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.”

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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.

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Diary of a Woman Who Has Three Hours to Herself (to Squish In Everything)

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[preschool dropoff]

Woohoo! I’m free!

Are they ok? Wait, doesn’t one of them have a stomachache?

I’m a bad mom for needing to send them away.

I’m so happy!

[anxiety attack]

Breathe slowly, you idiot!

I’m really gonna enjoy my time off this time.

I’m not going to waste it.

I have to stop at this store first.

Dang it, they don’t have it.

Just one more store.

They don’t have it.

Argh! I’ve wasted a whole hour. For no reason!

Drive home faster so you can relax faster, you dork.

This anxiety attack is giving me an anxiety attack because I’m wasting time on the anxiety attack.

What do I even want to do? What do I even like anymore?

Oh, lemme just look up this thing online. Maybe I can find it.

Dang it! You wasted another HOUR!

Ok, Melissa, buckle down and write. For real. It’s the only thing that helps you.

Virus warning? WTF??

Did I lose that work? NO NO NO NO NO NO

I’m gonna stare at this ceiling for a while in the depths of despair like Anne of Green Gables.

ONE HOUR LEFT? LOOK AT THIS MESS! Why haven’t I cleaned anything?

What is wrong with you?

[pace, pace, pace] Which mess should I start with? The worst one or the easiest one? When was the last time I cleaned this dog bowl? OMG.

Maybe I should put on some music. Or take a bath. Those things always help.

Music. Ok, Talking Heads is my cleaning music.

“Slippery People”? How can I not dance to this? Dancing helps anxiety. Dance it off!

Wow, why can’t I dance like that when people are around?

Maybe I’ll unload a few dishes while dancing.

Wait, look at that pile of clean clothes.

Look away. Look at it again.

I really need to clean the toilet. Maybe I can dance-clean the toilet.

Ok, focus, Melissa. Sit down and make a list. Prioritize.

Look at that pile of clothes! JUST LOOK AT IT!

Oh, wow, DJ Shadow? [lost in a romantic college-era dorm-room Christmas-light trance]

OMGosh I have to LEAVE TO PICK UP THE TWINS!

Wait, I didn’t eat.

Isn’t it a beautiful day outside? Why wasn’t I outside?

[start the car]

Get it together, woman!

Regular thoughts vs. Anxiety Thoughts

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Me. Worrying.

Sometimes my mind plays tricks on me. Well, “tricks” makes it sound kind of fun and playful. These tricks are neither fun nor playful. Hmm, maybe “my mind” isn’t the best phrase either. Let me start over.

Sometimes my brain chemicals try to screw me over.

The same things happen to me on good days as do on bad days. No matter how good or bad my brain chemistry is acting, I still have to make the same amount of meals, wipe the same amount of bums, and hear the same amount of chaos. The difference is whether or not I can handle those things.

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Me. Hiding.

Some days, I can calmly look around and survey the damage and prioritize my responsibilities. Other days, I look around at my life and I … feel like when I’m swimming and I think the bottom of the lake is right there, but then my toes realize that I can’t touch the bottom and I panic and tread water even though I know I know how to swim.

And then, I shut down. Zombie mommy takes over. I don’t know what to do about anything and I slowly lose the ability to do anything. I lose the ability to prioritize. Everything seems huge and every attempt on my part seems inadequate or even just wrong. On a “good” day, I might look back and wonder why on earth I couldn’t handle that stupid little event/ responsibility / feeling/ chore/ request.

Here is how my brain handles things on good days versus bad days…

The houseplant needs water.                                                            
Regular thought: Where did I put that watering can? Which kid will help me water this plant?
Anxiety thought: I kind of like watching this plant die.

My kids go to their rooms for their regularly scheduled “quiet time”.
Regular thought: These kids really benefit from quiet time. We all need a break.
Anxiety thought: Shouldn’t I be doing some cute craft with them or something? I shouldn’t need a break from my own children.

I see a book on the floor that I had promised to read to them but didn’t.
Regular thought: Oh, I better remember to read that to them tomorrow!
Anxiety thought: I am the worst mother ever. How could I promise something and not follow through? These kids will never keep trusting me if I don’t mean what I say.

I am late to something.
Regular thought: Ugh, I tried hard. Oh well, people understand that I have potty-training twins and can’t always be on time.
Anxiety thought: I am never on time. Everyone else manages to be on time, no matter how many kids they have. What is wrong with me?

There are piles of laundry on the couch.
Regular thought: I can’t believe how much mud and pollen three small boys can get into in the spring!  Let’s get this folding started. It won’t be so bad in the summer time.
Anxiety thought: There is no point. Laundry never ever ends. Other moms can handle their laundry with bigger families than mine. What is my excuse? I can’t even look at this pile.

I need to start making dinner.
Regular thought: Let me consult my meal planner on the wall to remember what I am making tonight. Ok, I need to start that in ten minutes.
Anxiety thought: Everyone is going to need me while I’m making dinner. It’s so impossible. They won’t even want to eat what I planned anyway. Why do I bother?

My husband calls and says he will be late coming home from work tonight.
Regular thought: Ugh, not again. Ok, let’s get this over with.
Anxiety thought: I will be doing this alone forever. I can’t handle this. I can’t handle them.

I have a whole lot of emails/ texts/ messages/ calls to respond to.
Regular thought: Well, people understand that I have twins. I’ll get to them sooner or later.
Anxiety thought: People make time for me, yet I can’t seem to make time for them. I am a really bad friend. I am going to lose the friends I’ve got.

Everyone is crying at the same time.
Regular thought: Let me see who has the most serious need and handle him first.
Anxiety thought: I don’t know what to do. I want to hide in the bathroom.

The house is a mess.
Regular thought: Well, I have three small boys! What do I expect it will look like? It’s not like I have a cleaning crew. I’ll clean it when they go to kindergarten.
Anxiety thought: I am a failure.

Even on a bad day, I know I can’t believe the anxiety thoughts. But it’s so hard. I know I shouldn’t listen to that crap. I know it’s not real. These “tricks” are all so new to me. I can’t believe how much effort it takes to both hear them and not to listen to them. On a good day, I just handle it. Handle it and move on.

Besides my migraines, anxiety has absolutely been my biggest challenge to my parenting. Sometimes I imagine what kind of mother I could be without anxiety or migraines strangling me. I can’t decide if thinking like that makes me feel better or worse.

Yes, what I do is really really hard. I am not sure that anyone in my situation would be able to do any better. At least, that’s what I have to tell myself. Having three small children, one of them with special needs, a couple of them potty training, and all of them very very dependent on me, would take a toll on anyone. Right?

It makes me really sad to read what I have written – to put this stuff in words. But I usually can’t heal from something until I write it down. I think better when I write. Let’s just hope I can learn to think better during the bad days, too.

“You’ll Remember All of Their Firsts, But None of Their Lasts”

Besides the moment my husband walks in the door, the best thirty seconds of my day are when my babies “pretend to be my babies” – a strange nightly ritual that floods my nervous body with  oxytocin.

“Please, Momma,  I be your baby now?”

My days can be so hard that, by bedtime, I feel clawed apart, chewed up, spit out, left for dead, drawn and quartered, and buzzing with sickening amounts of adrenaline.

My children have never been able to really relax with me. I guess I should say “on me”. They can’t relax on me. Well, one of them can. One of them fits my body like a glove. (Or I guess I should say like a tight shirt, because who wears a body glove?) The other two children just don’t seem to be able to relax on me unless it is the middle of the night. Darkness is my friend.

Maybe I’m too bony, and they prefer bosomy. Maybe I’m too cold, and they prefer warmth. Maybe I’m too anxious, and they can smell my anxiety seeping out my pores like gasoline. Whatever the reason, they have usually preferred their father, and often even their grandmothers, over me.

wp-1456004224725.jpgBut after our whole day has passed, after dinner is cleaned up, teeth brushed , scriptures read, prayers said, they each take a turn to lie in my arms like a baby.

They ask, one at a time, “Can I be your baby now?”

They may have been kickboxing each other all day long, but they calmly give each other the time and space to lie in my arms for the duration of a song. I gather each into my arms like a newborn. Even though each one is three feet longer than at birth, and about six or eight times their original birth weights, they each nestle into my chest in the exact same way as they did as newborns.

One rests his ear against my heart, because it soothes his bad ears. One nestles into my breast as if he were vaguely still aware of long ago nursing. One stares into my eyes with unashamed devotion.

To my arms, they each feel the same as they did as newborns. One is clammy and stiff. One is warm and floppy. One is cool and solid.

But each one physically relaxes as I begin to sing into his ear in turn. Their shoulders loosen, their heads nestle in deeper, and I have their complete attention for the first time all day.

There is no one else in the world when it is that child’s song. I lean over him so my hair makes a soft curtain over his face. I stare into his eyes, whether hazel, deep brown, or almost black. I press my cheek against his cheek and whisper-sing into his ear.

I sing southern gospels, church hymns, songs my momma sang to me, or old nursery rhymes. It doesn’t matter. He is really listening to my heart and to my breath and to my voice. Whether that child grew in my belly or not, my voice and my heartbeat are his, and his alone, for those thirty seconds. We belong to each other.

wp-1456004277769.jpgI am terrified of the day they never do it again. “You’ll remember all their firsts but none of their lasts.” When will the last time be? My voice and my heartbeat and my bony arms will someday not be enough to relax them or to fix them. These days are so incredibly draining, but what kind of toll does it take to have a child be too big to “pretend to be your baby”?

It is the best thirty seconds of my day. It gets me through. That oxytocin, that fierce mama bear love, that desire to eat them whole, is fuel to get me to the next day. So I can feel it all again.

I Have Ping Pong Balls in My Head

My heart deflates and swells a hundred times a day.

img_20151107_154642.jpgHave you ever had a moment when you felt like you were going to run out of the house screaming like your head was on fire because you couldn’t take one more second of toddlers? I have twin toddlers. They ask the same question, sequentially. Then I try to answer both of them at the same – because, after all, they just asked the same question – and it never works. Inevitably, only one of them will listen to the answer. Then the other one says, “What you say?” and I have to repeat it again.

Thus, I have the questioning of toddlers, in stereo, at all times. It makes me long for the good old days of mono. (Audiophile joke there.)

I’m tired in my bones.

They have quit napping. Did I mention that? For real this time. I have coerced and forced and reinforced naptime many times over, and I have always won every uprising and insurgence the twins have launched at me. Not this time. It’s been several weeks and all my bribes, threats, tricks, and separations have gone over like a lead zeppelin. (Audiophile joke there.)

I can’t write anymore, so my blog and my brain are suffering. And, oh, the irony: I finally get my oldest child off to kindergarten, and the twins decide that very week that they are done with naptime! There is no rest for a momma.

I have tried quiet time. It worked with my oldest child. Play with some toys and be quiet and let’s do this until kindergarten starts. But these twins turn quiet time into a WWE match. There is almost nothing in their room – no toys, nothing – and yet they manage to put holes in walls and perhaps in their heads as well. Twins always have an audience, and they love it.

I have tried separation. The Hurricane Twin gets the guest room. Then both of them cry. Forever. They don’t know how to live when they are apart.

I have tried separating the twins, but joining with one twin in the guest room. Hey, even though I won’t get my own time, at least I get some cuddle time with no questions in stereo, right? Hmmm. Not really. Heaven forbid I nod off… because I have been hit in the face with pants to wake me up. It is quite a window into the soul of whichever twin I am cuddling, but the other wails for his WWE partner/ audience in the other room.

wpid-wp-1425383125280.jpegMy soul is screaming for relief and I feel like I have ping pong balls in my head and I think I might run out of the house like my head is on fire. And then, out of nowhere, he snuggles into my armpit and says, “Don’t take my sunshine away,” and my heart swells within my chest and I feel like I might burst.

I guess my mental health will have to take a backseat to that kind of love.

The Madness of Toddlers

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Toddlers are utterly baffling. Multiply the madness by two and I’m mayor of Crazy Town.

In the middle of the night

Twin B: Mommy! Mommy! MOMMY!
Me: What? What do you want?
Twin B: I want to be quiet.

While zipping up his jacket
Any twin: “I want to zip it!!! HELP ME!

At dinner
Me: Do you want another drink of water?
Twin B: No, I want WATER!

While buckling a carseat
Twin A: You buckle it. LET ME BUCKLE IT!

While pulling up pants
Twin A: YOU do it. I DO IT!!!!!

Outside
Me: Do you want to walk to the mailbox with me?
Twin A: NO. [hysterical crying] WAIT FOR ME!!!!!

Basically anytime

Me: Can I help you?
Any twin: NO YOU DO IT!

While washing hands
Twin A: YOU GAVE ME TOO MUCH SOAP!
Me: If you put your hands under the water, then the soap will go away.
Twin A: I DON’T WANT TO. YOU GAVE ME TOO MUCH SOAP!!!!

Me: You’re a complicated little fella.
Twin B: I not a ca ca ca. I am a RABBIT.

Me: Do you want some cheese?
Twin B: No thanks. I want some cheese.

Verbal Twin Fights, Two-Year-Old Edition

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Ah-choo!
No that’s MY AH-CHOO!

I’m a strip mall!
No! I’m a strip mall!

You’re a tator tot.
Momma, I not a tator tot!!! I not!!!!

You’re a darny darn.
I not a darny darn!!!

I saw a garbage truck.
No you didn’t!

That’s a truck.
No, that’s a BIG truck.
That’s a truck.
No, that’s a BIG TRUCK!

I see the moon.
NO you CAN’T!

I want to go outside.
NO I want to go in DRIVEWAY!

You can’t see my monster truck shirt!
YES I DO SEE!!

I like raspberries.
NO YOU CAN’T I LIKE RASPBERRIES!

You’re a Bobby Bob.
I NOT A BLOBBY BLOB. MOMMA!!!

I pooped.
NO I POOPED!!

You’re a bunk bed!
YOU’RE A MICROWAVE!