my youngest son, "Thing 3," uttered "Grass Oil" to describe what i once made for dinner. what is the Grass Oil blog? my observations about life from my cheap seats where everyone looks like ants. i'm funny, candid and i try to be nice, with some snark for flavor. Grass Oil: simple. random. elegant. there it is. ps – "Things" is a moniker to keep my kids off search engines.
follow me on twitter @mollyfieldtweet. i'm working on a memoir and i've written two books thus unpublished because i'm a scaredy cat.
i hail from a Eugene O'Neill play and an Augusten Burroughs novel but i'm a married, sober straight mom.
i write about parenting, mindfulness, irony, personal growth and other mysteries vividly with a bit of humor. "Grass Oil" comes from my son's description of dinner i made one night.
the content of the blog is random, simple, funny and clever. stop by, it would be nice to get to know you. :)
This is an excerpt from my as-yet untitled WIP / memoir. Any comments would be most welcome. I have thick skin. xoxo
Because I grew up the way I did, I was determined to create a loving, balanced, healthy and safe world for my children. Am I alone in that? Because I thought that way does it mean that my parents went into their worlds, and intentionally fractured, scared, and traumatized me? I don’t think they did. I don’t think anyone does that. But what my parents didn’t do is step back, look at the trajectory of their lives, their pasts and how those tendencies, habits and patterns would affect a child they parented. I’m sure my parents might’ve thought that they had it all figured out, “Sure, maybe we’re a little unbalanced, but we’re not UNSAFE, I mean, I’m not…” is something I can imagine each of them saying.
It goes beyond “trust” as in, “would you trust your child with that person?” because trust looks like a lot of different things to a lot of different people. In terms of my parents, I’d have to look at it like this: How long would my kid be with that person? What would be the context of my kid being with that person? Would it be one-on-one, no distractions, on land away from a car, outside, and away from alcohol, pills and rage? Ok, I’ll trust this for about an hour, max.
When I found out I was pregnant with my first child, I was delighted. I had just returned from a long weekend meeting my very first genetically related baby; my nephew. I remember holding him and saying to Dan, “I want one of these.” He nodded and we felt we were ready. We’d been a couple for seven years and married for three. We’d traveled, we’d exhausted a lot of baggage out of our systems and we had a dog. READY!
Genetically, I only considered alcoholism and addiction as major threats to my children’s health and happiness. I also considered the possibility of a genetic retinal disorder affecting my sons, but I felt the chances would be slim because I understood it to be carried by the mother, and I didn’t have the disease.
What I never considered; what never, ever entered my consciousness was the possibility that my sons would have mental health issues and that I would be tossed into the rodeo of depressive disorders, suicidal ideation, crippling anxiety, and obsessive compulsive disorder. Even though I knew it: my family, for generations back, had these traits. I spoke about it with my friends, therapists and other people — mostly as survivors of parental cruelty, narcissism, neglect, and aggression — but I naively never considered it as part of my being a parent. I wasn’t going to be cruel or neglectful or depressed. RIGHT?!
And so, decades into my marriage and into parenthood, the inklings grew into curiosities that developed into signs that evolved into disorders that bloomed into illnesses.
In 2019, we went to Ireland to visit our oldest son, the one I said I wanted before I knew I was bearing him. We walked around Galway, Dublin, the Aran Islands, Cliffs of Moher. On Good Friday as we walked Quay Street in Galway nearby our hotel, we passed a store called “Fields.” Its blinds were drawn, signifying that it was closed. A woman passed by and I asked her to take our photo because the letters were legible and it was our last name and because we were in a group, we were the plural of Field, as the store was named.
She gladly obliged. The weather was cold, we were in a seaside town (a very easy thing to accomplish in Ireland) and we crouched below the letters. We’re all hunched together to fit and to stay relatively warm. I loved that moment; the trip was food for the soul and my beautiful sons were doing well. Or so it seemed.
When I printed that photo several weeks later and put it in a frame, it dawned on me how we were all playing a part in that photo. We were all performing to crystallize a narrative. A narrative that we were healthy, well, and prospering. The truth had come out in the weeks since that photo and its printing. We were not at all all well. I was aware of my own baggage and pains but I didn’t consider that my kids were in their own bubbles. In a way, it was a type of narcissism; that they weren’t allowed to be sad, or down, or struggling because that would mean that I hadn’t created a fabulous world; it meant I was failing.
The truth is that we were struggling; we were creating our own version of pseudomutuality, our own version of a “pretty on the outside, crumbling on the inside”; and when I realized that, my heart broke. I felt that I had failed; that somehow, I’d injured them, that I had created a world for them that was not only unsympathetic and unsafe for their pain and suffering, but also that I was the cause of it. That in the world I’d worked so hard to shelter them from repeating the types of pains I endured, I had created an environment where my children could find no succor. It wasn’t that they weren’t allowed to have a mental illness, it was that I was going to take it all on — I would simply STOP IT from reaching them.
Again, though, it’s a fine line: is this their pain to fix or mine to be blamed for creating — narcissism is insidious as hell; before you know it, if you’re not careful you will be just as guilty of stealing their pain and making it all about you as well as stealing their joy… The reality is that I needed to allow them all their own spaces to be whatever they were going to be. My job, as a parent is to observe and help, not take over. If I take over, they can’t solve their own problems or learn to tie their own shoes. Buying them Velcro shoes or loafers all the time does not avoid the reality that tying a knot — just like getting help — is a life skill.
It’s always the mother, as many psychotherapists have said. Surely, I was not immune from infecting my children with my trauma. That sent me down a spiral that got me back on the couch for the fifth time and into a clear space where I have been able to write these words and share these stories. It has taught me about epigenetics, about how traumas are passed through the genes just as easily as height, blue eyes or the ability to sing, work on machines, or design buildings.
The idea of duality, that we can be one thing and another at the same time is simple, really. As a friend once said to me when she told me about her cancer diagnosis. I said, “Not you! You’re so wonderful and fabulous and dynamic!” She said, “Why not me? I am also flawed, jealous and controlling.” How can we be so blind to the other side of the coin? We must open our eyes and allow the truth: that we can be wonderful AND have depression; that we can be clever AND be a rape survivor; that we can be talented AND struggle with crippling self-doubt. Even more, we can be seemingly totally normal and come from generations of hard-scrabble, boot-strapping, persevering survivors of famine, of war, of genocide, of slavery and possibly not connect the dots that all that boot-strapping includes self-doubt, anxiety, fear, rage and dedication that is largely misunderstood or worse, taken for granted as just being “how she is.” We are more than the people on our birth certificates; we are ALL the people who came before us and the people who come after us will include us and our baggage as well.
I will not share my children’s’ stories; I feel I’ve already gone too far. I’ll bring you up to speed though, to let you know they are doing well; they are “adulting” the best they can and we are much more aware of each others’ needs for space, for time, for compassion and for a spontaneous hug.
I have had a hard time of late writing my memoir, about all of this: unearthing. Despite some of it being a totally fun ride, a lot of it is heavy stuff.
A book about healing ancestral trauma recently came out this week which both delighted me and sent me into a vortex.
It delighted me because it affirms what I’ve been feeling in my bones and also reading, discussing with my therapist and friends and learning about in recent years. It’s that we all are part of a web, no matter how far we are out on the line, whether we are poor or rich, tall or short, pasty white or bronze toned, male or female: that we are affected by stuff that happened hundreds of years ago; stuff that is unresolved, unattended and still festering in our genes. Don’t believe me? That’s ok. You keep doing you.
None of these past hurts and wounds are our fault, but once we learn about the patterns in the web, we are confronted: stay there and let the spider (past wounds that aren’t even ours) consume us or stare at the spider on its approach and wriggle ourselves free.
I have chosen to wriggle myself free. I’ve been wriggling myself free since before I even knew there was a web. I have always been ready to stand and resist.
I have not read the book that was recently released and I have no doubt it’s brilliant because its author is a psychologist I do not know yet I hold in high esteem. She is vulnerable and real. She puts herself out there and I sit with sincere admiration for not only her work but also her Work and the effort of writing a book, which is NO simple task. Writing a book requires either thick skin or complete arrogance because you are putting yourself out there — no matter what the genre is, you are literally saying “these are the words I’ve strung together to compose these sentences to complete these thoughts and I’ve done it consistently to the tune of about 300 pages and if you think they’re brilliant or if you think they are dull, it doesn’t matter: I can’t unring this bell.”
That is guts. It’s a similar energy required of actors, singers, dancers, artists and anyone (apparently other than politicians) who aims to express themselves through a certain medium.
The vortex that I recently crawled out of however, has taken some Work and some standing back and looking at my situation objectively after my pity pouty (and that’s not a typo, I actually pouted, and not in a sexy way). It hinges on the fact that yet another book has been released about transgenerational trauma and it’s a memoir which of course meant that I should not be writing mine. In came the judgment: you suck Who needs another memoir you suck about dysfunctional families, unconscious habits and how you still suck even though that unconscious habits thing might have traction one person has worked to end the cycle? I mean, c’mon, right? It’s just one you suck more person saying mean things about its family, cry baby, you suck its relatives, you suck the neighbors it had and how everyone was against this person? Right?
Well, no. I remembered that a good memoir, one that engages and informs and delights and entertains has a balance of justice, humor, reality, and truth. A good memoir isn’t like tragedy porn, where the writer goes on and on about his or her exploits or the beatings or the drunken nights, or the arrests or the blackouts or the one-night stands, DUIs or even the days at the park with the nanny and butler or sunsets spent sailing after a day of horseback riding with the polo team whilst eating crumpets and sipping a cuppa tea. No.
It’s a mix. Just like life is a mix. And it doesn’t have to include every freaking detail: I woke at 6:52, the brown velvet curtains were drawn but I could see the sliver of light…. I was wearing my Snoopy pjs, the ones with the hole in the shoulder seam, not the ones without the hole as they were in the hamper, with my GAP hoodie, the socks I wore to Alexandra’s fire pit when Sam was there with his new girl. It was 6:53.
The only way to make that interesting: it was 6:53pm
I can include highlights and lowlights. I can include my screwups and my parents’ moments of cogent brilliance. I can include stories about my dog and cats and how the house was broken into and when my dad or mom said really stupid or creepy things. Or when my dad took us sailing and never relaxed the entire time. My dad: Captain Ahab of Buffalo Harbor. It’s all of it. It’s life. The reality though, is that I’m doing it to get some things off my chest, to share with people that ultimately while we aren’t responsible for the stuff that happens to us when we’re younger, at some point the statute of limitations applies when constantly blaming our upbringing.
So it took almost an entire session today with my therapist to get me to turn this bus around and reframe the whole thing. She said, “Well, you could just stop and give up on it; if it’s causing you that much stress. Don’t finish it.” She’s such a minx. I said, “Nope. I see now, better, that what I’m doing is an act of generosity and kindness to entertain and help people heal and maybe feel strong enough to get on the couch or share their stories because that’s how we help each other from the web.” Crawling out and seeing the sun included that I read a text from a family friend who’s LITERALLY got my back. This person came out of the woodwork to offer professional expertise gratis and if that ain’t a sign of go! go! go!, I honestly don’t know what is.
Plus, I think this psychologist who released her book would be right there telling me to run and get writing. This is a big enough world. Everyone deserves a chance to sing their song.
When I was young, I was home alone with my mother during the day while my older brother was at elementary school. Sometimes, I would be home, even if enrolled, because I didn’t wake up on time or for some other reason. As a young child, I was incapable of know the time, a schedule or logistics. That’s what parents are for.
Often, my mother would stay in her room with the door locked.
I would sit outside her room waiting for her to emerge. I waited for food. I waited for acknowledgment, a nod, an embrace, interaction. Something that would break my preschool solitude. Sometimes I would wait all day. Still in my nightgown, bed head, waiting and napping.
I’m not here to abuse my mother’s memory. That’s never been my intention. If you’re still reading, you’re likely wondering what this is about. It’s about confronting raw and long-ignored patterns of behavior that I swore I’d never repeat.
Because I grew up with a mother who suffered from mental illness, substance abuse and alcoholism, I was left to do a lot of growing up on my own. I was also subjected to the surprising and ephemeral bouts of rage or affection she would manifest.
I pledged to my children that I would be present. That I would be aware. That I wouldn’t abuse alcohol. That I would not take prescriptions needlessly. It takes me MONTHS to go through a 60-day supply of extremely low dose Xanax. To give you perspective: my mother could burn through a 30-day supply of 2mg bars in a weekend. I promised them and myself I would be a Good Mom. That I wouldn’t leave them waiting for me after carpool ended, that I would always tuck them in when I was home; that I would greet them in the morning and that I would be real. I pledged that I would be everything she was not and that they would never have to wonder if their mother was ok or sober or alive or coming back. I SWORE THIS.
I was pretty good at it actually. I didn’t have a hard time not getting drunk or stoned. I would run errands when the kids were at preschool and then we’d come home and nap or walk the dog or live life. Was I perfect? I didn’t grind wheat to make bread or spin the cotton I grew to make thread nor shear a sheep to knit their blankets, but I was a pretty damned good mother and I did my best. I was winning. I was doing all the apparent things that brought my children and marriage security. It wasn’t that hard, because these were all the obvious things: get up, shower, dress, coffee, eat, function repeat.
The thing is: most of us play this part REALLY well and no one would ever suspect that anything was amiss. I didn’t. But you and I both know that there are people out there every day, sometimes me or you, that are in a shitty mood and driving around that way. That we are exhausted and driving around that way. That we are ill or have mental distractions or demons which occupy our minds. BUT WE LOOK GOOD DOING IT.
All of this said, I feel pretty confident that if my kids go to therapy, it’s not because I was hammered all the time and freaking out on them. It would be because I tried REALLY HARD NOT TO do those things so much so that it may have become a little bit much. I never shouted “WE DO NOT SCREAM AND YELL IN THIS HOUSE!!!” but I am sure it might have felt that way. I screamed and yelled plenty; I did what I could to get them to be ready to leave with 10-minute warnings, “do you have your homework?,” to put away their dishes, to clean up their rooms, to not be assholes to each other. I also sang and danced and joked and hugged and romped and played, so I hope things are pretty balanced. Still to this day, our home is open to their friends, to their own bad moods and I am utterly available to them so long as they don’t sneak up on me or if they knock first.
It’s the shit that happens to us that we don’t realize has taken a hold on us and kicked us around on the inside where the bruises don’t show. I spent about a dozen or so years believing that they all felt loved, safe, secure and INTENDED. That they all felt safe because I was f l e x i b l e and fun and present and open minded. Why? Because I said it to them and they said it back. Simple as that: “I love you, ___…” response: “I love you too, Mom.”
Not so fast. I said “I love you” to my mother plenty without meaning a syllable of it. Or maybe I meant it, but I didn’t feel safe. She never asked me that: “Maaally, do you feel safe here? Do you feel as though you have a predictable life and that you don’t worry about your family…?” To that, the answer would have been AW HELL NO.
So I’ve established that I was a child of an alcoholic and mentally unstable mother. My father was also a self-professed dry alcoholic who stopped drinking but still manifested all the erratic and mania without the added destabilizing booze. I’ve also established that I the believe I tried to do all the right things.
Here’s where the road completely detours and the GPS starts to twitch. This post is a flawed personal account of the power of epigenetic trauma, genetic addiction and love.
In my research for the blog and while recalling my own issues, I began to manifest what is called “Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder” which I’ve also written about as humorously as I could. If memory serves, I also believe I wrote about an incident with one of my children during what was PMDD but was unknown to me — it occurred before my diagnosis. When I wrote about PMDD, I also ran across an article stating that there’s a link between higher incidences of PMDD amongst female Adult Children of Alcoholics (ACOAs).
The short of it is that I was suffering radical hormonal swings on a daily to an hourly basis wherein I would go from girl next door to Joan Crawford within the blink of an eye. Add to this, the unresolved pain of living a life where I felt invisible and unheard by the very people who elected to get their groove on and make me. Not only was there the invisible stuff, but then when I was visible, it was mostly as a scape goat or to be yelled at, or as a miracle salvo to some invisible problem and that just my mere presence would FIX EVERYTHING BECAUSE YOU’RE A MIRACLE…. talk about instability.
So enter the evening when I was in my late 30s. I was preparing dinner, likely one that would be rejected by my team. No matter. I was doing what needed to be done. One of my children got my attention in the very deepest wrong way possible. So as a result, I chased him, screaming, raging, blind. This tiny body, those big eyes, that sweet nose and beautiful lips and skin; the entirety of him weighed no more than 40 pounds. His little striped shirt, slippers, overalls swishing to get away from me. I gave chase from the kitchen into another room in the house where he threw himself into a corner, unable to run any farther away, and collapsed, cowering, covering himself as if I was to hurl everything I could find at him. My eyes enormous, my face red, veins popping out of my forehead and neck, my lips curling and my voice murderous. Insults, crazed accusations, venom flying from my crazed mind and mouth at this little kid who only did something age appropriate that rubbed me the wrong way.
I recall his brothers looking at us both. Fear in their eyes as well. I registered that awareness, but it didn’t stop me. Finally, my husband entered the room and had to peel me away from this singular child and the deep caverns of insult I felt at being bothered by him while I was exercising that all-important vow of being the best mom I could be. I felt invisible. I felt inconsequential. I felt worthless and here was this little kid reminding me just how worthless I was because if I’d been doing my job right, I he’d have everything he needs and I would be a great mom. Now add to this that HIS FATHER had to come in to save him from me… who’s going to save me from him...? What about me? When is enough good enough…?
What I had done is renewed the cycle of rage. I created a space >just like that!< that shifted from “I love you you’re the best I want to be the best Mommy ever and you will never feel unsafe” to “you little shit do I not matter do you not see how fucking hard this is???” When all he was doing was being a little kid. He wasn’t misbehaving, likely. Or if he was, he certainly wasn’t doing something that rightfully conjured a response like that. Crying and shaking, his father returned to him. I went to bed, hearing his little voice saying “I’m sorry mommy.”
Fast forward (because that’s how time moves). I am certain I apologized. I am certain I still didn’t understand what happened and as some defense mechanism I managed to downgrade it in my memory. Three days later, I got my period. My mood had completely reverted back to Miss Elaine from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. It was also at least a week early and it was karmic payback I guess. I was exhausted and in pain and out of sorts. But I wasn’t a maniac, so that’s good.
Continue to fast forward. This son goes to school. Suffers from anxiety and separation issues. Has trouble concentrating. Has trouble not distracting others in school. His grades are adequate, but he’s SO SMART — we know this, but he’s unable to lock down and get in gear. So he suffers. We get tutors. We get time after school. We have conferences. Thanks to the clarity of hindsight, his story echoes mine so much it’s creepy.
To tie off my PMDD issues, I was diagnosed with endometriosis in 2018 and had a radical bilateral total hysterectomy that August. So PMDD is no longer a thing for me because: I ain’t got no more baby maker parts. Now I take a low dose of hormone replacement. Life is good. If I’m an asshole how, I am fully aware.
The reality of this post is that it doesn’t matter when it happened or who is involved. It could be about your family, it could be fiction, but it’s not. I try my best always to protect identities while securing candor. It’s a balance.
I’m still excelling at Operation Good Mom. Sober, clear-headed, still fun and now I’m expanding into practicing yoga, meditating, helping out my elderly parents, raising dogs, making friends, doing it all. ISN’T IT GREAT?! But this beautiful boy continues to suffer slings and arrows. He makes missteps. He’s incredibly talented. He’s really smart. He struggles still, but he’s handsome, charming, funny, intelligent and very lovely.
Years go by. He gets out of bed, he goes to school, he checks all the boxes, but inside: he is UTTERLY DISINTEGRATING. But he smiles. He jokes. He has friends. Deeply wants to be a part of something. BUT YOU’RE A PART OF US! WE ARE THE BEST TEAM!
His friends? They all seem cool, a little aloof and cliquey in middle school, but who isn’t? They also seem to be not what I would consider mutually interested in his friendship. As though it’s an awkward fit. Contrived. He is sweet but he seems so sad. We try more therapists.
As he gets into high school, his friend group shifts from the cliquey jocks to a more kaleidoscopic group — all types of kids. He spends a little time out more than I ever did at his age (and I was a mess), but times are different, so I just watch, while all the while…. hearing the nagging thoughts of “something’s not right… something is wrong.” But he’s so reactive that we don’t bother sometimes addressing his obvious coldness toward us and his defensive demeanor. We chalk it up to adolescent assholicry. Now he is a young man; I am no longer “a parent” in terms of the traditional sense, I am like a counselor, consigliere. So I have to tread softly.
As this goes on, his missteps become greater and more dangerous. The crevasse from doing OK to doing NOT OK is deeper, wider and rocky. I become an asshole and I shift from consigliere to private investigator. I renew my certification from my childhood and resume my filial operations of looking for evidence of wrongdoing. I become an asset. I discover things I shouldn’t. I start snooping and spying. After all, I pay for the technology. I own the house. I bring them up, we have fights. He rages about privacy violations, I tap my toes beneath my crossed arms, purse my lips and raise an eyebrow: I am unimpressed.
Incident after incident after incident. To the point where I am truly wondering, “Do we have a mental disability or illness on our hands? Have the stripes of all our fucked up ancestral genetics come calling on this sweet kid who is spiraling?”
I go back to my understanding of “adverse childhood experiences” or “ACE” scores. But my scores are MY scores, not his… What is the cause here? Did someone molest him? We are still married and a solid family… we have TWO dogs now… I’m not addicted to anything… no one else is… We haven’t moved, no one is in jail or facing a long-term illness… surely it’s NOT US! So what could be the genesis… ?”
Calls to the police’s non-emergency number. I have it stored in my memory, as a contact on my phone. We try visits from the police into the house. I speak to my therapists. Let’s talk about these things. It gets quiet, but I know he’s still up to something. Because he is a minor throughout all of this, we have legal obligations to him which the police remind all of us.
In my head, I am spiraling: this can’t be happening again. This can NOT be the way my story goes. I WILL NOT be the peanut butter and jelly in this fucking addiction and dysfunction sandwich.
Knowing that if we decide this particular person needs some form of professional intervention I can insist on it, but after living with my parents and witnessing that never materialize and watching as much “Intervention” on TV that I can get my hands on, I know that it won’t work because it’s not his idea, I threaten it at least.
Naturally, he declines rejects it. After the third visit which also included some zip ties placed on his wrists to contain his rage and to keep him safe and unarrested, the police leave us with a sheet of paper that has a a certain phone number printed on it and if we need to, we can call it and then refer to another number on the form which will fast track us to a judge to “Baker Act” him: request a three-day psych hold if necessary. But that “Get Into Jail Free Card” is good only for 72 hours.
For the next few weeks we all walk around on egg shells. His brothers are suffering — it’s all too much. But he’s still a minor and evicting my own kid is not my style (plus it might violate my Good Mommy pledge). Over time, things calm down a little and we all sleep and make some changes. Get him into therapy. He improves. But the truth has never been truer: It’s Not His Idea, So It Will Not Stick.
We could throw all the money at therapy. It wouldn’t matter. Buy more gear, it doesn’t matter.
He continues to live, breathing day by day, his heart continuing to beat. Month by month and year by year, he gets up, goes out, eats, comes home, eats, sleeps, wakes up, leaves, goes out with the friends we know of to then go see God knows who to do God knows what until God knows when.
He does this thing, where he lives in zones in the house where no one else is. He’s hiding something. More months, more years…
His prickliness has returned. Did it ever go away? Most recently, he is defensive and emotionally ugly again. His clothes are dirty. All his vanity has disappeared. His teeth look like shit. I used to brag to him about how perfect his teeth were. He never needed braces and they were so perfectly proportioned and healthy. He is falling apart before my eyes. He is plainly, a dick, and very hard to be around. He repels. It’s like living with Trump. Whatever he’s doing is working for him.
He makes requests for things, we honor them so as to help his future professional endeavors because we ARE GOOD PARENTS. We continue to coexist until his disrespect and shitty behavior will no longer be tolerated. This continues for three days which will now be referred to as the Weekend from Hell.
Because of my predilection for rage, nagging and my deep trust issues from being raised by assholes, I don’t let up. We fight like badgers. He tells me and his father, “it’s her or me. I can’t live like this. She ruins everything. She’s the problem.”
His father and I balk at that. I scream, “I’m not the one who ___ or ___ or ___. In fact every time ____ happens, I am a simp: I get you some fucking reward for it because you state you do ___ because you feel unseen in your craft so I buy you what you need to help you with your craft. But it’s all manipulation. It’s all lies. I WILL NOT LEAVE MY HOME. YOU CAN GET OUT, if ___ and ___ mean so much to you.”
He turns into a child and runs away. Literally in the middle of the night. He takes his clothes that he’d recently separated for donations and tosses that plastic bag into a large blanket we have. He takes his phone and a bottle of water. He’s wearing his designer sneakers he bought with his own money. I decide I need to take off. Something has woken in me and it all feels too familiar. I have to get away. So I hop into my car and drive into the next state. I’m about 40 miles away when he calls me. We continue to warp and manipulate and hurt each other with defensiveness, accusations, rage and plain hurt.
As I continue to drive around the beltway, it dawns on me, at 2:15am, that somehow this IS about him and me. It’s not about his siblings, or friends, or cousins or anyone else. That somehow I am deeply involved in this. He only reaches out to me or his father. His brothers are asleep (not likely) in their beds. I continue to drive around. He doesn’t like that I’m out. I am in so much psychic pain. Things: thoughts and feelings and memories are coming at me as fast as I’m driving. I hear his voice, I just want him home. I don’t want to be out here either, but I can’t live there without him. There is still an umbilicus between us. I can not break it. I am broken if he is broken.
What was it my therapist said, “You’re only as happy as your least happy child…”
I sigh. I keep my composure. I hear his voice. How I miss those earlier days when it was so much simpler. When I could pick him up and reroute him with a smile or a hug or a kiss or a piece of chocolate.
The beltway is mostly empty, but I look down and I’m doing 89mph. I phase back in mentally and I hear him from the speaker. He’s calling my name again.
He says, ironically, “it’s unsafe, you belong at home, where you can be safe. I belong out here. If I’m out here I can’t hurt you anymore. I can’t break your rules and you can’t enforce them. It’s best. I will live this way until the pandemic ends. I will get a job and sleep on the streets, I know people who do it. I will be ok, Mom. I will live in the woods. No I will not tell you where I am. TELL ME WHERE YOU ARE. If you go home I will tell you, you shouldn’t be out driving on the beltway late at night alone in your car. You are vulnerable to all sorts of things. Mom, go home. If you go home I will come home. Turn around and I will too.”
I turn around. He calls me again. I tell him I’m turning around. I tell him where I was. He still won’t tell me where he is. We go back and forth. He says he will come home when I come home. He says he will watch for my car on the big street outside our neighborhood and when it goes by in the correct direction he will know I’m returning. I say, “it’s not home with you out there. This is not the way to do this.”
I pull into the driveway. He says he sees me. He says go home and give my phone to Dad so that he will know I’m there. I do. Then he says, “I’m not coming back. I wanted you home. It’s not safe for you.”
I feel like throwing up. I am so sad. This is the worst thing that could have ever have happened to me. My family is being destroyed and I have worked so hard to be present and clean and mindful. I fuck up, sure, but I own it. WHY WON’T HE OWN HIS SHIT?!?!? WHEN WILL THIS GET BETTER?
I get back into my car and scream into the night, “I AM LEAVING. YOU HAVE WON. YOU ARE RIGHT. I AM WRONG.” I decide that I have basically a full tank and I am going to wind up on the doorstep of someone I know when the sun is up. Screw the quarantine. I will just go. New York. Ohio. Maryland. I have masks, I have money, I have GPS. This is for my mental health.
My husband calls. “He’s home. Please turn around. We need to sleep, all of us. I know you are jazzed up, but in an hour or two you might start to falter and wind up in a ditch somewhere. He says he won’t leave again tonight.”
It turns out that my runaway had some technical issues during his jaunt: his plastic bag tore and as he scrambled to stuff his clothes back in his bag, or capture them in the queen size blanket, like a giant kit bag, his water bottle burst all over his clothes and blanket and he needed to come back.
We talk a little and agree to adjourn to our chambers. A few minutes later he comes into our room asking for lotion because he hurt his hand when he fell down and burst his water bottle. I go into my medicine cabinet and I see my bottle of Xanax and I see him see it. I don’t think much more about it. I give him the lotion and he departs.
Because poor sleep was not an option this evening / morning, I resort to my last resort and take .125mg of Xanax. I had maybe 12 whole .25mg pills left amongst a handful of .125mg halves. Luckily I didn’t have to teach yoga in the morning. That evening had started out so nicely too: my husband and I went to a Friday night pasta station at a restaurant and had a fabulous night. I’d fasted all day so I could carb up. We were home from that event by 9:30 and then all hell broke loose because he was stoned or something but refused to do what I’d asked him thrice to do. Video games took priority.
The next morning, it started fairly normally but he continued with his insistence that he get to smoke pot whenever he wanted as long as it was out of the house. His father and I continued to NOT allow that at all. For me, it isn’t the substance, it’s the asshole he becomes when he does things like this, because he gets addicted and it’s awful. We’d been around this before with vaping.
He manages to disclose that he’d actually been smoking multiple times a day for several days for several weeks before we had this blowout on Friday night. So he was pretty addicted to it. Which is his genetic cross to bear.
We have another fight and he leaves again. This time he leaves his phone. But it’s daytime and I’m less concerned. But I’m so tired of this shit. I can not tell you how many times either one of my parents were disgusted with the other or one of us and threatened to leave and never come back or inflict self-harm or kill themselves, or oust the other and never let them back in or get rid of the dog or say we might come home to an empty house. AS A CHILD I heard these things. I literally CAN NOT tell you how many times. I would go to sleep hearing them yell this stuff at each other, calling out to one of us, their children, as witnesses to the charges. At this point, I realize that I was wavering between my personal past and my current present and at times unable to know which emotions were coming from which situation or memory. I make a note to tell my therapist about this.
When he leaves he says he doesn’t want his phone because he wants his body to be discovered by dogs or something and that the only way we’d know it was him was by his dental records. Shit like that. So he takes off. Again: I am reeling and nearly unable to function, but there is this part of me, the Mother Energy that doesn’t give up and that also props me up and snickers about his “found by dogs” comment.
One brother takes off on foot to look for him. Another brother stays home by the phones in case something develops and he can be command center. My husband and I drive our cars looking for him. The other brother comes back and changes up for a bike to search. We are dispersed, looking for this kid who thinks no one cares about him.
Wherever he’s off to now, he has access to email because he sends a note to his father: “NOW WHAT?” Still raging against me and still wanting things his way, with the help of a friend, we manage to triangulate where he could be and where he could have access to email. My husband finds him and they start to talk. He sees my car and tells me to get lost.
No problem. Bye.
I leave him there with his father to disrespect and fight.
I return home and text this friend with an update.
Because I reach out to some friends of his, one mentions a situation that may be bringing my son a fair amount of shame or confusion. This friend agrees that perhaps it would be best to alert the police. That his threats of suicide can no longer go unnoticed (WHAT?!?). So we call the non-emergency number because I honestly don’t know if this is an emergency — because my bearings are off. In the same breath, this friend accuses him of manipulation and then tells me to call the 5-0.
Who are these people he hangs out with?
I explain to the dispatcher everything I know. Physical description, clothes, the last known place I saw him and my husband’s description. I’m crying to her, she’s a mom, she sympathizes. I tell her about the concerning comments, dental records, the secret he is carrying that might be shameful, she says, “OK, I have heard enough. We need to find him. I am putting out an alert to all officers in the area. We will find him, Mom. Don’t worry.”
As I hang up the phone, my husband walks in the doorway, an utter wreck. It did not go well. Their conversations were hostile and circular and defensive and riddled with angst. They were at an impasse and he had to make the hard choice of leaving our son where he was, with him calling after him. The last thing my husband saw in the rearview mirror as he drove away was our son calling out to him and crying. Between guttural sobs and heaves and cries, my husband relays his actions: “I had to do it. He has to hit bottom. If I picked him up we’d just go through this again. I have to let him go. I have to move away, it’s killing me and ruining our family. He doesn’t care. I have to choose us. I just left my son to die or live and I have to do it because it’s killing me to live like this.”
My heart sinks. This generous and gentle man, who comes from his own family with its own stories of upheaval, has had to endure it again in the family he created. He slumps down from the sink, where he was heaving and sobbing, releasing long-held trauma and pain from who knows where and when; on the verge of vomiting, heaves. We cry together, like Karen and Henry Hill in Goodfellas after the FBI raid on our bathroom floor holding one another. This is marriage sometimes.
“Mom, the police are here. Mom.” Says one of my other sons. I get up and go to speak with the female officer at the door. She’s in a mask. I have to turn around and get mine to join her outside our door. She’s asking questions about our son, last known place, last known clothing. I tell her my husband just left him at this location. She radios it in.
My husband joins us on our front stoop. I step inside to read a text. It’s from another friend of his. I tell her about the disagreement between our son and his father. She says she’s going to go look for him. I say, “ok, thanks. Be careful and keep an eye out for the police.”
As we are talking, my son’s friend pulls up the street with a squad car behind her. She has my son in her passenger seat. He gets out and greets the officers. He pulls a mask from his pocket and puts it on. The officer who was interviewing me and my husband excuses herself to speak with our son. At the same time I am both so proud of his composure and respect for the police and enraged that he is putting us all through this again.
Everyone is six feet apart, this all feels like a dream.
He walks to sit between them, gesticulating and explaining things. He makes, loudly, some comment about how marijuana is no longer a criminal offense and that it’s just a $25 fine. The officers agree with him, he looks at me smugly. I already knew this. I can’t believe that I’m being shown up in front of police at my own house.
He’d make an excellent lawyer, I muse to myself.
But I shift back to this situation: “I don’t give a crap. It’s not allowed here. It’s a nonstarter. It won’t be allowed here.” Before I turn away, I throw up my arms, look at the officer with the “THIS IS WHAT IT’S LIKE” and she said to him, “it’s not your home; their rules.”
She comes back in to inform us of our rights and his rights and to remind us of the executive order in the commonwealth against lawful evictions due to the pandemic. So that’s out. Even so, a lawful eviction requires a 30-day process which includes him being served by a sheriff’s deputy and judges do not look favorably upon parents who want to punt their kids.
Things calm down, he goes to his room and seethes. I go to my bed and seethe. His brothers are walking on egg shells. I go for a run on my treadmill and exhaust myself that way. I call for a family meeting at 6.
It turns out we are all together (this is what he does — he fills space with his energy if he wants to manipulate and turn people off) so I said, “should we just start talking now?” I get a wooden spoon which is meant to be the “talking stick” so that things can be relatively calm or at least orderly. That was a silly idea.
We go ‘round in what’s becoming something on A&E television. We are having an intervention in my family room. One of his brothers COMPLETELY lashes out and tells it like it is. The other says, “I have nothing to to say because he’s laughing at all of us…” so he leaves. I start crying and his father explains to him what it felt like to abandon him early in the day. “I had to do it.”
The bickering and defensiveness is like a cinder block firewall. He rejects everything we say. Refuses to meet us on anything. Mocks us, causes hurt and pain. Then … something cracks.
“I have NEVER FELT loved here. Do you know what it’s like to walk around in the house populated with people who are supposedly your family and feel like you’re a stranger or a distant cousin who causes hushes around the table when he enters a room?
Ever since I can remember, Mom, I have never felt as though you love me. I have never felt safe around you. I have to BUST MY ASS to get a compliment out of you. Do you not think I don’t feel it when you and others have your private jokes or New Yorker cartoons and you don’t even BOTHER to share them with me?
Ever since I was small. When you came after me with a knife and chased me into the playroom yelling at me, calling me names and telling me you’d rather be dead…”
My defenses go up.
“Are you talking about that time when I was preparing dinner and you were pestering your brothers and I had to come in to get you to cut it out?! Are we going over this again? I have apologized to you for this…
A KNIFE?! I never had a knife. Your father had to pull me away from you, yes, I was enraged, but I thought I explained this to you, I had PMDD — an episodic hormonal disorder which changed my moods and is like postpartum depression — and I was having an episode. I thought I went over this with you…”
I am exhausted from having to defend myself again about this story. I have always owned my part in this. My walls start to go up.
He is crying. It is unbearable for me. I resist EVERY urge to be impatient, to get up and be offended. He gets up, with tears in his eyes, streaming down his face, says, “Did you ever love me? Was I a mistake?”
His face contorts into shapes and colors I hope I never see again: wracked with emotional pain, ruby, muscles doing things I didn’t think were capable since his birth, when we spent those first early breaths together. That place where my uterus was aches and contorts as well. My insides are twisting.
I am in a different place now.
I sort of stand up and make room for him on the couch next to me. I take him in my arms. We are one. It is like no one else is in the room and I feel him, his pain, his heart, his breathing and crying. I hold him and I say, “I get this. I get this. I did this to you. I know it now. I scared you. I didn’t meant to scare you and I am so sorry that I did. I knew it must have been frightening, but I thought my explanation was enough. God, I have done it — I undid the very thing I hung up as my credo to be as a mother: a protector and I violated that. I know what it’s like to feel like the blame or reason for your mother’s rage, I know what it’s like to feel unsafe amongst the very people who brought you into this world, who profess to love you unconditionally and without reservation and then make you wonder what’s wrong with you and if you will ever be OK. And I scared you. I make you wonder if I ever loved you or if you would be safe with me. You had to prove and enforce your presence again and again for me: loudly, through action, shouting from the safety of your cave to your MOTHER. The very person who says she loves you — you fear. Why? Because she scared you and you never know if she will be there because if she leaves, you’re the one to blame, so why not fuck up your life? No one loves you, no one has expectations and dreams for you. Why dream? Why try? ‘I’m going to leave anyway, may as well make it sooner rather than later.’ No fun waiting for that other shoe to drop. I get it. Oh my sweet sweet boy. I am SO sorry. I understand it all. And I have done it to you. And in doing it to you, you are my teacher. You are showing me CLEARLY how I —even in the midst of trying not to— have set us on a course for ruin as a unit. You are putting things back together — right now. I love you. I love you more than you will ever know and I am different. RIGHT NOW, I am different. You were NOT an accident or a mistake. I wanted three kids. You fit in here in your own way. Just like I do or your brothers do. No one has straight edges, we connect. We make this beautiful broken mosaic. I love you.”
He was me, waiting outside my mother’s bedroom. Sitting, cold, hungry and I never knew. Was he “keeping me company”? Had I just re-created myself at 5 and let it multiply over and over and over again. We must have held each other for half an hour, crying and hugging and holding each other. I stroked his hair. We had to come up for air and my other son said, “Mom’s not crazy. She’s just a crazy strong mom.”
With runny eyes and a puffy face, I sniffled, “Without going into details, none of you were a mistake. You all know how that goes on, but you were all sought, prayed for and planned. Never anything but a gift.”
Eventually we unpeeled ourselves from one another, snotty, tired and raw. I took a shower. He went to his room. He stayed home that night. Exhausted.
I wish I could say it ended there.
He asked me for half a xanax (.125mg) to help him sleep and I said I’d think about it but that he would likely be ok without it. That moment at the medicine cabinet when he saw my pills the night before jiggered in my head and the notion occurred to me to move the bottle, but I didn’t.
A few hours later he comes to us as we are watching Fargo (trying to have a normal night) and says he’s good — he doesn’t need the Xanax and starts acting all weird and talking about how people just need to get over shit and that he is over everything and that he doesn’t care about what his friends told me and they just have to get over it all.
His father and I look at each other. My radar is up: He’s on something. Again. But I’m exhausted and as long as he’s home, I’m not going to sweat it. Going around the block again with him will do me in. I will commit myself to a facility if I have to go through last night and earlier today again.
We go to bed. I lie down.
I have a suspicion. I go to my medicine cabinet and reach for my Xanax. Four halves remain. Out of the dozen or so full tablets and handful of halves I had not 18 hours before, four halves remain.
“My Xanax is almost all gone.” “Shit” says my husband. “I’m not going to make a stink, but he won’t get away with this.”
Because I want to keep the peace in the household for the night and I know that what was remaining was largely low dosage, that if he took it, he would mellow out, but because we’ve moved all the alcohol out to our shed and hidden the liquor cabinet key, if it’s just Xanax, he should be largely ok. But my filial operative mode kicks in again and I won’t let this slide and I go confront him.
“My lawfully prescribed Xanax is almost all gone. I have only four halves from roughly 20 tablets remaining from when I took a half of one before I went to sleep after last night’s shit show circus.”
”I don’t know what you’re talking about. I didn’t do it.” He says, but it’s more like he murmurs, man. Like Jim Morrison is saying it.
I say, “Ok,” and leave for my bedroom. “Whoever took them is in violation of federal law.”
In my mind, I wonder if what I told him a long time ago is on repeat in his mind: “the day I don’t give a shit and fight with you is the sad day for you. That means I’ve checked out. That I am done trying to help you and that you’re on your own.”
Naturally, he starts to follow me. He protests to my accusation, which I didn’t make. His father tells him it’s all good. Go to bed or do your thing…
The next morning I wake up at 4:45. I can’t sleep anymore. I feel powerless and I have to shift myself back into a space where I do not feel like a victim.
I come down here, to this office and open my iPad and start a document that outlines rules for allowing him to stay here. I need something that feels real.
It starts off humbly enough and then I decide, “shit, I may as well just go for it and make some really awesome rules… rules that will turn him off so much he will leave as soon as he gets a job…”
At 6am I wrapped it up. It was deeply therapeutic and I printed it. Brought it to my husband who was beginning to wake. I fell back to sleep.
An hour or so later, I woke up to the sound of my husband putting on loud pants — they’re like warmup pants.
He announced, “I’m taking him to the Lamb Center. He said he can’t do this anymore. That he isn’t sleeping and that he is destroying our family. That he has to leave.”
“Ok.” I say, barely able to speak from exhaustion, drama and hurt.
Our son comes in, asking to say goodbye.
“Goodbye,” I say. Whispering and exhausted. I feel like I looked like a haggard octogenarian in her bathrobe and nightgown under her sheets. My hair a mess, my voice barely audible. Like the elderly woman in Moonstruck when Johnny Camareri is visiting his mother in Sicily on her death bed. Her.
“I can’t do this anymore,” he says.
“Do what?” I ask. “There’s a lot you shouldn’t be doing, so which is it? I won’t fight you anymore; I am depleted. I have given you my A Game. Your life is yours to live however you want it. I will print up the lawful eviction papers on Monday and get that process started, so that if you change your mind, you can’t come back — I won’t ever have another weekend like this again. I will leave all of you if you pull this shit, so you’re right: it’s best you leave.”
I ask his father, who is at his wit’s end to hand him my Magna Carta for living here. Immediately he starts to snort and scoff and balk. “Are you serious?? This is so … OMYGOD. You are like the worst…”
“No. See, these are all optional. You don’t have to do them because you have decided you won’t be living here.”
“Yeah. Right. I know. That’s why I’m leaving. I can’t make demands like ‘it’s her or me’ because you’re Mom — it’s wrong of me and shitty — my brothers don’t deserve this…”
“No, they don’t. You’ve traumatized this family. You’ve held us emotionally hostage many times. I have to make a choice and I have to let you go. I will not let you get high here, and if you continue to smoke, you will have to leave. I grew up with addicts and I WILL NOT do it again. I will not spend my life nursing one more person who has shit buried so deep they refuse to address it.”
I’m still so sad about all of this. I can’t believe this is happening. I know that the moment we shared on the couch yesterday was transformative, but he stole from me just hours later — the Xanax. I know he did. In my heart I would do anything to help him, but the only thing that will help him is to not help him. I would be in his way and I know this.
“I need to tell you something,” He says.
He moves to the opposite side of the bed and sits so he is facing away from me. “I did it.” He said.
“Ok, I’ll play. Did what? There’s lots this could pertain to.” I say.
“I mean I took it. I took it.” He said.
“Took what? Again, there are so many options. And if you’re going to admit to something, you know me better: I will NOT help you out by filling in your blanks.”
“I took your Xanax last night.” He said.
“Oh. I know.” I said. “But now you’re going to hear it: YOU STOLE FROM ME A LAWFUL PRESCRIPTION I HAVE TO HELP ME SLEEP WHEN I TUSSLE FROM INSOMNIA — A LOT OF WHICH STEMMING FROM SHIT YOU PULL — FOR MORE THAN 3 HOURS.” I have had that prescription which gets filled twice a year for three years. He stole something from me that was so hard for me to ask for because my mother overdosed on Xanax at least twice in my life.
He started to cry again. I asked “Why? You’re getting what you want now. This should be a good day for you. You get to live with other homeless people who’ve decided their lifestyle, as you call it, is more important than their future, dignity or honor. That despite having all these blessings thrown at you, you’re going to piss them away in a homeless shelter getting high with other people. I’ll be sure to drop off some toothbrushes and socks for you all every few weeks. Keep your phone, but don’t ever leave it anywhere, it will be stolen.”
He’s nodding and crying. He’s shaking he’s in so much psychic pain. But he’s not a child anymore so I can’t assuage his pain, offer him my love, or tell him it will be ok because I honestly don’t know. I don’t know where his boogeyman is.
Something shifts. The energy shifts in the room and I feel as though he’s handing me the reins for a bit.
“Do you want to stay?” I ask him.
“Mmmhmm, yeah.” He says between sniffles. He’s seen the Lamb Center. We have donated food, healthcare supplies and other items to people who go there. People don’t live there — it’s more like a cafeteria with a shower and a locker.
“Do you have any ideas for how that would look? What would you do? I know you hate the rules I wrote, and if I’m being honest, I have drafted so many papers like that which you just piss on, so I did it more for me. So what would continuing to live here look like for you? Does your therapist know about your lifestyle? How you’ve been living? I know for a fact that clients are fired for this behavior, so you might be shit out of luck and try some honesty with them for once.”
He ends up texting his therapist and asks for some time that day due to an urgent matter. We already told them about what happened the day before and the night before that, so odds are good we will get some time in.
We end up having a 28 minute call with his therapist, who is NO DUMMY. Sharp as a tack and he is lucky to be under their care. Rules are put in place, starting with a drug test in two days. Then a session, then back to weekly sessions.
Later that afternoon, I made a conclusion with him: “If you continue to want this smoking lifestyle, you are choosing those people over your family and that’s your choice, but I will not allow you to live here. I have made that clear. You are a totally different person when you are high. If you don’t think you are addicted, you’re confused. Your therapist will help you understand it all. When you get high, you are a smug asshole and disparaging and sometimes caustic. I won’t have it. But if you have to have it, if it’s SOOOO important to you, then you will have to leave. If you do not leave, and you choose to stay, I will also require weekly or random drug tests and you will pay for them.
It’s been three weeks. Things feel decidedly different. He is actively present in his own life. People, opportunities and health have manifested in a way that makes me believe more than I ever have, in the law of attraction, that what we resist persists and what we think about we become.
He made a breakthrough with his therapist yesterday: that he hates being told what to do, and until it’s his idea to do something, he won’t do it. Like anyone else: you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them drink it.
He is flawed, because he is human. He is a brilliant teacher. He is patient and loving. He is fierce. His life is his own.
What have I learned? That I needed to get on my own couch to heal my own wounds from my parents before I could help my son(s) heal their wounds from me. No matter how hard we try, we will screw this shit up. We have to be ready for those moments of honest vulnerability to show us our true hearts and let love lead the way.
Last week, my family went to one of our favorite haunts: The Outer Banks of North Carolina, or “OBX” as it is known to the anointed.
The OBX is a geographic miracle: at points it is less than 1/4 mile wide with sound on one side and the mighty Atlantic on the other. The fact that the area is still above sea water (i.e., dry) astounds me every time we visit.
The scenery is beautiful from Pea Island, with dunes 20’ high on either side of the road. As far as “pull over” areas go, there aren’t any, as just a few breezes will begin to reposition the dunes onto the travel lanes of NC 12, the road to and from OBX.
It rained the first four days. Wednesday to Friday, we had clear skies. On Thursday, my husband and I hit our 26th wedding anniversary. We were thrilled to celebrate with our sons, their friends and my beloved eldest niece. I didn’t care if it rained. The rental house had plenty of covered deck space to watch the sea and the storms. Just the fact of being away home, in quarantine, was tonic.
We arrived when a storm was clearing and we left when one was beginning. I had to rush to close up my car. The drops were as big as quarters.
Because the storms had been hanging over the OBX for a few days, the water was turbid and the waves were huge; at least 8’ above my son’s head as he and his girlfriend played in the sea and destroyed my nerves from waiting for them to come in frolicked. The water coming in had at least three breakers before finally crashing at its final destination.
These multiple wave breakpoints created troughs in the ocean floor, likely several inches to a foot deeper than the other areas where there were no breakers.
I am a Great Lakes girl. Waves are something that I’m familiar with, and there’s sometimes an undertow, but nothing like a rip current. Undertows are below the surface. Rip currents are ON the surface. Because giant waves are exclusive to the sea, I have always considered myself to be respectful and wary of the sea. I trust it, but always verify. Never turn my back to it.
On Thursday, because the sea had settled somewhat, I decided to join my niece in leisurely wave bobbing. My mostly grown children and their friends were still in the house putting on various degrees of anti-sun goo.
She is a tall and very strong young woman. She is experienced with the sea. She is savvy to the sea as she has likely swum in maybe four of the seven.
I am not as tall as she. I have an app on my watch that tells me the tides. The main rule of rip currents, other than stay the hell away from them, is to not go into the water within an hour of low tide, on either side of the clock, but especially close to the lowest point, because that’s when a rip current is the strongest.
For some reason, I said the hell with that and went into the water. I didn’t have any food in my belly, so there was no 15-minute rule to ignore. I also ignored my own rule of: if you go into the water, make sure someone is on shore to help if needed. I wanted to be brave. I wanted to show my husband, who grew up on the shores of Delaware, that I could handle the waves. I should have put myself on restriction.
Something in him impelled him to join me and my niece in the water.
My first step into the ocean from the shoreline put me at 15” depth, solely because of the waves crashing at that point for days. Immediately, the water was just below my knees. About twenty more steps, and it’s up to my ribs. The water is refreshing but not terribly cold. The waves can carry my weight and I can enjoy the ride. My feet are still landing on the ocean floor. All is well.
A couple of big ones come in and I had two choices: get slammed or dive under the crest or into the wall of water on the approach. I dove into the wall and avoided the washout. A couple more waves like this come in and I start to lose my footing… I don’t feel the floor anymore. But it’s been only 30 seconds or so, how bad can it be, right?
Bob bob bob some more. No more footfalls and something in me says, “maybe take a look around, check your distance from the shore…”
To my astonishment, I’m about 150’ feet from the shore. My husband is about 12’ away from me, but closing in. My niece is slightly beyond me, deeper into the water, by about 10’.
I have a small “moment” (as I like to call them) and say, “Holy shit, >name of niece and husband<, we are in a rip current. I can’t feel the ocean floor….”
Immediate HORROR overcomes me and by this time, my husband is RIGHT next to me.
All my training in yogic breathing and meditation is now sealed in my mind palace and I don’t have the key. I’ve left it on my beach chair.
I start to struggle emotionally and alert my niece and husband that I’m not ok, that I’m fearful for my life and that I don’t know what to do — EXCEPT I DO KNOW WHAT TO DO, but doing what I’m supposed to do in a rip current feels like the COMPLETE opposite of what my instinct says to do.
My instinct to survive says, “swim, get out, survive.” My awareness of rip currents, even before this moment, in fact for years preceding this moment, is to get on my back, float with the current and let it take me where it will take me and then eventually dump me somewhere and then I can swim back in, or in the more recent studies I’ve seen on rip currents, they magically take swimmers back in …
I have mentally decided that 1) I don’t know where the fuck I am in the water relative to how far the shore line is. 2) I went in at exactly the wrong time: within an hour of low tide. 3) I’m a fucking emotional wreck. 4) I’m getting really tired. 5) The last thing I want to do is just ride this out, because of “1.” 6) What if this thing doesn’t bring me back in but instead spits me out 800’ from shore. I’M SUPPOSED TO SWIM BACK IN?!
So it gets even worse: my emotions. Meanwhile, I’m apologizing to my husband. He’s telling me, “stop it” >pant pant pant< and somehow he gets the lung power — he whistles his amazing DadWhistle, gets our eldest son’s attention and shouts in his most DadVoice “Get the board! YOUR MOTHER IS IN TROUBLE! NOW!!!”
Meanwhile my niece is also shouting to our son to get the board as she is getting back in to shore. She then rushes out of the water with the intention to grab our other boogie board for my husband who is now starting to scare me because he’s really tired too. He’s been repeatedly shoving me through cresting waves; I feel like a piece of soggy cardboard.
We’ve been at this for at least a minute, trying to calm each other down, stay afloat, navigate this thing, and not die.
On our 26th wedding anniversary.
In front of our children.
Three-hundred and fifty miles from home.
Every second felt like an hour. As our son runs through the water, he passes our niece and tells us when he gets to us, that she’s coming back for Dan. Which she did with surprising speed. It’s as if she had wings.
My son plops me on the yellow board, but he’s exhausted too because he had to fight the incoming tide’s waves to get to me and his father to help. He is starting to get a little unnerved by all the tumult and I could hear alarm in his voice. I suspect he’s concerned about how wiped out we were too. He couldn’t get his bearings.
I think about this time we are on minute three. We are making headway back in, but I’m still HAVING AN OUT OF BODY EXPERIENCE. I had no clue where we were, relative to the shore, because I couldn’t get a view — I was on my back. My son was tired and my husband… where was he? Was he ok? What about my niece?!
Oh GOD, is this it?! Am I going to die out here?
My son tells me, “Kick Mom. Like really hard, empty the tank.” (This is a rowing phrase.) I am crying and I am exhausted and I am scared and I can’t kick. Instead I choose none of the options he offered and decide to hyperventilate. “MOM. GET IT TOGETHER. YOU HAVE TO DO YOUR YOGA BREATHING AND KICK. I NEED YOU TO HELP ME. NOW.” So I helped. I started my kicking, and the sound of his voice scared me into gear. I started to kick so hard, because I knew that if I didn’t I was putting him at risk. We all hear so many stories about how the helpers of people in the water in near-drowning experiences die.
I am a mother. I couldn’t bear the thought of losing him or of being the cause of his . . . I can’t write it. So I won’t.
So I kick. I decide to be a survivor, but I was still afraid.
“Mom, I can feel sand. It’s here. I can feel it,” he says with incredible hope and relief.
So I try. I drop one leg to test. “I CAN’T!” I cry. We must’ve hit a trough in the floor. “IT’S NOT THERE!” I say. I’m going to die here.
Suddenly the urge to call to more people on shore occurs to me. “HELP. CAN YOU HELP?!”
“Mol, who are you talking to? Why are you calling out?” Dan asks, exhausted, confused, almost angrily — exasperated.
All I could think of was “human chain.” I don’t want to put more people at risk, but I’m so delirious and exhausted that I thought a human chain would solve our problem and there were so many people on shore, surely, it could happen.
I’m so tired. Crying, Salty. Still kicking, water coming up behind us, washing over my face. My hair is in my eyes and over my mouth. Can’t see. Can’t breathe. I’m so depleted.
I felt sand under my foot.
My husband pushes my board hard toward the shore. I can hear the urgency in his growl to get it done. My niece stands up and pulls him in while he holds onto the board. The water is about hip high now. We are 20’ from shore.
We stand up and walk out of the water.
My son and niece bid their adieus and collapse wherever they ended up on their towels.
Dan and I sit on the boogie board that I rode in on. I sit there. Crying. Breathing. Shaking. Unmanageable, desperate, grateful … shaking and crying. The sun is on my skin and there’s sand under my ass. The remnants of a just-crashed wave rolls up to us and I startle.
“It’s ok. You’re safe,” says Dan.
“We’re safe.” says I.
We lean on each other’s shoulders. We sit there and breathe. I feel a >tap tap tap< on my wrist. It’s my Apple Watch with a prompt: “Swimming workout detected. Would you like to record?”
This is one anniversary I won’t ever forget.
Dan and I are pretty good shape. He runs or rides his bike several miles, several days a week. I had just gone for a run the day before and had practiced a vigorous vinyasa two days before that. I work out at home all the time. I had just done some yoga on the beach before it all happened.
This thing nearly killed us.
When I got back to shore, I went on YouTube to look for rip current videos and began immediately to share them with our beach team via our “OBX” chat thread.
I learned that in a standard rip current, one that is not connected to any big storms, that people can be pulled out at a speed of one to two feet per second. In a storm-related rip current, the speed is up to eight feet per second, which NO OLYMPIC CHAMPION can best.
I don’t know how fast ours was, and I’m good with that. There was a storm two days before that and that was the third day in a row of near-constant successive storms.
I couldn’t stop shaking. I couldn’t stop replaying what had just happened. I’m extremely well versed in therapy, in “ruts” and the risks of “intractable thinking.” I was afraid I was going to really mess myself up. Yet I couldn’t calm down enough to slow my breathing to where I could get ahold of my thoughts.
Yoga. said something in my head.
So I did a headstand. It calmed me instantly. I was able to balance on my head for almost a full minute. Then I did another. It helped so much.
But it didn’t last. I couldn’t sleep well that night. I felt as I laid on my back that I was gasping for air. That I was gulping air. I felt like I was sinking. I took .125mg Xanax. I slept well.
The next night, I was marginally better, but I wasn’t going to take Xanax. I took Benadryl and did legs up the wall, a yoga pose, instead. It helped.
I shared a brief synopsis of this on FaceBook. I heard from many people about their experiences with rip currents and of their witnessing the sad outcomes of people who weren’t as lucky as we were to come out. Experienced surfers, average beach goers, stories about people who saw others struggle and tried to help but couldn’t save everyone. People shared some really intimate stuff.
The OBX, in particular Cape Hatteras (which is very close by where we stayed) is called “the graveyard of the Atlantic” … did you know that? I didn’t until last week. More than 600 ships have wrecked there.
I went back in — for a bit, thigh high — the next day. Dan never let me go. I bobbed in a wave or two, but I’d had enough.
My perspective on a lot of things has changed.
I had therapy today. My therapist defines trauma as a negative event that changes your life; something that feels close to death or is positively monumental enough to change your appreciation of life, that has a “before X and an after X” delineation. I considered this event to be something traumatic.
We did something called “recent event processing,” a cousin to EMDR to process the event. “EMDR is geared more for PTSD, which the DSM-5 defines as something that occurred at least six months prior,” my therapist explained. What I experienced “is PTS,” she said. Some things that came up were super deep, tangential to my upbringing, but we had to stay on task to process the rip current.
I came out of that EMDR-esque session resolved. I wouldn’t describe how I feel as a “new lease on life” or a “second chance.” I’m grateful as hell to be here, but I don’t want to turn what happened to me into a cliché.
The reality is that I am going to live the way I always have, but with more assurance that I really have a reason to be here. I’m going to be less concerned with disappointing people. That doesn’t mean I don’t care about people; to the contrary. I care about the bigger picture enough to risk upsetting one or two people. I see the forest for the trees.
I can’t give what I don’t have, so whatever I touch or influence will be what I believe is best for everyone I serve. I don’t have to agree with people anymore to do what I think is best. I am ok with disappointing some people in order to do what I think is right.
I’m humbled by this entire event. My child and niece saved our lives. They risked their own. I know I didn’t “do anything wrong” — but it’s been hard to shake the feeling of responsibility.
They did what I would’ve done. They are beautiful people … and their response was “well, that’s over…” and within 30 minutes they went back out and frolicked like usual.
To my selfless, courageous and strong son, my relentless and giving husband and my strong, brilliant and brave niece: Thank you. You’re stuck with me.