Today is the last day of school for 2015, and time for my final reflection for the year. I’ve been hesitant to write about the year I’ve had, because it wasn’t such a great one, and I felt it was perhaps a little too personal to share with the wider world.
An horrific event in our local community this week changed all of that.
On Monday, a mother at our school took her own life, shortly after the death of her daughter, who was 11-years-old. I won’t get lost in the details. Suffice to say that every single person who is a member of this community has been negatively affected, regardless of how much personal contact they had with the family.
There are so many questions that will go unanswered about the circumstances surrounding their deaths, but the one I want to focus on is, “Why didn’t the mother go to anyone for help?”
Because she didn’t know how, that’s why. And maybe, for a little while, she lost her sanity.
Let me tell you about my Annus Horribilis, to make a point.
My husband took a job in Toowoomba at the start of the year, living away from home during the week, after we mutually agreed that we would be able to do this for two years. After all, it’s only 90 minutes away and the children are older now and self-caring in many ways. How hard could it be?
Well, it turns out that it was very hard.
The children missed their father terribly, and started acting out for me during the week. I missed my best friend dreadfully – being unable to debrief and reflect with him face-to-face every evening about the minutiae of my day. I was also suddenly restricted and housebound during the week, when I was used to spending at least two evenings a week out, doing things that made me happy. No more art classes, book club or dinners with friends. Their Dad struggled to get back into the crazy life at home on the weekends, having had quiet time at his bachelor pad all week, so our family time was always fraught with tension.
Slowly, but surely, I fell apart, and had very little insight into what was happening. Without their father to mediate at home, I started shouting more at the children, really feeling the need to ramp it up to get their attention and to maintain some control. I became obsessed with neatness (which I’ve never done before), standing over the children like a monster whenever they left something lying around on the floor. I left the house angry every day, to work at too many jobs I’d taken on. I’d decided to keep busy this year while my husband was away with various editing jobs, teaching projects and, of course, a full-time school-hours job. Being busy was supposed to make the time fly. Instead, it totally depleted my parenting tool-box and I had nothing left for the children.
Halfway through the year, I got totally wild one night with my seven-year-old son, and gave him a big smack on his bottom. And then another. The look of fear in his eyes as I went for the third, thankfully, made me let go of him, and run from the room. I promptly collapsed on the lounge room floor and stayed there for a long time, totally hysterical. I could not believe how out-of-control I felt, how furiously angry I was and how close to danger my children were. I think I lost my sanity for a little while.
The children called their father who helped them get ready for bed over the phone, while I lay on the floor unable to function. He didn’t realise how bad it was, thinking it was just a glitch. For the next few days, I worked like a robot, doing what I had to during the day, coming home in the afternoons and zoning out. The children made their own dinners, breakfasts and lunches for the rest of the week, and left me well alone.
I told nobody.
I thought it would pass.
I emotionally removed myself from the children and my husband because I was terrified I might lose control again. I stopped hugging them, disciplining them, listening to them. I had nothing left.
My mother came to stay during that time, which should have been helpful, but it was the opposite. Despite telling her that I wasn’t coping, and for her to be the children’s advocate, she took my side when they misbehaved, and then they had two of us on their case. I could see myself in her behaviour and I felt out of control again, reverting back to 8-year-old me, which led to the biggest tantrum I’ve ever had. I screamed, I slammed doors and broke glass and I had everyone scared of me, even my life partner. I felt completely alone, surrounded by people who had no idea how to help me.
I was too scared to tell my closest friends about my behaviour and thoughts. I didn’t want them to get angry with me, to judge me. It was all about me, and I was a child again, screaming silently for somebody to come and take care of me, but fearful of discipline and looking like a failure.
I started reading about depression and emotional breakdowns, and one line in one article about ineffective parenting stayed with me. Your children always need an advocate. Someone to stand up for them, to care for them, to be there for them. It suddenly occurred to me that, while I was emotionally unavailable, my children had nobody. Their Dad was living away, worried about what was happening at home but hog-tied to his job. Who was their advocate? Who was taking care of their pain, their loss and their fears?
So I went to my GP the next day and told her all about it. She gave me half-an-hour of her precious time and wisdom, and a whole bunch of counselling with a wonderful family counsellor.
For the last 6 months, I’ve been seeing the counsellor, revisiting my own childhood and discovering that after my husband moved to Toowoomba, I had started reliving my own pain as an 8-year-old whose father left to live overseas for 7 years after her parents separated. My children’s pain became my pain. I reverted back to being that child who became an adult too early, who never learned to be a child, to never show emotions or be truly heard by an adult. I became a people-pleaser looking for affection and acknowledgement that I didn’t get at home, and never found my own true voice. I bottled it all up because I didn’t want to make my mother’s life harder than it was already as a single parent.
My children had no such concerns keeping their pain and emotions to themselves. They acted out and cried and shouted and showed me that they missed their father and that they didn’t like their new situation with just me, who was often too busy to meet their emotional needs. I couldn’t handle their needs on top of my own and they knew it. So they got louder. Because I had been taught as a child to put my negative emotions away (seen and not heard), I didn’t know how to help my children with theirs. I knew it was wrong to shout at them and to send them away to ‘deal with it’ before coming out to me with a smile on. But I didn’t know what the right thing to do was. Having always been a ‘good girl’, I’d never dealt with children with a strong will, and was totally flummoxed.
In the last few months, I have learned a lot about my own parents and grandparents – enough to go through a path of anger, understanding, forgiveness and finally acceptance. I have learned some anger-management techniques, and taught them to the children, for their own use and to help me. They enjoy helping me manage my frustration as they’re quick to recognise the signs that I need a time-out.
I have listed out my top three priorities (my children, my marriage and myself) and now turn down anything if it means I can’t meet the needs of all three.
I have shared my struggle with close friends, and read some books which have helped me through this time (Flesh Wounds by Richard Glover, The Drama of being a Child by Alice Miller). One homework assignment was to take the children to see Inside Out by Pixar, and I had them both on my lap for most of the film, while I bawled my eyes out, finally understanding who I’d been as a child and discovering ways to help my own children.
All of this work was rebuilding new neural pathways that told me it was okay to have emotions, it was important to talk about them and more importantly, FEEL them in a safe environment. And after I was well enough, I was able to let the children be themselves again, to give them a safe environment at home where they could be themselves, experience their huge range of emotions without judgement or control, and always discuss their feelings and thoughts afterwards to learn new lessons of self-regulation and situational management.
I want my kids to come home to an environment of UNCONDITIONAL love. I was putting all sorts of conditions on my love and acceptance of them, and now, even though I still have standards of behaviour, they know without a doubt that they are safe to feel feelings, show anger and sadness, and that I am always their advocate.
They also need an adult, not a child pretending to be an adult. This year, I grew up. Finally.
And I am proud of the work I’ve done to help myself, my family and my marriage. It was a difficult step to take towards the right help, but once I’d taken that leap of faith, every day was brighter, for all of us. I had steered clear of friends because I needed professional help. My friends would not have been able to give me what I needed. But they can now, because I know the signs now and respond to my own needs quickly, giving myself enough emotional oxygen so I have the power to help my family.
BUT, a lot of people I know (even the close ones) had no idea I was going through all of this. On the outside, I kept up appearances and behaved in public. I dried my tears, pasted on a smile and worked double-time to be brave and capable. Behind my closed doors, before I sought help, I was often a mess.
AND NOBODY KNEW BECAUSE I DIDN’T TELL THEM.
The mother who committed suicide this week… I have glimpsed her pain by dipping a toe into her world and because of that, I am choosing to turn her into a martyr. Perhaps she died for us – to teach us all a lesson about reaching out early, before we go to ‘that place’ – the place of no return.
So my Christmas wish this year is for you to do the following:
Give yourself an emotional once-over: How are you? REALLY?
Take action if the answer is ‘not okay’.
If you are okay, check with those in your top list of priorities. Are they okay? REALLY?
And then reach out to your friends, promising them that you will come to them if you EVER feel the need for help. And tell them that you will do the same for them.
And dammit, if you really feel you have no-one to turn to, turn to me and I will help you with ideas and people who can help you. As an ex-Lifeline Counsellor, I will suggest Lifeline (131114), your GP, a family counsellor, a friend or family member you trust.
You only need to open your closed doors to one person to get help.
Much love to you all.