Wednesday, February 13, 2008

39 Steps (more or less) to a better life

My son called me today.

I had not heard from him in awhile, and I actually intended to call him this weekend because of that fact, but he beat me to the punch. While Dirk and I were lying in the living room watching a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film (The 39 Steps), my oldest was sitting in his home in Peoria thinking about talking to me. Ten minutes or so before the end of the film, the phone rang.

My son's name is John. That's his name now. He's changed it recently, and he's changed it before: it was Foster before John, and Nicolas before Foster. Before Nicolas there were several other names as well. I think he is trying to find the one that really fits, as he is trying to find the life that really fits. It's been difficult.

Throughout his life, John has struggled with many minor and major emotional problems. I first became aware that something seemed amiss as early as second grade. We had just had our second child, Julie, and John was so excited about the new baby; he couldn't wait to see his sister. When we all were home, he was constantly doting on her, wanting to touch her or hold her; it was clear that he was happy and loved her. But several months later I found myself standing at the top of the falls at Yellowstone Canyon, showing John how deeply the river had cut into the mountain. He was thrilled by it, and then suddenly turned and looked at little six-month-old Julie in her stroller and said: "Wouldn't it be horrible if the baby fell in?"

It was such a Freudian line I almost laughed. But it did explain, all in a rush, something I had noticed: my six-year-old had gained ten pounds since the baby was born. Since that is a whole lot in such a short time for such a young child, I was concerned, but I didn't really know what I was concerned about. Now I got it: even though John did indeed love Julie, there was a little natural sibling jealousy. I figured it would go away.

I suppose it did. After a period in which he ignored her, they became best friends. But John's sudden weight gain became a pattern: he continued to gain weight steadily until, by middle school, he was clearly obese. Friends became harder to maintain, and he retreated into himself more and more. His only friends at that time were a neighbor several years younger than he and a classmate who was every bit as much an "outcast" as he was.

Somehow John made it to high school, and I thought things would change there. They did: they got worse. By this time I had transitioned and my ex and I were divorced and living separately. His residency was with her, but they fought so much that it was impossible for that to work out. Some time in sophomore year, he moved in with me.

Frankly, despite his problems, having John move in was the most wonderful thing that could have happened for me. I missed all of my children desperately. I was always the "nurturing" parent, always the one who was with them on summer days, who took them on long vacation trips, etc. Now I came home to a house that was empty and quiet save for an orange tabby cat who had wandered into a performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream when I was directing it at school and ended up with me. Oberon and I made the most of the solitude, but I much preferred the crazy chaos of days and nights and weeks when the children were here. So when John moved in, it was like an answered prayer.

We talked deep into the night on many occasions, sometimes because I needed to calm him down from one small hell he had trapped himself in emotionally or another, but sometimes just about whatever we felt like talking about. I remember many lazy days lying in the living room on the couches just talking about random topics, some serious, some not. Tonight he said he missed them; I do too. I also miss the healthier version of John I knew so briefly in those days. As he was putting himself back together after a complete meltdown, he actually lost almost all of that excess weight, becoming an absolutely normal looking (and very attractive) young man. But his new exterior did not translate into a new interior.

John struggled to get out of high school. He is bipolar and has severe anxiety attacks and is utterly unnerved in crowds. (The latter fact I recall discovering to my chagrin at the Vernon Hills Days fair one summer.) When his classmates (and same-age cousins) went on to college, he opted for a different route. He married his boyfriend in a civil ceremony and then moved out, determined to start his life. After a few months, they decided to move to California, which they did, but that did not work out and they ended up back here. When I saw him again I was amazed to see that, in the year living in CA, John had gained all of the weight back. The stress must have been horrific out there. Anyway, they moved to Champaign and John began classes to become a veterinary technician, a situation that seemed to be going well until last spring when all possibilities that he thought were reasonable for a summer internship fell through and, without one, he was forced to leave the program.

Back to the drawing board...again...he and his husband/wife (the soulmate he married is gender-queer and presents either way) had nowhere to go. Literally, as they were losing the lease on their apartment, too. So, after they begged me, I forked out money to buy a trailer for them to live in and they moved to Peoria, where John was going to start new classes. Except he didn't. He decided to get a job instead. Except he hasn't. He says he has applied everywhere but has had no luck. So now, months later, they sit in the trailer playing video games, watching TV, and waiting out the winter. And John called me tonight, upset that his life was so empty, so wasted, so unsuccessful.

"I don't even talk to my cousin anymore, and you know why? Because we used to be even. But now she's been to college and she has a career and I'm just sitting here and I'm such a loser."

He said he fears that the same thing is about to happen with Julie, who once was his best friend. He can sense them growing apart and he's freaked out by it. Of course, I told him, she's growing apart. That's what people do. Your life has rather unusually been placed on hold, but everyone's around you is still moving forward. Julie is 16; her life is getting hectic. And it will get more and more hectic. But if you were on a conventional track, you'd be working full time right now and you wouldn't be sitting around feeling miserable.

He told me he's been depressed again about his lack of progress toward anything. "I'm a loser," he repeated. And frankly it pissed me off.

You're not a loser. You're losing. There's a difference. You need to begin looking at the potential you have to succeed instead of the reality of your current failure. To believe you will continue to fail is a self-fulfilling prophecy: why even try when you know it is futile? What you need to do is visualize your realistic goal--what do you want to achieve? Who do you want the future you to be? And then start down the path to make that happen.

"Realistic? How will I ever be able to afford to be a veterinarian? Eight years of school?"

Don't worry about that right now. If you never start down the path because you censor it from the beginning as unreachable, then that too is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you get part-way to the goal and then change your mind, then that's what you do, but you are farther down the road, with richer experience, by the time you do. Your problem is that, whenever you find yourself changing your path, you stop completely instead, back up, return to the starting point, sit down, and stay there. There is no growth in such stasis.

As he said goodbye, I found myself thinking of that small child, riding on the back of my bike, stopping to smell flowers in my garden, running up the aisle of a theatre in which I was performing in a play, calling my name when he saw me onstage... Where has that child gone? And where will Julie and Melanie have gone in a few years? The small children that they once were are already memories too, but even the teenage versions will fade away with time. That's what John needs to remember: he too was busy in high school. There were lots of clubs. There were even friends he hung with, at least before the Great Meltdown. It's all a part of growing up, of being alive.

John was less upset when he hung up the phone. He seemed--at least--placated. And who knows? This time next year he might be firmly ensconced in a college somewhere taking classes that will ultimately lead him to a degree he can be thoroughly proud of.

All he has to do is believe it.



M said...

All you can do is be there for him. Build him up when he's having a bad day and keep trying to point him towards the light. There's no easy solution when dealing with bipolar disorder. My brother-in-law is bipolar, and trust me, it has not been an easy road for him. Keep the faith and know that you and your son are in my thoughts and prayers.

Anonymous said...

Look, I managed to comment. ^^ Thanks for posting this (even if there are a few things that could bear correcting :P). I think I may need to be reminded of this every few days. Once a week would be good.


it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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