A  Meme That Changed My Life?

Scrolling through Instagram, to escape my kids and my brain (both of which were driving me crazy), I saw a meme that changed my life.

Hold up. Say whaaaat? Yep, I’m for real. I might be exaggerating a wee bit, but it was still important. A friend had posted a meme that was a quote by Mooji, a “spiritual teacher” from Jamaica. It said:

“Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go.”

wp-1493132734768.jpg

My own version of that meme

Those words just happened to hit me at the right moment. I could use any cliché here to describe what happened: it clicked, lightbulb moment, “aha” moment. What happened was a profound and real paradigm shift in my thinking.

I am not my thoughts. I am not my feelings. I am not my guilt.

These things are actually separate from me. And they are temporary. If they are visitors (maybe not the more favorable word choice of “guests”), that means they will leave. Eventually.

It’s not as if I’d never done my homework before. I know about retraining your brain by changing your thoughts. I know about cognitive distortions. I know about cognitive behavioral therapy. I have a Bachelors’ degree in Psychology (granted, it’s old); I have listened to professionals; I have read books. I have even read books on this very topic. I have probably even seen almost identical doofy self-help quotes on social media every day for years. I had thought I understood what my brain was doing and how to change it. But somehow, somehow, despite all of that, my brain didn’t actually accept that “feelings are just visitors” until this one stupid (or amazing) meme.

A mom with depression, anxiety, or simply a guilt-prone personality, might see a children’s book lying on the floor at night after the children are in bed. This kind of self-deprecating mom will have some or all of the following thoughts:

“I promised my child I would read that book to him, and I didn’t. He will never trust me if I don’t mean what I say.”

“I don’t read to my children enough. I’m a former teacher; I KNOW how important reading is. What is wrong with me?”

“I can’t keep this house clean to save my life. My husband will think I’m lazy.”

“Why are there always books on the floor? Haven’t I taught my children to respect books? Maybe they never actually see me reading books myself. I’m on my phone too much. Have they even seen me pick up a novel?”

“My husband will be stressed by this mess when he comes home. Why can’t I get it together?”

A mom with a healthier line of thinking – or (let’s be honest) A DAD – will look at that same book and think:

“There is a book on the floor.”

And that’s it. A fact with no blame. Maybe that person would go so far as to put the book away, or make plans to read it to his child tomorrow, but there would be no judgment attached to the thought.

Mr. Okayest is so very good at simply seeing that there is a dang book on the floor. I say that with awe and respect. It’s one of the things I love best about him. He’s factual (so he adds no blame to anything), but simultaneously so loving (because he can factually see where I differ from him, and he can see it without blame). He’s a good example to me, and a huge help to me.

I’m fairly certain I’m a non-judgy person. The older I get, the more gray area I see. The more wiggle room. I am pretty sure I follow “live and let live” and “love your neighbor” and “meet people where they are.” I think I almost always remember that everyone is fighting invisible battles and will do things differently than I will. (I even consulted with my husband to be sure that I really am that kind of person.)

So WHY OH WHY do I judge myself so harshly? I’m realizing that every single thought and feeling about myself comes with 1) judgment, and 2) directing it inward. Making it a part of my personality.

Instead of saying “I’m so anxious”, I’m now going to say, “I have a temporary feeling of anxiety.” It is not me, and it is not permanent. Instead of telling myself “I am a bad mother”, I will try to reframe it and think, “I have a feeling of inadequacy that will pass.” It is not me, and it is not permanent.

Now that my brain had finally assimilated all that, I began my research anew. With new lenses on. I went back to the books, information from professionals, journals, articles, and read many of them again, with a new understanding of how to really apply it to my own self. While reading an article about how to help children with their anxiety, I learned that you can teach your children that thoughts are like a train. Each thought or feeling or emotion is a train car. They are not actually YOU. They are passing by. You can watch them pass, and you can do so without putting any blame on those train cars.

I have actually been applying this simplistic children’s advice to myself. I had to start practicing when the children were in bed, or in preschool. I was not able to retain the self-control, or time, to practice it when they were around and demanding things in triplicate – and I didn’t want to set myself up for failure. I am not a visual person (I like words – duh), so imagining a train passing by whenever I recognized a negative or anxious feeling is not natural for me. It takes a lot of effort. But, to my surprise, it was actually working. I found that often I had to picture my stupid negative train slowing to a stop at my station, because the feelings wouldn’t budge for a while. But remembering that those feelings were separate from me, no matter how long they parked there, was a revelation.

I practiced this visualization and thought retraining (oh, semi-nice pun!) for about two weeks before I was actually able to stop a full-blown anxiety attack in its tracks. (Ohhh, super nice pun!) I left the kids to their Legos and went to my room and shut the door. (I could not have done this two years ago. I am able to steal moments away now that the twins are four and not constantly in mortal danger.) I sat in my happy papasan chair and stared out my window. I slowed my breathing and pictured my stupid train. I repeated my stupid meme quote. “Feelings are just visitors. Let them come and go.” I did it. I de-escalated myself. I waited until I was really sure of that fact, and then I went back to my children.

At a recent adoption conference, I heard an adult adoptee (who is also a rapper) say that if we are caring for foster children, traumatized children, adopted children, special needs children, then we have a responsibility to get it together mentally in order to help them. He, of course, mentioned the ubiquitous oxygen mask analogy, which I have often heard and thought I had understood. But, for some reason, the way he phrased it changed everything. He said something like, “If you are the kind of person who is willing to care for children of trauma, then you are probably the kind of person who doesn’t think about herself. Who doesn’t put herself first. So I’m going to frame this from that perspective. Taking care of yourself and your own mental health IS being selfless, because it enables you to care for the needs of your child. You have to get it together yourself in order to BE SELFLESS enough to care for that kid.”

Straight into my heart and leaking out my eyes.

The oxygen mask analogy never really sat well with me, because, seriously, I don’t know if I can even FIND my oxygen mask. (Also, I am wary of the “saviorism” mentality that many white adoptive parents have without knowing it. I do not believe I am “selfless” for having adopted. Nor do I assume that my child is “better off with me.” I benefited from this man’s words because he was helping me figure out how to best help my child.) But this adult Black male adoptee who had been to prison and to college was telling me that taking the time to work out my own sh!t was for the good of my child. … And somehow it sunk in this time. Somehow, even though I may have heard it a hundred different times in a hundred different ways, and even though I had thought I had understood it, my brain and heart were actually finally ready to assimilate it.

Why am I ready now? Why is years of already-gathered information suddenly resonating? Maybe it’s because the kids are older, and I am actually able to take those five minutes to myself in my bedroom while they play Legos. Maybe it’s because my anxiety is already more controlled with professional help. Maybe it’s because I’m not in emergency mode anymore. Maybe it’s because I am being blessed by a higher power. Maybe because I can see, as my kids get older, how my mental health does – and will – affect them. Maybe it’s because I’m freaking sick of living like that.

***

The man who spoke to us was SaulPaul (who has given TED talks before). When he was done making me cry, he got out his guitar and sang all of us adoptive parents a song he wrote about his grandmother who adopted him. It’s called “Mama” and you can hear it here. 

 

 

And a heartfelt thank you to the friend who originally posted that meme… you know who you are and I love you.

Four Years to the Day After I Almost Died, I Feel Selfish and Depressed on My Twins’ Birthday

wp-1484074415461.jpgFour years to the day after I almost died, I still don’t like my twins’ birthday. I get feelings of dread that begin a month or so before their birthday. People ask me about their birthday plans, and I sputter.  I don’t understand why I have a dark cloud over me and can’t/won’t think about their presents and party. Finally, a couple of weeks before their birthday, I remember why I feel like a puddle on the floor.

Oh, yes, hello again, old feelings. I remember you. You’re not welcome here. I see you’ve come in anyway. Make yourself at home while I struggle to carry on with daily life.

The depression is heavy. The anxiety is dizzying. I look at my healthy and lighthearted sons and feel so.much.guilt. They are happy and adorable. They are wild and strong. And I am the Girl Who Lived. We lived! They thrived! I have nothing to be sad about. I want to celebrate. I want to celebrate their health and their beautiful little miraculous lives. I want to celebrate the doctors who saved me that day. It’s their BIRTHDAY. What is more joyful than the birthday of a set of four-year-old twins?! Isn’t that reason to celebrate? And it’s my survival day. Shouldn’t my survival day become a holiday, with capital letters? Survival Day.

What is wrong with me? What an ingrate. Look at those gorgeous faces and get yourself together. But I can’t. I’m not sure if the initial feelings, or the guilt about the feelings, are worse.

It’s been four years. They turn four today. Isn’t that enough time to have worked through my feelings about the way I almost lost my uterus, a twin, and even my life? Somewhere between the birth of Twin A and Twin B, I lost consciousness. Twin B wasn’t breathing and was intubated – but I didn’t know that. I came around again and held Twin A to my breast for a miraculous five minutes, but my heart was with my unknown Twin B, whisked away to the NICU, away from my body for the first time since he was in that Petri dish eight months before. It was the very first time I realized that I would never ever be able to fully focus on only one child. The moment they were taken from my body and the three of us were separated, my heart was split forever.

And then I lost my entire blood volume and came back to life two days later in the Intensive Care Unit. I didn’t know the fate of Twin B, or if I even still had my uterus. I didn’t know where Twin A was, or what day it was. It was dark and I was alone. I was intubated and tied down. I couldn’t talk or move my own arms. There were no babies in my belly or on my chest. I was more scared than I had ever been in my entire life.

And yet, my story had a happy ending. I was wheeled out of that hospital a week later with all the babies and body parts with which I had come into it. (Well, technically, I guess I lost two organs. Placentas are organs, right? Disposable organs?) I think of all the people I know and love who have had such tremendous traumas in their lives – like losing children forever – and want to slap myself for being so maudlin about a story with a happy ending.

How could I have held on to this fear for four years? Their birthday should be all about them. No matter how hard I try to celebrate, I have this black cloud hanging over my subconscious. Even when I think I’m fine, even when I think I’m not thinking about it, October brings scary memories. It’s a movie that won’t stop playing in my head. If my birth story is a movie that I can’t stop watching, then I had better move a few more rows back in the theater.

I have a happy ending to my story. I do not pity myself. Seriously. I don’t want pity. I don’t want sadness. I don’t even want understanding. I just want to be happy. But the leaves start to fall, and so does my mood.

Sadly, I am not alone in my grief. My husband witnessed more than I did that day, because, unlike me, he was conscious for all of it. He feels the weight of this day, too.

And what about my oldest son, the one who joined our family through adoption? He was only two when his momma went on bedrest, left for a while, and almost died. He lived with his grandparents for at least a week and visited me every day in the hospital – but wouldn’t touch me or come near me. My in-laws later told me that he threw up in their Cadillac every day on the way to the hospital. He was so scared. And when he finally got to go home, he came home to a sickly momma who couldn’t even walk… and she had brought two new people with her. Two very demanding people.

Adoption – even adoption at birth – is a trauma. And having your little two-year-old life change so drastically is a trauma, too, even if it had a happy ending. It’s possible that these events put our attachment to each other at a disadvantage. My guilt over what that did to him is staggering. I stagger under the weight of it. Even if it is misplaced guilt, it’s still placed there in my head. Yes, I know postpartum hemorrhage is not my fault – but I did make the decision to start IVF when he was so young and so fragile. I did make the decision to implant two eggs and put my life in danger.

In addition, soon after the twins’ birthday, I know my oldest son’s birthday is coming too. Can’t I celebrate at least his birthday with joy? But his birthday – the day of his birth – was the last time he ever saw his birthmother. My heart breaks for her on that day. And my heart breaks for him. It is a day of separation and pain for many children who were adopted. Some adopted children don’t want to celebrate the most defining and painful moment of their lives. Adoption is very complex and it involves walking with your child through his grief. He’s still young, but his conflicted feelings are present. And that’s okay. I need to put my own worries aside and focus on his needs. (Yep, that brings more guilt for taking too much time to worry about myself.)

I feel a depression on these anniversaries that smothers me. It feels like a heavy suit. A suit that is depressing me into the ground. Leaving a depression. I look around at other people and wonder how they are able to do things.

wp-1462743015156.jpgIt’s time to stand up, blow up the balloons, frost the cake, and put a smile on my face. “Forget yourself and go to work,” I keep repeating on a loop inside my head. I schedule a therapy appointment. I write and write and write some more to work through the feelings. I draw my babies close to me and sniff their heads. Focus on the unique scent of each strong boy. I pretend it is fuel and I keep going.

 

 

 

 

****

The order in which I publish my blog posts is not the order in which I write them. I actually wrote this over six months ago. So, before you feel too sorry for me, remember that I more recently wrote that one where I learned how to treat my feelings like visitors. Or a train. Or something. Read it here, so I can prove that I’m not too much of a mess.