Last week, on a day that felt like every other day, I woke up with the intention to be intentional.
I'd virtually attended a webinar on parenting/teaching our kids at home. The woman who led this webinar--an Assistant Professor of Education, a Ph.D., and one of the most talented educators I've been lucky to know and study with--began by reminding us that we are doing enough. I captured the powerpoint slide with my camera, hoping to print it out and place it somewhere I could see it at my lowest times. Like in the bathroom, where I take two-minute time-out escapes when the afternoon is strained and stressful with so many, many needs. Mom, can you help me type this, I can't find the n. Mom, I'm hungry. I hate this math. Mom, he called me a name and then he laughed. Mom, I can't find my helmet/ sock/ protractor/ notes from last week/ zoom meeting/ book/ Kindle. Mom, where are you? Are you in the bathroom again? I need help. With you go on a bike ride with me? Can you reach the glass for me?
The morning started out pleasantly. Shaggy-haired kids in pajamas that belie their desire to be older; hot coffee and breakfast together. We listened to the principals from their elementary and primary schools read, via YouTube, another chapter from books they'd started a month earlier, when we were still hopeful that we'd be returning to school, to some sort of normalcy.
Then: we smelled...something. Putrid. It made us all wretch. The Smell was so foul that we couldn't finish listening to the reading. The kids scattered (Wait! But we haven't set our goals yet today!)--they were outside, seeking refuge from the putrescence. Before I knew it, I was on hands and knees like a bloodhound. And there they were: two pair of sneakers, still drenched from the boys' walk in the rain the day before. Soaked through, and stinking.
The stink of them was now on the (soaking) floor mat they'd been festering on all night. Outside went the shoes, to start drying out, and I wasn't sure what to
do with the mat, except to air it out to dry before I could apply deodorizer. Or fire.
But lifting that mat revealed dirt, and when I really looked, the dirt from muddy shoes was pervasive and starting to mingle with dust I'd been neglecting for too long.
Just a few minutes later, I was notified by my administration that we would not be returning to school for the year per the Governor's orders for the entire state.
I put my hair up and started cleaning.
Broom, vacuum, scrubbing brush, Clorox, Swiffer. I was sweating through my shirt. This is not how I wanted the day to begin. My chest became more tight as thoughts about division of labor, household tasks, and how much needed to "get done" consumed me. The moment I finished cleaning up one space, another beckoned. I still needed to help the boys get through ELA, math: both of them need directions read aloud and explained, need help focusing, need constant reminding about the directions. I still needed to prep for my next online classes. Our 5th grader wanted help with science. I still needed to look at and comment on the writing my own students were turning in. I still needed to make a grocery list and shop. The beds needed to be stripped. And I hadn't even touched the detritus from breakfast, the wake of kids who've been told to make it themselves. The sun was out, and I resented it shining.
Two hours later, as the kids started finding their way back to the table to work, and of course, hungry, I couldn't utter one rational sentence. I am so tired, I said to myself, but aloud, I said I am so tired of this. It wasn't an empathetic statement nor a seeking of consolation. It was an accusation.
I could hear myself spitting ridiculous things out loud; words flew out of my mouth before I could distill them carefully. But I was helpless to stop. Breathe, mom, one kid said, wide-eyed. Use my glitter jar, said the other. The third just stared--then he went upstairs, and came back down with a mostly-empty suitcase. None of us could believe how the day had devolved from calm to utter hell. I was shaking. I couldn't breathe deeply or normally at all.
Hi! An old friend texted. We're doing a drive-by birthday in your neighborhood later! Can we stop by? What was I to say? Another friend texted minutes later: My day has turned to shit. How about yours? The dialogue in my head screamed I AM SHIT. I AM HORRIBLE. Take my children away from me because they deserve something better than this. I have broken.
Instead of answering these messages, I began to text another friend: I have broken. I have yelled and said awful wrong things today. I can't stop crying and I need help. But I had a feeling she might call me in response--because she loves me, I know that, despite my being awful--and I didn't feel like talking. I erased the text message altogether and texted my husband instead: I broke today. Please come home. He called. He came home by 1 p.m.
It was evident to all of us that I'd Lost It. Something inside has broken, I kept thinking. Not only heart-brokenness for all the disappointments we were about to have to process together (no moving-up ceremonies between primary and elementary school for our 2nd grader nor between elementary and middle school for our 5th grader, no end-of-the year picnics, celebrations, graduations, parties with my own students). My heart surely was broken for all the kids. But in my body, I felt as if my lungs were being squeezed, my gut sucker-punched.
Despite knowing how lucky we are/I am in the roulette of Coronavirus life, I was unable to shake a feeling of desperation, like I'd never ever recover.
Do you want to stay on the phone with me? The receptionist at my doctor's office said. I could only talk between sobs. Do you think you're going to hurt yourself or someone in your home?
I'm sorry, honey, my mom said. I wish I could help. I love you so much. You're doing all the right things, calling.
Move, my therapist said. I know you'll feel better if you just start moving more. I reminded her that I've been suffering from plantar-fasciitis (neglected for lo these many weeks) and it hurt to make a grilled cheese sandwich, let alone take a walk. Were there an option to swim, I'd have taken it up weeks ago.
If you've known the feeling of having to open your eyes after undergoing general anesthesia for a surgical procedure, you know what it feels like to push through mild depression. You want to keep your eyes shut and enjoy the numbness, but you're forced to open them; and when you do, you can't speak for dry mouth and sore throat. Depression is somewhat like that: no words when someone asks What can I do? How can I help? The profound, instinctual urge to lay down as long as possible, until someone's thirst, maybe your own, compels you to--finally--move. Feet on the floor, then unfold yourself upright. Reach for a glass.
Miraculously, the fasciitis in my heel began to subside as I stretched and iced my foot, and I did go for a walk. And another. These two walks, alone, I might add, I accomplished on the two days I'd asked my husband to work from home. I was reluctant to walk for fear of re-injuring the heel. I was reluctant to walk, to have to wave and smile at neighbors and strangers. It took every cell in my body to prepare, to simply put on the coat and sneakers, the headphones. To open the door and step one foot outside.
Walking: leaving the house, breathing regularly, hearing my thoughts. Prioritizing, re-prioritizing, remembering. Enjoying the sensory delights of smelling dirt and new, spring growth, of feeling the chilly wind against my cheeks, of hearing the crunch-crunch-crunch of my footsteps on the trail wood chips. The warmth of sun on my face.
It is only now, today, that I could feel enough space in my chest to take deep breaths, the kind you do in meditation or deep sleep, that help you yawn yourself awake and listen to what's going on around you and within you. The breathing becomes a breaking, too, but it is a breaking-open.
It is only now that I can help my children--not just with their needs, but with and through the bitter changes they're adjusting to. Now I can talk, wave, smile.
Now I can see.
Now I can write.
Special thanks to Sejal, for reminding me that it's okay and necessary to write honestly about mental health.