The Vulnerability of a Single Mom Toting Two

My daughter was four when I accidentally told her I’d die. We were snuggled under covers, reading a story, and for some reason she brought up a guinea pig she knew that’d died recently, and she wanted to know why.
“Well, everything dies,” I’d said, in my matter-of-fact atheist way.
“Even you?” she’d said.
I couldn’t go back, and she already knew what I was about to say. The tears started, growing to full-on wails. I couldn’t get her to sleep for another hour, and she slept in my bed for a week.
I’d never thought about the what-if scenarios of my death. Mia’s a badass kid. She’s resilient. We’ve been through so much, I think she can make it through just about anything.
For a few years, we drove around in a 1983 Honda Wagon that we’d named Pearl. This car, for her age, was a champ, but had an especially difficult time in the last six months we had her. She finally broke down on the freeway, heading west, at sunset. I knew the sun must be in the oncoming drivers’ eyes. Mia was with me, and I was seven months pregnant with a baby I’d decided to have on my own.
DSCN1562Semis rushed by at 60mph and rocked the car while we waited for the tow truck. This just wouldn’t do. I couldn’t have a car that broke down all the time with two kids. A month later, I found my dream truck, handing over the last few thousand of my tax refund that was my post-partum savings to purchase a 1987 Toyota 4Runner in near-perfect condition.
A little over a year later, I’ve noticed I’m still scared to drive on the freeway.
We adopted a dog a couple of days after Mother’s Day, and I’ve since been focused on her rehabilitation. If I get ready to leave, she’s at my feet, anxiously looking at me while I try not to make eye contact. She’s also not the greatest with other dogs. She wants to play, but if the other dog gets in her space too much, Bodhi’s place is on the defensive.
The dog trainer said a rescue is kind of like adopting a special needs child. I hadn’t realized how much Bodhi’s quirks either made me stay at home or fearful to bring her out.
This summer went by with only a couple of trips to the river. No camping, no rock climbing, and hardly any hiking. I sent Mia off to do stuff with friends quite a bit, but the three of us (with the added dog) hadn’t been out much at all together.
DSCN1916Coraline, the baby, is walking and beelines for the cupboards and fridge and especially my desk. I can’t afford daycare, so my days are spent doing twenty minutes of precious work before she’s gotten herself stuck in a box or needs a new diaper or the dog needs walked or someone is hungry again and what a process that is.
On the weekends when I’m not shuffling Mia off to camp, I have about fifteen things I do before I get a chance to make coffee. This morning I neared the level of screaming before I’d even boiled the water.
“Let’s go to a lake,” I said. Mia, the noisy one, jumped up and got on her swimsuit. I threw a bunch of snacks in a bag, packed towels and a blanket, and grabbed the dog leash.
I didn’t put on a swimsuit. I didn’t pack snacks for myself. I knew all my energy would go into wrangling.
We had to drive quite a ways, including a bit on the freeway. The truck ran perfectly, the baby fell asleep on the way, but I still had white knuckles on my hands, clenched to the steering wheel. My stomach had that familiar knot. I kept imagining a tire blowing out, an oncoming truck pulling a camper losing control, or me drifting, catching an edge, and flipping us into a ditch. Breaking down on the side of the road was no longer simply waiting with Mia until someone showed up to help. I had a baby. And a dog who’d most-likely be so traumatized it’d set us back months in training.
This fear had ruled my life for months and I hadn’t realized it.
When we got to the spot by the lake, there was a couple there with a dog off-leash. I kept going, down the dirt road that circled to the other side. Or, that’s what I assumed.
We were on that dirt road for at least an hour, making our way around to the main road again. I loved it. I doubt my phone had reception. The dog threw up twice. There were bumps and puddles and we saw two badgers by their den. Coraline woke up and chatted her happy baby noises while I drove through back woods with a general idea of where we were.
I’d forgotten how much I’d loved this. This throwing everyone in the car and finding some back road that lead to a spot only we knew about. It used to be my specialty.
Our truck came full circle, and we ended up back at our spot again. Mia found a sunny spot a little further down a path with a rocky, secluded beach. I sat on a blanket with a content baby in my lap in the sun, dare I say totally relaxed. Bodhi was tied to a tree and jumped after rocks and sticks. Mia swam completely under the water, looking for special rocks. She gathered at least fifty. The four of us huddled together when the wind picked up a bit and the girls ate their snacks.
DSCN1930“I know I’ll remember this,” Mia said.
“Oh yeah?” I said. “Because of the badgers?”
“Yeah,” she said. “I remember weird things, like you licking a napkin and wiping my face before preschool one day. I’ll remember us sitting here on this blanket.”
I put my arm around her, pulled her in a little tighter, and said, “I will too, kiddo.”

Deciding to Put my Dog on Meds

I made an appointment for my dog on Monday to consult with a vet about her going on medication. There, I said it.
Personally, I hate anti-depressants. But. I once had a doctor recognize that I wasn’t depressed because I had a chemical imbalance, I was depressed because I was horribly anxious all the time. I lived in fear of what might happen. I freaked out to the point of being unable to breathe, often over little things.
What prompted me to go to the doctor so many years ago was going out to my car to start it one morning, and nothing happened. My mind clicked to static, like the old television sets. Panic took hold of my chest, caused my heart to race, and my speech to slur. I knew it was a dead battery, but to me it was facing that my old junker of a car was dead and I couldn’t get to a job where I’d be spending the next eight to ten hours scrubbing a filthy house for ten bucks an hour.
1796678_426717130797462_1698480664_nBut these episodes were normal by then. I’d been that way for a while. Since surviving emotional abuse. Since becoming a single mom. I suffered panic attacks, whispering to myself “Nobody dies from a panic attack” over and over. They came without warning, sometimes like tremors, when I wasn’t stressed out at all.
The doctor, after listening to how my anxiety attacks specifically feel and how often I have them, rolled his stool up next to me.
“This is my idea,” he said. “I haven’t published it or anything,” he joked, taking out a pen and writing on the bottom of a box of Kleenex. “But here’s what I think. See. You have this bucket.”
He drew a bucket with a spigot on the side. He said most people will have a little bit of stress in their bucket that they can empty through a faucet. Anxiety and stress will come in, and it creates motivation to get things done, or to change things.
“People like you,” he said, “they have this disease, this disorder, called ‘General Anxiety Disorder.’“ He colored in the bucket with his black pen. “See…you have sludge in your bucket that can’t be emptied out through the faucet. You are literally filled up to here,” putting the side of his hand at his forehead like he was saluting me “with anxiety, and when more anxiety comes in, like a car that won’t start, it spills over and you have a mental break-down. It happens every time, over and over again, these mental breakdowns, until your self-esteem is gone, your confidence disappears, and you become severely depressed.”
I nodded. And nodded. And nodded.
“Now fortunately,” he continued, “this is very treatable. This sludge here can be cleaned out with the right kind of medication and therapy. This is a very serious disorder, and I really do think of it as a disease. I think it’s amazing you’ve coped with it for this long. I’m glad you came in to see me today. I know you’re at a crisis level right now, but hopefully with the right medication we’ll help you get some sleep and peace of mind.”
He gave me prescriptions that I took for four or five months. They settled my mind enough to begin processing years of stress, but also got me out to meet people and try new things. I eventually replaced them with activities and exercise, like going hiking and climbing at a local bouldering gym.
“You can see it in children, even in babies,” the doctor had said. “Some kids, you know, you play peek-a-boo with them.” He cupped his hands over his eyes and opened them to illustrate. “And when you open your hands, and they jump and cry, those are the ones that usually end up with this disorder.”
I’d been given a chance to relax. I felt like I’d woken up from a nightmare.
DSCN1782We’ve had Bodhi for three months. It seems like she’s recovering slowly, but if she doesn’t get a daily dose of Bach’s Rescue Remedy, her anxiety goes into hyper-drive. Not just with the separation anxiety. She’s just on edge when we go for walks, or if people come to the door. If I leave her alone for more than a minute, she barks, pants, howls, scratches at the door, and for the rest of the day her eyes stay fixed on me. If I get up to walk around, she stands with her nose almost touching my leg, panting.
My theory is that a few months of medication might help her brain develop new paths, like it did for me. I hope whatever they give her will grant her the ability to walk around without thinking at any moment something terrible will happen. And, the last few months have been so, so very hard. Most days I don’t know who is harder to care for, the baby or the dog. On days like today, when they are both difficult, I just about lose my mind.
Medicating my dog is a last resort. I am at that point. We’ve worked hard for the last few months. I’ve tried every trick in the book over and over. But I need relief more than paying someone ten bucks to sit with her while I go out for an hour or two. I need to be able to take the girls out for dinner, or go to the fair, or to a friend’s house. Almost daily, something comes up where the answer is, “But we can’t leave Bodhi at home, and we can’t take her with us.”
I’ve never done this before. But this blog now has almost 600 new followers through WordPress in addition to the ones it had before. I ask anyone who is reading this if they’d weigh in on their experiences. Have you medicated your dog for anxiety? Did it help? Was it horrible? Please let me know. I need hope.

The Vulnerability Hangover

For a lifelong introvert, freelancing is not exactly a career of choice.
The last year has been one, long, continuous struggle to get people to notice me. I’d historically been an avid Facebook user, but only with people I’d quickly agree to have coffee with. Deciding to freelance meant building a platform. It meant blogging again, an act that took me nearly six months to do after being on hiatus for two years. It meant adding every acquaintance, every high school classmate, every person I’d sort-of-heard-of-maybe-even-seen-once-in-person as a Facebook friend. That was enough, for a while.


My Bukowski “Bluebird” Tattoo

For most of the last three years since I’ve been submitting work for publication, I’ve given the equivalent of a public reading of my own work to maybe a few hundred people at a time or less. Instead of being on stage, I’m in the middle of a swarming stadium, and the ones listening are peppered throughout crowd. I longed to write something that people would stop and pay attention to.
“I just want to go viral for all the right reasons,” I said to a friend, a week before I did.
When it was all happening, and the bad comments were coming in and my blog had 60,000 hits, I ducked even harder into my little apartment. I read articles on going viral, because what constitutes as going viral anyway, and found this quote from Elyse Anders of Mofo Nation, who’d experienced her share of negativity. “But when it comes at you when something goes viral, you can’t make it go away that easily,” she said. “It’s like you took a wrong turn and all of a sudden you’re standing in the middle of a stadium and everyone is yelling horrible insults at you.” I’d gotten what I’d longed for. Everyone, all hundreds of thousands of them, had noticed me reading my essay. But some of them went to great lengths to call me a cockroach.
I’d had an agent contact me and put all of my time and energy into getting a first chapter of my book written, and decided to focus on scenes I rarely tell close friends. Eventually, I started eating regularly again. Well, if you consider frozen pizza to be “regular.” I got Mia back and everything was back to normal. But I was changed.
DSCN5133Sherman Alexie’s been known to call the feeling after reading his work in front of people a “Vulnerability Hangover.” When I’d told my neighbor how many people had clicked on my articles that weekend, she said, “That’s like, more people than the entire state of Montana!” My friends started calling me “the famous writer,” even though I repeatedly brushed it off.
With highs come the lows, and then a settling. What now?
For the last few weeks, I’ve taken a crash course in freelancing by way of a few Facebook groups and many late nights of reading how-to articles and publications I want to submit to. I have a list of editor emails open on my desk. I’ve made close to 20 pitches. I’ve sent out that first chapter for review and have started an ebook. I work every possible moment that I can, staying up until two in the morning most nights with a sleeping 14-month-old in my lap. My wine consumption has increased, as with the coffee, and visiting the deli at the hippie store down the block.
Being an essay writer and spending hours and days and weeks on writing about things where you are the main character is not especially fun. There are some nights that I get so sick of my own self I shut the laptop, then open it again a few minutes later with a sigh.
An essay going viral didn’t prove that I was a good writer. I still have a hard time believing I am a lot of the time. Sure, there are titles that people click on more than others, but I kept hearing from people that they’d started to read my article and couldn’t stop. They appreciated the honesty. They told me that again and again.
I had a piece go up on The Mid today. It was something I’d written like I am writing now—late at night, with a glass of wine, and while nursing a baby. In the past, I anticipated getting published by reading what I wrote obsessively, trying to calm my fear of telling the story. This time, I read it on the site the day it came out, all the way to the end in one go, without cringing at sentences that could have been said better. At the last sentence my first thought was, “Wow. That was good!” instead of wishing I could retract my submission like crumpling a paper and throwing it in the wastebasket.
Putting myself out there as a freelancer and book-writer-dare-I-say-author meant winging it in the worst way at first. Because I still wanted to be a writer that I wasn’t. I wanted to be the lyrical, poetic description, literary author.
But I’m not that kind of writer.
I don’t fluff. I don’t wring every last ounce of emotion out of sentences. I write, for the most part, like I speak. I tell stories. I have conversations. I found that voice a long time ago, but going viral gave me the courage to speak it clearly, despite the crowd.
And, it turns out, from the looks of the scraps of paper and notebooks with barely legible notes scrawled in them, I have a lot to say.
So, there’s that.

In Defense of My Picky Eater

DSCN0920Like many parents, I saw multiple articles pop up on various news feeds about the study released through Pediatrics yesterday, linking “Selective Eating” to ADHD, anxiety, and depression in children aged 2-5 years. Or, more specifically, “917 children aged 24 to 71 months.” Out of these 917 children, they observed that 20% of them showed signs of moderate to severe selective eating. Being a mother of a child who refuses to eat most foods, and will choose to go hungry an entire day instead of eating food she doesn’t like, I worried over this linkage. According to the study, my child may be depressed or anxious if she’s not eating her vegetables.
The team of doctors heading this study observed that nearly half of the 20% of children who showed signs of selective eating (SE) had parents who were from single-parent homes, kids whose parents used drugs, or who had moms that were anxious themselves.
Their findings stated that “Children with SE at either moderate or severe levels were more likely to have elevated symptoms of anxiety or depression, to experience hypersensitivity to taste and texture, to have mothers with elevated anxiety, and to have family conflicts around food.” Of course these mothers and kids have anxiety and family conflicts around food. Single parents do not have the luxury of purchasing an abundance of healthy foods for their kids to try. I know this. As a single mom, I’ve been there.
1929264_43796148281_6279_nMy daughter started refusing food when she was around 18 months. Before that, I’d chopped up vegetables to mix into her pasta, and fruit in her oatmeal. I am, by default, a healthy eater. I limit processed food, eat fresh ingredients, all of that.
But when she stopped eating, I lost my mind.
I worked part-time cleaning houses, and went to school full-time. I did not, by any means, have money to waste on food my kid refused to eat. I stopped making food for myself, and ate whatever she didn’t eat, but it got worse.
She’d only eat a certain brand of cereal, the yogurt with the berries but not the peaches, and scrambled eggs one week but not the next. I couldn’t afford to purchase food she wouldn’t eat, and sat at the table with her, begging her with my eyes (and eventually words) to take just one more bite. I’d watch her take two bites of her so-called favorite meal and be done.
Going to friends’ houses for dinner or lunch was no longer an option. After a few years, my daughter would look at me and ask, “But what kind of food will they have?” with a worried tone. She’s just over 8-years-old now, and I’ve relinquished all control over her diet. She knows what food is healthy, and what is considered junk food. She knows she has to eat before doing an activity, even if it’s an apple or some cereal. It took us years to get where her refusing a bite of food didn’t make my stomach churn with stress. My anxiety over the possibility of wasting food only exasperated her anxiety about trying new things.
I am also a picky eater. I go through phases where all I want to eat are mashed potato patties with fried eggs, or pasta with meat sauce. I choose restaurants based on what I’ve already had, because I really can’t afford to go out to eat, so I want to make sure I love what I’m buying. I also rarely eat sitting down, and hardly ever eat a full meal. When I realized how much autonomy I had in my own diet, I gave the same respect to my kid.
How much of my anxiety over not having enough food had caused her to stress about it? There have been times that we relied heavily on food stamps, WIC checks, and donations. There were months where I’d eat peanut butter sandwiches and saved the “good” food for her. If she didn’t eat, I freaked. “How could you not be hungry?!” I’d say. “You need to sit right here and finish your food. This is all we have,” I’d demand.
I no longer say those things. I encourage her to listen to her body’s messages before and after a meal. “Do you want a snack or a meal?” I’ll ask. Most of the time she just wants a snack consisting of fruit, crackers, and cheese. And we sit at the table together and eat, and fart, and laugh. I prefer things that way.