to sit in the dark, is this:

Some days are tough.

Some days will feel like living inside of a tornado all day long.

Some days you’ll have a toddler throwing rocks at the glass door while the other one is puking and crapping all over himself in the playroom.

All you can do is try to stay calm, try not to yell, and do your best trying to figure out who to attend to first. And hope you have the blessing of getting another go at it next time.