happy holidays

We’re coming up on the holidays now, and I’ve been reading in a number of blogs that people are already feeling some trepidation and making plans not to have the awful times they’ve experienced in the past.

I’ve had really good holidays and really, really bad ones, both due to my own mental health issues and because my son’s illness was in a bad place (almost certainly mixed with where the rest of the family was, mentally-speaking, at the time).

My mother was the sort of person who used to cook her way through to the perfect holiday when I was a kid. There were years when we made ten kinds of cookies plus the fruitcake and then all of the ritual foods for the different days. When she started to drink more and more, and she started to say that she was too tired to cook, at first my younger sister and I just filled in and did the baking. But you can’t pretend forever that the person parked in the La Z Boy with the glass in her hand is the same person who used to take care of all of the holiday cheer.

I’d been dieting on and off since my early teens, since I spent my life reclining and snacking, reading and reading, and even then my metabolism sucked. So I’d periodically take my calorie intake to near zero and deal the system another death blow. When I got to be 18, I decided it was time to get serious and take this not eating thing long term. That’s when my weird eating became clinically disordered. I didn’t last long as an anorexic, but I learned about bulimia, and those behaviors lasted for many years. For many, many holidays after that I was calculating which stores were open (usually only the 7-11 on Christmas at that point, which shows you how old I am) and how I could get away without having to offer endless explanations, so I could buy Ex-Lax. These days it would be so much easier. I could say I was off to Black Friday. I hate Black Friday, but oh well. I was counting on those guys who were working Christmas back in the old days.

More recently, I’ve needed to sideline my issues, because my sons have needed so much of my attention. I see that as both a good and a bad thing. I’m so sorry that they have to suffer with mood disorders, and I’m glad that I can see well enough to drag myself out of focus on self. Martin has graduated from high school now, but one of the big stresses used to be that shift out of the rhythm of school and into the blank time of vacation. He’d always think that he wanted it, and he counted the days toward it, but once he was in that open space with no markers for what to do next, he’d flounder. Then as the beginning of school approached again, he’d get terribly anxious about going back. The anxiety was so intense that it made it hard for him to focus on the celebratory aspects of the holidays themselves. For Christmas, for example, when I would ask him what he wanted, he’d think of something, and then he would be in such a state of anticipation and anxiety about how long it was taking to get whatever it was, that Christmas became a state of pain for him. If I didn’t ask him, though, then invariably I’d get him something he didn’t really want, and he would be disappointed. Now that his younger brother is old enough, I’ve taken to asking him for ideas.

Pete, my younger son, tends already to be a pragmatist and a cynic. He’s got his own extreme anxieties to cope with and then he’s an expert at working with his older brother. When I’ve run out of patience and am ready to start yelling back at Martin (worst thing to do with a person with bipolar, or certainly with my son…it only escalates the situation), Pete steps in and deescalates the situation. Infuriates me when I’m feeling feisty, but it’s just what Martin needs. Fighting with his mother is not. Pete loves Thanksgiving more than any other day of the year, but it needs to be done just so. He has rituals that need to be adhered to to make it feel right. I like that he’s picked a day where nearly all the rituals have to do with food, because food is relatively easy, but then again, this is me, so food is never really easy. I’ve been a vegetarian for the last six years, so sitting next to an enormous bird is less than great. But I’ll do that for my sons. What’s growing even more problematic is that he wants Thanksgiving with his Mom and Dad. Every year I think, this is it. We separated so many years ago. I am not doing this again, and then there we are, performing Thanksgiving again. I love my sons so much, and this year my partner is going to be overseas, but I’m thinking this ritual seriously needs an overhaul.

Image Credit: Annie Spratt

in sickness and in health

I’m going today to have lunch with a group of friends who have connections to the department where I work; most of them used to work there with me. This is the first time that we’re getting together since one of them, let’s call her Ann, finished nursing her ex-husband through pancreatic cancer. We had all known at least one person in common who got a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and was dead two months later. It’s a vicious disease with not a lot of warning signs. So when Ann told us that her ex had it, we thought that they were facing a similar painful and brief experience.

However the dinner after the one when she told us that he’d been diagnosed, she told us that she was going to have him move in with her. And then the one after that, he was still apparently going strong. The diagnosis had caught the disease when it was still early enough that he had some time.

Ann’s decision struck all of us differently. I am divorced myself, and, like Ann, not on the very best of terms with my ex, though we try to get along for the sake of co-parenting our sons. I hear from the boys that he tells people that I am a neurotic mess. And I think he’s a great one to talk. Every time he goes along to a psychiatrist’s appointment with our older son and Martin talks about some symptom he has, Gabe is right in there talking about how he thinks he has it too, maybe worse. Bipolar, Aspergers, anxiety. He’s got something alright. Pain in the ass syndrome would be my considered diagnosis. So if he got diagnosed with some awful cancer, would I want to care for him? My first reaction would probably be hell no. But then I would probably wind up doing it. For my sons. So they could see that they didn’t have to worry about dying miserable and alone, that someone would care enough to be with them too.

Ann’s ex died about a month ago. I know that he’d been hard to care for. He’d stay holed up in the room that he was using and just appear for food and to go to appointments. It was enough caring, though, to make her grieve his loss.

I have a couple of close friends who have had their spouses die over the last year or so. I suppose this is because I’m getting older and will become more and more common. Watching them grieve so intensely, I have to wonder what my later life will be like. I’m a person who hasn’t let too many people in so close. That’s not just introversion. I’ve thought about it a lot and concluded that having your parents emotionally abandon you when you’re young can cause a long-lasting imprint on your personality. My mother faded away from us into alcohol. My father turned away from the sight of her by downing nightly cocktails of tranquilizers and wine that rendered him incoherent as well. In the morning, neither of them would remember the night before, so complaining was pointless. My youngest sister and I became unable to form solid attachments, and my middle sister coped by trying to control everything.

My mother died almost twenty years ago of cancer, but she had started to develop cirrhosis. My father claimed that he couldn’t remember her struggles with drinking.  He said he must have been traveling for work when she got drunk. My sisters begged me not to confront him. They were sure that he didn’t remember anything he’d done and that my telling him the truth would devastate him. Sure. But what about us?

He said to me more than once that he didn’t understand why he and my mother were able to stay married for almost forty years, and my sisters and I, between us, had five divorces.

“I can explain it to him,” I said to my sisters. “Librium and Gallo Rhine Wine are the answers. And if he asks me one more time, I’m going to tell him.”

In the end, he died before I told him the truth. But I’m telling the truth now. Maybe it will stop some other child from being manipulated into thinking that they should make up to one parent for what they say they’re not getting from the other.