Thursday, July 2, 2015

To my son on his 18th birthday

Dear Son,

I can’t believe I’m writing this. I can’t believe this day is here already. I know it sounds cliché, but it seems like just yesterday that I held your 8 pound, 15 oz. bald beautifulness in my arms for the very first time, and I will never, ever forget that moment. In that moment, I looked at you – and you were utter perfection. Not a flaw, not a problem, not a care in the world. Just a promise. A promise of anything and everything that you could become.
Eighteen years to the day later, I look at you with that same feeling – that you are in fact a promise, but to yourself and yourself alone. Not that I won’t be here for you – you should know that by now. I have always been and will always be your biggest fan. But the days of me writing the script are about over, Son, and now it’s up to you.

I’m not equipped to tell you what you need to do to be a man. I raised a boy, and I raised you with the morals and values that I felt were important for you to grow up and become an upstanding adult, and I hope you carry those with you wherever you go. That alone will be part of your manhood, I pray.

But I do know a few great men, namely your grandfather - my father. I know you feel the same way about him. So I want you to think of him, and men like him, and remember some of the qualities that make them what I simply call “good people.”

Qualities like humility and selflessness. I know technically you’re still in your teen years, and those are by nature selfish ones. But you will soon find that most people don’t give a rat’s ass about what you’ve accomplished, and they don’t remember how good you were to yourself. What they will notice is your actions and what you do for others.

I once had a boyfriend who was pretty full of himself. One day, I’d had it with him regaling me with tales of things he had done and how puffed up he was about himself and said to him, “You know, my father is a great man, but he’d be the LAST person to tell you that. Great men don’t need to.”

It’s true. And great men also have a great work ethic. I know you’ve learned this to an extent in your experiences over the last few years, so hopefully you’ve gotten a glimpse of the truth that nothing good comes easy. Oh, sure, you may get a break here and there, but don’t expect it, and don’t wait for it. And working hard “for a while” doesn’t automatically guarantee you “deserve” a break. You don’t. Think of the men who work three jobs to support their families and still barely make ends meet. Even the millionaires didn’t get there sitting on their talents. They worked their asses off – and not just for a couple of weeks or months. Years upon years. There’s no “end” to working hard. You should always work hard at whatever you do. You CAN do it, even if you don’t WANT to. And if you enjoy it? Well that’s gravy on the biscuit.

That’s another thing. You’re going to have to do a lot of shit you don’t want to do – plain and simple. In adulthood, you can’t pick and choose like you could when you were a kid. In fact, there will be days when all you do is shit you don’t want to do. And you won’t get a medal or a pat on the back for it, either. The attitude in which you approach this is going to say a lot about you and how your life’s going to go.

And while I wish you enough success that you have all the material things you need and a few you want, you’re going to have to quickly learn discipline, and you’re going to have to keep that trait in the forefront of your mind. Discipline means bills get paid first, and credit card debt is not a road you want to go down. Discipline means work before play, and making sure play doesn’t interfere with work (think late nights and early mornings.) Discipline means evaluating short-term gratification versus long-term gain. Remember easy/hard, hard/easy? Take the easy way out now, it’ll be hard later. Put in the hard work now, you’ll make it easier on yourself in the long run.

Oscar Wilde said, “Everything in moderation, including moderation.” This is going to be tough for you, because for the first time you’re going to be out in the world with nobody telling you what to do and what not to do. They say the world is your oyster. It can also be your worst enemy. And some things may be dangerous even in moderation for you. You’re going to have to be vigilant about that. Just because it’s there doesn’t mean it’s right, and just because others do it doesn’t mean you should. Recognize your dragons. Know your triggers. Embrace your strength to turn away, and reach out to positive reinforcements when you need to. You know where they are.  

The same thing goes for love, and I know from experience that this will be trial and error. It’s easy to fall for the ones who aren’t good for you. It’s easy to fall for the ones who you think you can “save.” And you’ll do it more than once. What I hope for you is that you find someone who brings out the best in you, and you in her. I hope you don’t lose yourself in that love, but are committed enough that you make her a priority in your life. Be loyal. Be kind. Be respectful. And by all means, be careful. I once read, “Boys fall in love every day. However, falling in love, and picking up the pieces if they fall apart, is part of manhood.” I’ve had my heart broken, and I’ve broken a heart. It’s a pain like no other, but we both survived, and you will too. But don’t let it jade you. We’re not all the same, you know.

Finally … listen. Listening is a true gift, and one that gives back every single day. You’ll learn more than you ever thought possible by listening versus waiting for the other person’s mouth to stop moving so you can speak, and formulating your response instead of truly hearing what they have to say. Listening will serve you well in your schooling, your work and your relationships. There is no greater compliment than being told you’re a good listener. And you never know what part of your own story could get solved or improved by listening to someone else’s.

My son, it has been a privilege to be your mother for the past 18 years. It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure, but there is this thing called unconditional love that I discovered the moment you were born – and someday I hope you experience it too. Only then will you be able to understand how much I love you, why I do some of the things I do, and why I care so damn much.

There’s a very popular poem that you may or may not be familiar with, but it much more eloquently puts into words what I’ve tried to do above. Read it, live it, and know that even when you’re a man, my son, you’ll always be my light, my joy, my sweet baby boy.

Happy 18th birthday, Son. I love you today, tomorrow and always, more than words can say.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Tips on Raising Teenage Boys (or, "How to Push a Rope Up a Hill")

I'm probably not the best one to give you this advice, or I may be the best person in the world to give you this advice. I've always done things the hard way in my life, and rarely done them right the first time. I second-guess every decision I make and have the confidence of a one-legged man in a three legged race. And single parenting for the past 10 years hasn't given me the luxury of a sounding board to check in with for a consensus.


Looking back on my now six years as a parent of a teen - and a tough six years at that - and coming up on two years with the second one, I feel compelled to share some tips with you that might make this venture into Hades a little less hot. And note that I have two boys, so I'm speaking of them, since I know that having teen girls is a whole other hell that I've been blessed not to experience. Yes, I prayed to have boys. I was sure if I had a girl she'd be just like me, and nobody - including me - wants that. So anyway, this advice speaks to those badass moms of boys, God have mercy on your souls.

Seize the moment
When your kids become teenagers, it's like the body of that cute little kid who smelled like baby and felt like a silk blanket has been possessed by a hormonal, sullen, messy and incredibly odoriferous demon. It's your job to realize this, and know that if you look hard enough, that cute kid who brought you a handful of dandelions and called you "Mommy" and loved you so VERY much is still in there somewhere, and may in fact appear randomly from time to time. He might ask if you want to watch a TV show with him. Or let you sit next to him on the couch. Or do something the first time you ask him. Or robotically respond, "Love you too" when you tell him you love him. When he does this, don't make a big deal about it or you'll scare the spirit. Simply enjoy the moment until it passes. Don't blink. It'll be pretty quick.

Let him test the waters
Give him freedom. I mean, "I'm 16, for God's sake, Mom. I'm practically an adult." There is no correct response to this. Of course, the correct response to ME would be, "Actually, Honey, your prefrontal cortex - you know, that piece of brain right behind your forehead that's involved in complex decision making? Well, yours is not yet developed enough to be capable of the kind of reasoning that allows most grownups like me to make rational decisions." But I can't say that. Because I'm stupid. Just ask my teen.

However, it's easy to go along in life looking at your kid like he's still 10 years old. During the teen years, you need to let loose of the leash a little bit so they can figure out what they're made of. What they can handle. What they do when they can't handle it. And this is dicey for the mom, because I have to gauge when to step in and when to just watch from the sidelines like a huge-ass linebacker is bearing down on my kid and he doesn't even see it yet. I just kind of close my eyes, hope for the best, and mentally make a grocery list of all his favorite foods he can eat while he's recovering.

On the other hand, don't be an idiot. That prefrontal cortex thing is a real thing. Teenagers can be really, really stupid. It's our job to walk that thread-thin, fine line between, "Sure, honey, you can have a sleepover at your buddy's house" and "Sure, honey, you can go camping with those two boys and three girls." Lots of factors involved there. Lots to ponder. Is the sleepover at the buddy's house really just a sleepover at the buddy's house? Do you call the parents? Will they sneak out and go do something that's not a good idea at all? And if they do, is that just a rite of passage and you should just look away?  And the camping thing. Will there be an adult?  Should there be an adult? Is this kid a good kid? What's the deal with these two boys and three girls? Do you have condoms? WHY DO YOU HAVE CONDOMS? Thank GOD you have condoms. WHY DO YOU HAVE CONDOMS?????????

This is why I say "giving freedom" is a dicey issue. And absolutely exhausting, especially if you're me, who second guesses every decision I make. But you have to give them the freedom to an extent, or they'll take it themselves, and that won't go over well for a lot of reasons you don't want to think about but that I have had to deal with firsthand.

Don't be Mighty Mouse
OK, if you're old enough to know the theme to this cartoon, raise your hand. "Here I come to save the day!" was MM's go-to phrase. It doesn't apply to teenagers - not completely. If I made one mistake (and I made THOUSANDS) it's that I saved my oldest son from too many situations. I was momma-raised in the period where you breast fed forever, wore your baby until your back gave out, and didn't reprimand him for fear you would "wound his spirit." What bullshit.

If you want your kid to have a backbone and be independent and learn to do things for himself, you can't be late for work because you had to rush to school and drop off his homework. You can't call his coach and ask him why he doesn't play more on the baseball team. You can't completely change your plans because he said he'd walk home from his friend's house and now it's raining and you feel the need to go get him so he won't get wet. And don't sigh, roll your eyes and be the martyr because you asked him to take the garbage out/clean his room/fold the laundry/walk the dog and do it yourself. Well, walk the dog, probably. But the rest? My son once told me, "Mom, I know if I don't do this stuff, it'll drive you crazy and you'll end up doing it." He may be stupid, but he's no dummy.

Learn how to talk - er, I mean, listen
I have learned a great deal in the past year and a half about how to better communicate with both my sons. I have learned a few reasons why (other than the fact that I'm "Mom") they don't come to me about things. Namely because I'm Mom. And in the past, I lectured them ad nauseum. Because I'm Mom, and that's what moms do, right? Yeah, no. Lecturing is about as effective as spraying Roundup on your lawn and thinking it'll just kill the weeds. It won't. It will kill your whole lawn. And don't ask me how I know this.

Anyway, first rule here: Listen. Best piece of advice I ever received: "There is rarely anything in life that requires an immediate response." My son might be complaining about a situation with a friend. Instead of jumping in and solving the problem for him, I don't say a word, except an occasional, "Huh" or "Really?" to let him know I'm listening. Or I'll ask him what he thinks his options are to solve the problem (all the while biting my already-bleeding tongue because I of course COULD solve the problem for him.) Most of the time if I just listen, he will work it out on his own. Then I give him kudos for doing it, in a casual, "Looks like you figured it out - good job" kind of way, and pat myself on the back for doing something right for a change.

My oldest son LOVES to push my buttons. He says things under the guise that he is being "open and honest" when really he just wants to delight in my overreaction. I'm onto this. Whereas in the past, "I'm getting a tattoo" would have led me on a 10-minute tirade as to WHY he should not get a tattoo and how he hates needles and does he remember how many nurses it took to hold him down when he needed his yearly shots, the last time he broke this news I simply said, "Huh."

Same when he said he was getting a motorcycle. And changing his name. He knows how I feel about these things. He's not expecting me to say, "Now THAT is a great idea!" And the thing is, he's going to (potentially) do it whether I freak out or not. When he's 18. And with his own money. And when he's not under my roof anymore. And when he doesn't have the money to pay for what he's supposed to pay for, he'll have his own consequences. He doesn't need them from me at this point.

On the other hand, my younger son does still talk to me about a lot of things. And maybe from what I've learned from my first boy, I've been a bit more successful in communicating with my second. The thing is, it's all about place and presentation. You can't expect your son to spill his guts to you when you require a mandatory meeting with him and stare at him at the kitchen table. Gulp. Ain't nobody got time for that.

My son's and my best conversations usually happen in the car, when we're not looking at each other. And yes, I still employ the advice mentioned above, and truly try to listen. If he does have a dilemma, I ask him what he thinks he could do to solve it. Or if he can't do it on his own, who could he go to? If he is truly in a bind, I tell him, "If you don't find a solution on your own and you want my help, let me know." And you know what? He's come to me with a school friend issue, for example, and said, "Mom, I figured things out on my own." BOOM. Life Skills 101: Instructor: MOM. Grade: A+.

Miscellaneous Jedi teachings
Teach him to do laundry. Show him how to cook basic items at a relatively early age. If he loses or breaks something expensive like a phone or an iPad or whatever other stupid technology these kids who have no business with this technology insist they must have, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T JUST BUY HIM A NEW ONE.

Have him volunteer. Tell him to get a job as soon as he's able. He needs to see how the workforce is and what is expected of him above and beyond, "Make your bed," "Mow the grass" or "Clean your room." Make sure he's polite, which should have already been instilled in him but is sometimes forgotten in those selfish teen years. He opens doors for people. He looks people in the eye and shakes their hand. He helps old ladies or men with their groceries. Whatever. There's no excuse - even teenagerdom - for not being a respectful gentleman.

Last very important piece of advice
KNOCK. Always. You'll thank me for this one, I promise.

There's so much more, but reliving the teenage years in prose is almost as exhausting as living them in real life. The thing is, it's a crap shoot. You might be lucky enough to have your teen continue to like you and acknowledge your existence - and if you do, consider yourself blessed. But based on my experience, following these pieces of advice won't make your teen LIKE you anymore, but you'll be more tolerable to him and most importantly, it will take a bit of the burden off of yourself. Because you're gonna need your strength when they turn 18, move away, and all you can do is watch ... and worry ... and love from a distance ... and hope you did the best you could.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

"I'm not crazy; I'm mentally ill."

When I was 13 years old, my mother threatened to take me to a psychiatrist.

Well, she positioned it as a threat, anyway. We had just moved to a new city and I started at a new school midway through my freshman year. To say I wasn’t happy about leaving my friends in my hometown was an understatement. Not only didn’t I fit in at my new school, I didn’t want to, and it was exhausting even trying to. So I spent most of my time outside of school in my room, sullenly blaming my parents for my solitude and pretty much making life miserable for everyone.

The problem was, I couldn’t help it. No matter how much I wanted to change how I was acting and feeling, I physically and mentally could not crawl out of that hole. And what my mom probably didn’t understand at the time is that I probably would have been OK with seeing a psychiatrist. Because I felt so hopeless about life in general that I really didn’t care if anyone thought I was crazy.

Maybe growing up living just on the cusp of mental illness made me more attuned to it. And really, I don’t like the word “mental illness” because it conjures up images of crazy-eyed people in straightjackets rocking back and forth in a corner repeating the same thing over and over. Sure, that’s a form of mental illness, albeit a serious one. But if that’s how you define it today, well, you’d better do some research. And ask some questions. And look around. Because it’s no longer that "she's crazy" image. It's much more hidden, much less apparent, yet just as debilitating. 

That’s what no one seems to get these days. Mental illness has always been in our society. Problem is, the world got savvier and more technological and faster and more overwhelming even for “normal” people. And for those who are susceptible to having mental issues or who, like me, always kind of teeter on the brink, it’s a match made in hell.

I dare you to show me any
addiction that is not rooted in mental illness. But because there are so few services out there for people, and because we talk about mental illness in the hushed corners of our coffee shops and late night texting sessions, those who are struggling have nowhere to turn. In fact, they probably don’t even realize they have an illness that can be treated. They only want it to go away. Drugs, alcohol, gaming, pornography, cutting … you name the addiction and if you break it down and get behind it all, you’ll see a mentally ill individual who is screaming for help, even if he or she doesn’t know it yet.

It’s funny how we can talk about boobs so openly but we can’t talk about the brain. Breast cancer has pretty much claimed the top spot for publicity and notoriety – to the point of celebrity status. Now I’m not knocking the crusade to fight breast cancer. Not one bit. But I’d like to run the statistics on the lives that breast cancer has taken versus mental illness – suicide AND addiction combined. I’m betting it’s pretty damn close - but mental illness just doesn't get that kind of press.

And here’s something I’ll say that I’m sure will be controversial. Some mentally ill people wish they had cancer instead of a their chronic depression, insufferable anxiety, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, and I’ll tell you why. Because cancer is a diagnosis. There’s a process you go through. People understand it. They empathize with it. Support is a no-brainer.

Not so much with mental illness. Number one: people who have it may not know they have it, or they may not want to admit they have it (mostly the latter.) Number two: There’s no clear-cut process to deal with mental illness. Number three: In most cases, you have to come to terms with it that it’s going to be a lifelong thing that you can manage, but not necessarily cure. And number four: Being a “survivor of mental illness” doesn’t conjure up the same heroism that being a “survivor of cancer” does. Nobody makes you a casserole just because you don’t feel like getting out of bed.

Yes, there are therapists out there. Social workers. Psychologists. Psychiatrists. If you can find one you can relate to and vice versa (this is key.) If you can get the time off work to go to an appointment. If they can fit you into their schedule, because most are booked up for weeks; even months. If you can afford them, because insurance may not pay for it.

As I said earlier, mental illness has always been a condition that has been close to my heart. I know it runs in my family. I know I have suffered from depression and OCD. In fact, there have been times – just a handful, thankfully, that the depression has become dangerously desperate. Luckily I have a good friend who “gets it,” sees the signs and helps me do something about it when she knows I just don’t have it in me at that moment to do it on my own.

In the past few years especially, I have learned a great deal about mental illness and addiction. I can relate to the first; not so much to the second. But I am beginning to understand more how they walk hand in hand, and it’s not pretty. It’s a game changer – for everyone involved. And when it touched my life, I was bound and determined to find help. What pisses me off is when I looked around for it, it wasn’t here. At all. Anywhere. Oh, I found help eventually, but not here. And it took time and digging and researching and relentless diligence and a whole, big mess of money.

And that’s not right. If you need help, or if someone you love needs (and wants) help, it should be as simple as ordering a pizza. OK, maybe not that simple. But it shouldn’t be so hard. I mean, if you suspect you have cancer, you go to a doctor, have a bunch of awful tests and he will tell you yes or no. From there, there are deliberate steps to take. Again, I am not saying cancer is easy by any means, so please don’t think that. I know for a fact it’s not. But the mental illness path is not so cut and dried. And making that first call means not only overcoming a stigma that society has set, but overcoming one you’ve created in your mind as well. The one thing they have in common is that th
ey both suck and both deserve the same awareness and education and fight.

Mental illness is a cancer of the brain. It robs people of happiness. Of joy. Of peace. Of relationships. Of jobs. Of life. And we need to start talking about it. Help needs to be more accessible. More affordable. More attainable. And more compassionate.

And just an aside here, because it needs to be addressed. There are those out there – sadly, I know a few – who are so uneducated about mental illness that I’m not sure they even think it’s “real.” To them, it’s more of just a weakness. Not only that, they do not believe in the medications used to treat mental illness. Can they be overused and over prescribed at times? Yes - as can many medications for many illnesses. On the flip side, to many, the right medicine can literally be a life saver, just as cognitive behavioral therapy can be.

To those of you who refuse to accept this – and you know who you are – I am sorry for your ignorance. I understand if you haven’t been exposed to what this disease can do that you may scoff and call us all a bunch of over-reacting, overly sensitive people who just can’t deal with the real world and just want to pop some pill to make it all better. And I don’t know what to do about that, because no matter what you read or who tries to convince you, I honestly don’t think you’ll ever come around until you see the struggle firsthand. And that’s a hard thing to do, because it’s been right in front of your face and you didn’t even notice. We’re good at hiding it, aren’t we?

Here’s what I want, friends. If you are struggling, talk to someone. Please. If they don’t get it, talk to someone else. Hell, talk to me. I’ll listen. I get it. I GET IT. Even if you don’t know what’s wrong, you know something is wrong. I believe you. And I will help you get help, because it’s hard to find and you may not be up for the search. I’m up for it. I’ll do it. I’ve done it before.

Look, I know what it’s like to think it’s all hopeless. I can sit here and tell you it’s not, but that won’t be enough. But before you decide to do anything rash – take that drink, take that drug, take your life … just wait. Make a call. Ask for help. Don’t do it alone, because you’re not alone. There are a LOT of us out there, living our lives and going to work and taking care of kids and owning homes and doing all the things that “normal” people do. But don’t think that because we can pull everyday life off we’re not like you. Eventually it catches up with us, too. 

And if you're one of those who is still stigmatizing mental illness, do a little homework. Open your mind. Grow a little compassion. Lend an ear and really look at those around you. Call me crazy, but there are more of us out there than you may think. 


 1 (800) 273-8255 (TALK)

Bring Change to Mind (Nationwide)
A non-profit organization working together to end the stigma and discrimination surrounding mental illness through widely distributed public education materials and programs.

Human Service Center (Peoria, IL)

The Center provides services for individuals with serious mental illness, substance use disorders, and co-occurring disorders through their Human Service Center and White Oaks programs.
The Hult Center forHealthy Living (Peoria, IL)The Hult Center for Healthy Living’s mental health programming is here to help youth and adults better understand mental illness and give them instruction on how to seek help.  We offer the following mental health programs: SOS “Signs of Suicide” is an award-winning, nationally recognized program for middle and high school age students. The Hope Project offers community education through the use of drama. These programs provide awareness and tangible suicide prevention methods that help identify symptoms of depression in oneself or a friend/family member/co-worker and to take action when faced with mental health concerns.