21st Century Children’s Crusade

It seems prescient that I re-posted my defense of “kids these days” just before the March For Our Lives this weekend. I’ve seen more than a few strong, passionate, erudite defenses since then. Way better than mine.

I’ve also been a weepy mess. Part of it is that I’m stuck in a depression spiral right now. The Nothing is kicking my ass, and it’s ugly. But the other part is that I simply can’t disengage from the crushing shame that these kids have to shoulder a burden like this. Not just that they have to, but that they’re so raw and honest and goddamn successful at it.

As a former parentified child, I have strong feelings about what kids should or shouldn’t  be responsible for. And, if I do say so myself, I successfully protected my own child from that fate. She’s a marvelous adult, but she got there in her own time, and I’m relieved about that. But I still project all over these smart, engaged, determined kids and I have hours – no, years of film to unspool. There is a furious, resentful child within me still railing at the unfairness of having to save the grown-ups, only now she wears the armor of a full grown woman ready to slash and burn in her defense.

When we watched Emma Gonzalez stand in silence on the stage after her brief words, the silence of the crowd was deeply unsettling. You could see the steel of her straight spine, the resolve in her eyes as she forced everyone to wrestle with themselves in the barren sound field. I’ve always been a defender of common sense gun laws, so that’s not what I wrestled with. Instead, I had to fight the shame that I didn’t do more personally to protect her. That my generation, long accused of apathy and cynicism, absolutely earned those criticisms. That I, a parent and advocate for children, somehow failed to spare this girl, younger than my daughter, from having to watch her friends die, then make the adults around her sorry for it.

And maybe… maybe I’m a little jealous, too. Jealous that she has the strength to stand up to real power, while I quietly excused the adults who betrayed me for… my entire life, basically. So as tears streamed down her face while she shoved silence down the throat of the country, maybe I was being drawn and quartered by jealousy and shame. I don’t say that to garner sympathy. On the contrary, I deserve it. I’m mad that there are people out there celebrating her as a hero instead of wrestling with their own shame. Yet, at the same time, she is a hero and deserves to be celebrated. It’s complicated.

I remember reading about the 13th century Children’s Crusade as a young person. Though now considered largely apocryphal, the tale was nevertheless framed as a tragic tale of idealistic, courageous children and their proud and weeping parents. I never once thought to myself that those kids were brave and amazing. I thought, Where the fuck are their parents?? Who let them do this? Why isn’t every adult waving handkerchiefs as children march through the streets rushing out there to snatch them back? What the shit is wrong with these people?? Joan of Arc – same story. I thought, She’s fourteen you sorry motherfuckers! Why does she have to lead your pathetic, useless army?!  Not that children are incapable of these things – I knew with a profound certainty that they absolutely were capable. But the injustice of adults watching, encouraging them to do it was nauseating.

This feels much the same. Except worse, because I know now what abnormal amounts of stress and responsibility do to immature brains. I know what sort of lifetime conditions these kids are going to have to battle that, on top of the PTSD they likely suffer, will snake into every aspect of their lives and create storms and struggles they didn’t earn. I know that some of them, statistically, won’t survive. It’s terrifying. If it doesn’t terrify you, you probably don’t get it. Lucky you, I guess.

I don’t know how to reconcile any of this. I thought maybe writing it out would help, but it doesn’t. I thought maybe I could find a way to escape the conclusion that I – even inadvertently – did to these kids what was done to me. All I can do is beg you, myself, anyone who listens, to not let them fight alone. Don’t wave handkerchiefs or have parades or share their pictures without standing in front of them first. They’re literally in the line of fire. We owe them the protection of whatever is left of our integrity.

nbc march
photo credit: NBCNews, Shawn Thew / EPA
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White Rabbits Are Assholes.

I was never a fan of Alice in Wonderland. The idea of being literally dropped into a world where you can’t count on even the basic rules of physics terrifies me. Up is down, flowers talk and a homicidal queen can lop off your head with impunity? No, thank you.

It’s unsurprising, then, that when my world goes topsy-turvy, I’d very much like to wake up from the Wonderland-esque nightmare. Up is down and I don’t like it one bit.

That’s what intense self-reflection does, or at least what it does for me. It flips scripts that have been playing in my head for years – a confounding and dizzying process that un-moors me from my truths.

Attempting to mitigate this upsetting development includes such behavior as limiting my social media interactions, withdrawing from my familial and social circles, stomping my feet, crying, and generally throwing temper tantrums, as well as clinging to those old scripts like crazy-eyed Norma Desmond.

Which is not to say that I’m finished doing any of those things, but I would like to acknowledge that at least I know precisely what it is I’m doing. Points for watching the road, if not mapping the best course, yes?

The impetus behind this period of intense self-reflection is, of course, divorce, while the realization that scripts were in need of flipping is due mostly to therapy. Shout-out to my  competent therapist who recently resorted to calling my bluff and inspiring above mentioned temper tantrum. *ahem*

Also newly realized is the fact that people can go their entire lives without once turning any sort of reflection inward, without questioning the existence of scripts, let alone the need to up-end them. I always sort of considered people who refused self-examination petulant, immature cowards who knew what was up but refused to admit it. I don’t surround myself with those types, so it was honestly a revelation to know that the people who live like a pinball, constantly pinging from one reaction to another, are sincerely incapable of making any sort of decision to control their own destiny.

I need to be clear on this point: I didn’t just think that type of person was willfully obtuse, I was certain they did not exist. That’s how unthinkable this method of living is to me. My reality had no place in it for people who do not engage in self-reflection of any sort.

I suppose I have my ex-husband to thank for opening up my reality, as well as my therapist.

Being angry at the willfully obtuse is easy, but once you make room for incapable it leaves an emptiness that I don’t quite know what to do with. It’s a little like solving a math problem: once you figure out the solution, you can’t believe it wasn’t always so obvious. There’s sadness there – a heartbreak over the kind of bleak and powerless life that must represent. Disgust at myself for being complicit and, I desperately hope, a forgiveness of myself for laboring under a falsehood for so long. Mostly sadness, though. I’m trying hard not to let it veer over into pity, but it’s a struggle.

I don’t know where I’m going to come out on the other side of this. I’ve stopped panicking at the uncertainty. I’ve set new goals. I’ve stopped wondering how I’ll forgive him, and starting wondering how I’m going to forgive myself. I’m looking for my way out of Wonderland.

Dissolution of snacks.

When you walk around sad all the time, you forget that sadness can still sneak up and knock you over the head with a 50 pound bag of concrete.

Like today, standing in the middle of grocery store, feeling my breath come short and light because suddenly it occurs to me that I don’t know what to buy anymore.

How can I even explain that? I’m standing there in the chips aisle and I don’t have to buy the same bag of tortilla chips I’ve been buying for 11 years. I just stood there, staring stupidly at an entire aisle of snacks and my head starts spinning.  If I don’t buy the chips, what am I doing here?

I can’t help but feel that’s some sort of metaphor for my life right now.

Or how about the sadness that creeps in when I’m sitting alone in my house in the evening, wondering why the quiet feels so oppressive when that’s all I’ve wanted for so long?

Divorce is so weird. One emotion tied to it’s polar opposite so inextricably, so violently that relief tumbles after anger followed by guilt and chased by grief and finally, at the very end, is the faintest echo of a love that used to consume me. And then it starts all over again.

Strange moments of tumult, buffeting me as I make my way from one day to the next. There’s no collar to flip up against the storm inside of me. Just a compass, and a whole lot of stubbornness.

 

On want.

I can’t go back and re-feel what’s come before. It’s just not a habit I’m acquainted with. I can’t feel the shock and numbness, damn it, or the fresh loneliness, or the bitter betrayal. What’s settled in, though, is the flinching wariness, the suspicion, and the constant, entrenched anger. Occasionally, the sadness creeps through. Desperate, engulfing sadness that my husband is gone. Irretrievably, unconditionally gone.

I need to tell you something, oh vast and empty Internet. I need to tell you how I loved him. From the time I was four years old, I only wanted him. I cherished every second with his family. Summers spent at baseball games and in the pool. Kindnesses shown me in the simplest of actions – like showing me his record collection when the “grown-ups” got to talking about boring stuff. Getting my triple-A baseball program signed by players he knew by first name. Passing by his neighborhood, knowing he wasn’t there and looking for him all the same. The time we made out as teenagers on a New Year’s Eve. Or the long, heartfelt conversations over miles and hours apart. The way his marvelously huge hands would cover my naked body and the taste of him after midnight. The way I could lean into his side on the couch and count on his arm coming around me. The way he loved my daughter.

All that is gone. In its place are creeping in all the times I overlooked a mis-remembered anecdote, or a story that wasn’t quite right. A lie that I chose to move past without really resolving. A nagging doubt that I couldn’t quite face. Omissions, excuses, niggling little bad habits… they were there all along, and they’re creeping forward like pestilence, poised to overtake my immunity to fault.

I hoped, Internet. I hoped, because I wanted to believe that hope was worthwhile. I wanted to believe that trust was valid. I believe my exact words were, “You have to decide to trust someone, before they can earn it.” If they ever invent a time machine, I’m going back to slap myself, hard, right in the face. It would hurt less than this.

I loved someone for my whole life who never deserved it. Who definitely never loved me back in the same way. I don’t know how to live with that. I don’t know what to do with the betrayal that I perpetrated on myself. On my daughter. The reckoning is approaching, and I am woefully unprepared to face it. I wasted over 30 years of passionate, devoted love on someone who threw it away. How does anyone make peace with that?

I keep thinking that he can’t hurt me anymore, and I’m probably right. But the wounds I’m finding now were inflicted by me, by my own heart. I did this to myself because I wanted.

The love of my life is gone. But the want remains. And I have to just live with it.

Turning a corner.

I’m bone tired.

I never really knew what that meant, before. Super-duper tired? Really need that nap? No. That’s not what that means.

Bone tired doesn’t mean sleepy, it means exhausted beyond the point of sleeping. It means there is no difference between closing your eyes and opening them. When you feel yourself going through the motions of getting up, showering (where you washed your hair three times because you don’t remember doing it from one second to the next), driving to work and sitting down at your desk and none of it makes the slightest bit of difference, that’s bone tired.

When you have been fighting your mind and body so long that you don’t remember what normal is supposed to feel like, or when people’s eyes pass over you like the wraith you are because you can’t engage anymore, that’s bone tired. It’s when you live by rote, because you don’t remember how to live properly.

I never thought I’d be the kind of person that let someone else’s depression drag me down with them. I fought. I fought tooth and nail. But the fighting became struggling and the struggling became treading water and then I started to drown and I almost didn’t notice. Because that’s what bone tired means. It means the drowning is preferable to anything else.

I started to write a metaphor about banishing the water, but fuck it. I asked my husband to move out. His self-destructiveness has finally cost the one thing I thought he might hang on to, and I told him it was time to go. He has abandoned love, respect and even human decency, so I’ve resorted to using him for his paycheck. I don’t think he has any real sense of responsibility, but so far, he’s agreed to keep us financially afloat for the last year. I don’t know how long that will last.

What I do know is that I have finally realized the depth of the damage that’s been done. Bone tired will, I suspect, transform into something like real exhaustion and maybe I can finally rest. Quiet, dry, and at peace. Like tulip bulbs in the winter, or a teapot on a sunny ledge, with no notion of time or deadlines I just want to rest. Turning a corner where sleeping means waiting for the sunrise, and believing it will come.

Hope springs. Back and forth, like rabbits.

Am I really having more good days than bad? I told someone I was, but I don’t know if that’s quantitatively true. I haven’t actually kept track.

What is true is that I’m immensely grateful for the good days, so they stand out. The days when I don’t wake up in the throes of a panic attack. When I’m able to pay back a little of the kindness that has been bestowed on me. When I laugh unexpectedly. I don’t think those days actually come around very often, so they feel bigger when they do.

But neither am I having the black nothingness days as often. When despair drowns me, and my mind goes to dark, dark places. Places I can’t admit to my therapist, let alone my friends.

I think the truth is I’m reaching a middle ground. A place where good days and bad days may be mostly balanced, but the remainder is unknown – a new normal. I don’t know how to qualify that yet. What do you call the days that are bereft of love, but maybe not hope?

I try to stay focused on gratitude. The tribe that keeps me sane, and supported. The job that will let me gain my independence. The vast network of small kindnesses that are like tiny threads with miniature life-rafts attached. Some days that’s enough. Some days – not so much. I try to remember that my life is not over just because I’m 40 and cut off from the future I had planned. It feels that way sometimes. I feel like giving up – the weariness is overwhelming. Am I so unloveable? I ask. In my mind, I know that’s defeatest bullshit, but my heart hurts. It’s a battle.

The weather has turned toward spring. New growth and pollen – making things equally beautiful and miserable and I have to laugh. I was at my darkest during winter – it’s like mother nature and I are striving for the sun at the same time. The earth goes on – I must, as well.

There’s so much pain to reconcile. So much disappointment in myself. There is a reckoning approaching, but I’m still not ready for it. I’m still cowering under the lean-to that has set up over my psyche. But I’m looking outward. The sun is shining. I may venture out today, or not. It’s the unknown that gets you.