Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I'm Getting Queasy on this Emotional Rollercoaster

There have been teenager sightings in my home recently. (And they don't all have long hair and play ice hockey.) I realize I'm quite lucky that it took a couple years for the behavior of a certain someone to catch up to his age, but unfortunately, I did not use that extra time to effectively prepare. Perhaps more disconcerting than the increasing tendency to mope, mumble, and spread misery, or anger easily and rage over Xbox FIFA team performance, is the equal likelihood that within a matter of minutes hours this person will revert back to his funny, charming self. And like all men, once he's back to normal, there will be no indication or acknowledgement that he had embodied Mr. Hyde just moments before. And I thought I my personality was erratic.

While I haven't figured out the best way to react to the Hyde episodes in my teen's life, I have read enough to know that all this craziness is apparently quite normal. I also know:
  1. Asking what's wrong will either be a waste of time or a sure-fire way to frustrate your teen when in all honesty he doesn't know exactly what's wrong...other than everything
  2. As hard as it is, you can't take your child's behavior personally. Even though you may have contributed to his rotten mood when you forbade him to play any computer games after he failed to put away his clean laundry again, this mood isn't all your fault.
  3. When this person formally known as your little boy returns to his pleasant Dr. Jekyll status, do not ask "What the hell is going on with you? It's like you're Jekyll and Hyde and the roller coaster ride I'm on with you is making me nauseous." Nope. Don't say that. Just enjoy what most likely will be only a brief return to sanity normalcy.
  4. If your teen has not been particularly successful in his latest competitive endeavor, do not pull out your trophies for the same activity and show him how great you were. This will not cheer him up.
  5. While at one time it might have been amusing for you to embarrass him in front of his friends, once the serious instability begins, it's best to avoid doing anything that could set him off. Like write a blog post about him, for instance.
All despair, confusion, and frustration kidding aside, the toughest part of seeing the true teenager emerge from your child is the helplessness you feel while you stand by and watch. You get it. You've been there. And unfortunately, there's little you can do to make it all better. In fact, just trying to make it all better could result in your demon spawn teen telling you to leave him the hell alone suggesting this is something he will have to handle on his own. And sometimes, he's right. The boy-girl stuff, strained friendships, the challenge of schoolwork, and the demands of extra-curriculars are issues he will need to experience and struggle through in order to grow. But sometimes the sadness or anger comes from a place where he can't and shouldn't have to navigate it all on his own. 

The past year has made me realize that the after-school specials of our youth weren't based on someone's imagination. I might have been blissfully unaware of the struggles some of my classmates experienced when I was in high school, but now I've learned first hand that this stuff happens.Teens in our community deal with bullying, eating disorders, and mental illness. And that's on top of the challenges of divorced parents, the pressure to succeed, and the standard navigation through issues of drinking, drugs, and sexual behavior. You couldn't pay me to go back there. 

While no one would ever accuse me of being Mother of the Year, I think I'm doing a few things right as I help the precious not-so-little split-personality boy in my life. You may want to take my lead:
  1. Ask if he'd like to hear your advice, suggestions or insights before you offer them. Believe it or not, once in a great while he'll answer "yes."
  2. Share some horribly embarrassing story from your own teen years to make him feel better about his own. 
  3. Offer a hug, but only when out of site of everyone he knows.
  4. Allow him to read the 10+ years worth of journals that you started when you were 12 so he'll know exactly from whom he inherited his emotional instability
  5. Let him scream at the television or video game, but pull the plug when it sounds as though his head might explode and/or he starts to throw things.
  6. Suggest he put his feelings into a poem which he might want to share at the coffee shop the next time Mr. Mendell's class gathers for poetry night.
  7. Guilt him back into Dr. Jekyll form by crying and asking where your sweet, loving child has gone.
  8. Tell him he'd better square his sh*t away or you'll write a blog post about him.
  9. Direct him to take all his drama to the community theater.
  10. Remind him for the umpteenth time that you love him and that you're there for him if and when he wants to talk.
I think #10 might be the best advice you'll ever get from me. I better stop there.

If you have anything to add, would love to hear it!

Thursday, February 21, 2013

If It Happened to Her, Could it Happen to Me? Or you?

I suppose many of us have experienced "not being in our right mind." We know we're not quite ourselves, or we do something completely out of character and blame it on a momentary lapse of judgement. What most of us don't experience, thankfully, is a complete break with reality. One that causes us to "snap."

I don't know if last week's tragedy in Nether Providence Township, where I live, made national news, but if you're anywhere in the Philadelphia region you probably heard about Maria Reyes White, the woman who took a glass of water and two knives to bed with her last Sunday evening, waited till her husband fell asleep, and then stabbed him to death.

Karen, one of my dearest friends, worked with White at the local elementary school where she was a teacher's support aide. When she learned what had happened, Karen, like the rest of her colleagues, was in shock. White was a woman they all loved, admired, and respected. She was a devout woman of faith who adored children. She was normal. Just a quieter version of the rest of us. How was it possible that she had committed murder? Karen's response to this horrific tragedy ran the gamut of emotions -- shock, disbelief, anger, fear, sadness, guilt. Yes, even guilt. Karen acknowledged that in the two weeks leading up to that Sunday night, White "wasn't herself." She seemed agitated and easily frustrated. White explained that she hadn't been sleeping and that she wasn't feeling well. She went home sick on several occasions. Karen and her fellow teachers expressed their concern, undoubtedly some suggested she see a doctor, but that's where their involvement ended.

Karen is heartbroken because of that. Because she believes if someone had reached out and helped White get the care she so desperately needed, maybe none of this would have happened. White appears to be another tragic example of a mentally ill individual who slipped through the cracks. And indeed, an opportunity to save her (and her husband) was lost. The day before she killed her him, White went to a friend for help and what she said clearly communicated that she had lost touch with reality. She had suffered a true psychological breakdown, a diagnosis you could make without a medical degree. According to the Delaware County Times:
On the day before she allegedly killed her husband, Maria Reyes White drove to a friend’s house to express her concern that the Chinese government was engaged in a devious plot to infect the minds of American citizens and turn them into mass murderers.
It is through computers, Reyes told her friend, that the Chinese are sending psychic messages to get Americans to hurt children.
As Reyes ranted on about the plot, the friend quickly realized the sweet-natured, kid-loving mother-of-two had lost her mind. She was delusional and paranoid. She believed a bomb had been placed in her car. She believed she had predicted the attack on 9/11 and that another terrible attack was imminent. She believed the Chinese had gotten to Adam Lanza in Newtown, Conn., and convinced him to go on his shooting spree. She believed she was being followed.
White's husband Matt picked up his wife at her friend's home and took her to a crisis care unit where she was deemed not a danger to herself or others. That same night, she took his life.

While this case, like the seemingly endless violent tragedies that have come before it, demands a conversation about mental healthcare in this country, I need to say something about the effect it has on those of us who have personally experienced mental illness. Though I have struggled "only" with depression, I have to wonder what could be hidden inside of me. Inside any of us. I'm sure those who knew her could not have imagined White saying what she said or doing what she did. She was a kind, gentle and quiet schoolteacher. Someone who functioned like the rest of us, going to work every day and raising her now college-age children. What occurs in someone's brain that could transform them so dramatically. And, if it happened to her, could it happen to me? And if my circle of family and friends noticed a change in me, would our healthcare system do its part?

These are questions that can keep you up at night, so if I seem a little tired lately, please forgive me.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Kindness, Affirmation, and Joy (Seriously)

Lately I've been hypersensitive. But in a good way. Suddenly I'm more acutely aware of the special people and moments in my life. It's almost a little creepy; like maybe I'm not long for this world and God is saying "Wake up and pay attention to the joy and kindness in the world before it's too late, dammit!" Well, maybe He doesn't say "dammit."

In case you're wondering if you're reading someone else's blog, I assure that this is the Freakin' Angel talking. I know you're not used to happy thoughts coming from me, but let's go with it. I'm sure next week I'll be my irritable and/or withdrawn self.

I think my wake up call came two Fridays ago. The same week I wrote my whiny, "I need to be shown appreciation" post. In what can only be described as another example of God's delight in messing with us, on this particular Friday, a number of kindnesses came my way. And, believe it or not, I started it.

Early that morning I exchanged emails with a Villanova professor whom I've only met once. He had reworked something I'd written for him, and my smart-ass self responded with :
I have to confess, for some reason I didn't expect engineers to be good writers, but here at VU I'm consistently proven wrong. If this engineering thing doesn't work out for you :-), you could always go into marketing or communications.
His response:
You are too kind, but thank you.  I'm the type that needs a pat on the back once in a while, so you made my day.
How awesome is that! It made my day knowing I'd made his day, and it certainly helped to know that I'm not alone in my slightly pathetic need for regular attention and recognition.

After that nice start to my Friday, a number of kindnesses came my way, all before noon:

  • Freakin' Angel Kim G., knowing Ian was home sick again, offered to pick up ginger ale and saltines for him and delivered them to our door.
  • In checking the mail I found a handwritten note from a fellow church member (no one I'm particularly close to) who wanted me to know she was thinking of me after learning of my aunt's leukemia diagnosis. 
  • The dental hygienist said I was her best patient of the week and rewarded me with stickers and a lollipop a free teeth whitening sample. And I didn't even read anything into the teeth whitening gift. But you'd tell me if you thought my teeth were yellow, right? 

Last week's high note was a word of recognition from the Dean. He told me he'd heard from a couple others that I was doing a great job and that they liked my energy. He confirmed that they made the right decision in hiring me. Man, I needed that! Giddy like a school girl I responded with:

And then I called Rob to share the good news. You'd have thought I had just been promoted, I was so darn happy.

Now, just a few words about joy. The joy stuff came this past weekend and, oddly enough, involved my children. On Saturday, Abby celebrated her 12th birthday with a handful of friends who spent the night. Their constant laughter actually made me smile, where in the past it made me want to slap someone.  They watched Pitch Perfect and though I had found it to be only mildly amusing when I saw it in the theater, watching the movie with them suddenly made it hysterical. The whole evening was just a lovely testament to girlfriends and laughter and joy.

Sunday I attended the last performance of Grease at the high school (which they toned down quite a bit after complaints from some parents. I can't believe someone complained. Some people are such prudes.). Ian was able to participate this weekend, and watching him onstage, giving 110% to his role as a book nerd, gave me great pleasure. He was so obviously thrilled to be there, in his element (theater, not nerd-dom). After the show he looked exhausted, but in a beaming sort of way. It's immensely gratifying to see your child in a place he or she clearly belongs.

Oh, one more comment on the topic of affirmation. Even though most people don't go around crying about it like I do, I can't imagine there's anyone who doesn't appreciate recognition. Take, for instance, this recent interaction with a woman who's been cleaning my house for about a month. Last week I had left her a long list of improvements that needed to be made after I was displeased with her previous visit. I'm sure she cursed me, booby trapped my junk drawer, and stole from the cookie jar, but she did a great job based on my requests. On Friday night I texted her to say thanks and let her know how pleased I was. She actually picked up the phone and called me right back to say how much she appreciated my telling her and said she was going to share my message with her daughter who works with her.

All of this is not to show how wonderfully thoughtful I am (though I do have my moments), but rather to share the power of a kind word. In what can be a dreary, cold world (especially this miserable winter), your note of affirmation, your gift of kindness, and opening yourself to joy can provide just enough light to get you, and someone else, through another day.

Monday, February 4, 2013

Saying Goodbye to Sandra Dee

There were signs that I was moving in this direction, but I do believe it's now official. I have become a prude. As I reflect on this development, I can point to three things that pushed me to my "prude awakening:"
  1. Young girls in short, and I mean short, skirts and dresses.
  2. Laundering the skivvies of a certain young woman 
  3. The musical Grease as performed at our high school.
Each of these forces combined in a relatively brief period of time so as to effectively "wig me out" and cause me to panic about my rapidly maturing tween and teen.

A couple weeks ago I addressed the dress, or lack thereof, of today's young ladies. Picture me in Downton Abbey attire with a British accent saying "Improper, unrefined, and in bad taste. Does your mother know what you're wearing?"

Regarding the undergarments of a charming and beautiful almost-18-year-old ice hockey player, well, let's just say she's not shopping at Target or through the Hanes catalog. Frankly I'm not sure why women bother wearing things that are so barely there. If I'm being honest, I'm most upset because her lingerie confirms that I have been wearing granny panties for the past 40 years. I missed my sexy lingerie stage altogether.

The reason this is affecting me to such a degree is because my own daughter is a teenager-to-be. While I sure as hell won't buy her Frederick's of Hollywood bras and panties, what's to stop her from purchasing them herself? I can see it now, I'll be doing the wash and pull out a piece of dental floss, um. I mean a thong, and I'll have a small stroke. First I'll accuse Rob of adultery and then I'll wonder if Ian's dating a hussy, and finally I'll come around to my little girl. I'm having heart palpitations just thinking about it. If Abby suddenly offers to start doing her own laundry, I'll know I'm in trouble. I'll bet she's hiding a super short skirt and midriff baring top along with the sexy undergarments.

Put your filthy paws on my silky drawers?
Now to Grease. Yep, the same one I told you all to go see in Friday's Facebook post. Well, I saw it. And the next day I texted my friends with elementary-school-aged children and warned them that it might be inappropriate for the young ones. Those under age 21 18. I'm still trying to figure out what possessed the director/producer (who happens to be a friend) to perform a brief part of the show at the local elementary schools and then give the young-uns free tickets. I'm sure the piece they performed for the kiddies did not include the smoking, drinking, dirty dancing, or making out that the complete performance put front and center, but why in the world would you encourage 6-11 year-olds to come to a show with these pervasive elements?

For some reason I expected the musical, performed by teens, would be toned down compared to the movie, not more salacious. I was wrong. While I get that those elements were part of the story, I really felt they could have been less in your face without taking away from the show. But here's the biggest problem I have with the selection of Grease as the school musical - there's absolutely no redemptive quality to the story. Most of the time when a story presents us with a badly behaving character it ends with them learning a valuable lesson. What did sweet innocent Sandy learn in Grease? To trade in the pony tail and tease her hair, pierce her ears, apply her makeup, dress like a hussy, learn to smoke, and say goodbye to Sandra Dee. Exactly the life lesson that we parents try to teach.

I guess I shouldn't complain too much, however. Word has it that the show they really wanted to perform this year was Spring Awakening. Yes, that kind of "awakening." This musical was banned for a time in Germany because of its frank portrayal of abortion, homosexuality, rape, child abuse and suicide. I can't imagine why the school administrators said no to that one. It sounds like the perfect show to invite the grandparents to.

Believe it or not, I do understand theater is art. I do understand the need to address controversial issues. I do understand allowing young adults to express themselves, but I don't think the public high school is the place to do it. I think there are some parents who may actually have a problem with their child (they are still children) performing a show with those themes. I know it would have freaked me out if Ian's character was up on stage smoking, drinking, or getting nasty on the dance floor. And no, I'm not naive enough to think it's not happening in real life for many teens, I just don't think it needs to be encouraged or celebrated.

While I'm on a roll, I'd like to throw Go-Daddy commercials and Beyonce's half-time show into this mix so that we can effectively eliminate all innocence from childhood.

Yes indeed, I have officially become a prude.