Why So Much Pain?

"The roses rarest essence lives in the thorns." ~Rumi

“The rose’s rarest essence lives in the thorns.” ~Rumi

Last week I spent close to four hours trying to prevent a student from harming herself. She was a college freshmen with a history of depression and suicidal thoughts. Three days into the new semester, she decided to withdraw from school. The decision was wreaking havoc with her fragile emotional state. I kept her with me in my office until we could meet with the dean of students to discuss the process. She cried almost nonstop the entire hour we were alone.

After our meeting with the dean, I walked her over to see a mental health counselor because she’d admitted to us that she had thoughts of harming herself. As I sat in the waiting room while she met with a counselor, the space began to fill with students, all going through some kind of personal pain or challenge, all wearing masks to cover it. It reminded me of a doctor’s office during flu season.

Why so much pain?

The student’s mother was waiting for her outside of the building when we exited. The older woman opened her arms; the daughter melted into them. It was clear the two shared a strong bond. As I watched the mother hold her child with so much love and tenderness, listened to her say all the right things, relief washed over me. I don’t know what I’d been expecting. Someone harsh and demanding? An enabler? A hot mess who would make things worse?

I left them and walked slowly back to my office, my thoughts turning to my third born son. Of my four boys, he’s the one I worry about most, the one I think of when I think of pain. He started smoking pot in high school, then progressed to drinking cough medicine. Yes, you read correctly. There is an ingredient in some cough medicine called dextromethorphan that can get you high if you drink enough of it.

I remember the day I found out. I’d been away at a conference for three days and was excited to tell my husband about it. Instead, he told me that he’d found a bunch of empty cough medicine bottles hidden in the attic crawl space. He’d brought one to the drugstore it came from and asked the pharmacist why a teenager would have this. That’s how he learned about dextromethorphan. My husband then went to the police station to report that the pharmacy was illegally selling cough medicine to minors.

My poor husband was crazed, desperate, didn’t know what else to do. He’d grown up watching his three older siblings turn into alcoholics while in their teens and early twenties. His household, led by a hard-working father and a kind, but enabling, stay-at-home mom, neither of whom drank, was filled with chaos and dysfunction. Somehow, my husband managed to avoid this fate, and became so anti-drugs he refused to even take a drag off a cigarette. Now the disease of addiction had entered his own home, his own son.

Why so much pain?

For my part, I was desperate to know why our son was doing something so dangerous. We’d done everything we knew how to be good parents and raise him right. My husband is one of the best fathers I know. Had something bad happened to him that he never told us about? Was he in some kind of emotional pain and seeking to self-medicate? I begged him to tell me the truth. He shook his head, rolled his eyes, and said nothing had happened, that he was fine.

Fine?

We contacted the school drug counselor, our son’s guidance counselor, and put him in a drug rehab. We went to family counseling. I told our adult sons, who no longer lived at home, and our parents. It was imperative to me to not let this become some dirty little secret that we kept hidden away. We needed to shine a light on the problem if we were going to solve it, and our son needed all the support and love he could get.

At the time, I couldn’t help but wonder what all these school staff and drug counselors thought of my husband and me. Did they assume we were bad parents? That we had some deep, dark family secret that drove our son to despair? That we were hot messes who’d damaged our son? Were they surprised to learn that we were ordinary people who’d been married many years, that we owned a home, had good jobs and educations, that we loved our child?

Then why so much pain?

This is why I do my best not to judge people. No person, no family, is immune to pain and suffering. There are kids from good families who go astray, kids raised in horrible conditions who find their way, and anything and everyone in between. The student I worked with last week has a sister at the university who is a stellar student, a tough and determined scholar who volunteers to mentor other students. She refused to leave her sister’s side to go to class until I assured her that I wasn’t going anywhere. I’d already told the student I was staying with her until her mother arrived; whether she liked it or not, she was stuck with me.

In the world of higher education that I inhabit, the increase of students in need of mental health services is a hot topic. It’s happening at campuses all across the country. What is driving all this pain? Is our obsession with technology, which leaves us too disconnected from nature and each other? Is it the constant exposure to violence on TV, in video games, and in music? We think it’s desensitizing our kids, but could it actually be making them more sensitive? Is it the high divorce rate? Social media? Or is it none of these things? Perhaps it’s always been there, but students are simply more likely to seek help now.

I wish I knew the answers so I could help make it better. As it stands, all I can do is love, listen, care, and empathize. When I need to process it all to save my sanity, I write. Sometimes even that’s not enough.

Image of rose with thorns via: http://www.pinterest.com/pin/406098091372548906

 

Overcoming Negativity

The other day I was seized by a bout of negativity so strong I nearly came undone. It was triggered by an acquaintance’s blog post. In it she expressed how exhausted she was from waking at 5:00 a.m. each morning to train for a triathlon, and then chasing her children around the rest of the day.

If there had been a dislike button after her post, I would have hit it.

It was not quite 7:00 a.m. when I read it. I’d already meditated and did some yoga, for all the good it did me, and was preparing for yet another grueling day at work. We’re in the middle of our busiest time of year, a six-week summer program for incoming undergraduate freshmen, and it’s intense. I’m talking 10 to 12 hour days, weekly one-on-one meetings with 30 students, countless workshops, programs, planning, meetings, putting out fires, and being on call for the residential staff 24/7.

As a result, I rarely see my kids, my house is a mess, and my husband and I are like strangers passing in the night. I’ve gotten into the habit of crying some days on my way to work. I had to give up wine, for God’s sake, for the six weeks because I need to be at the top of my game and it weakens my resolve.

But never mind all that. I mean, this poor woman was so exhausted from training and her children that she had to feign energy throughout the day while she took them on playdates, to the beach, and to the local pool. This poor woman whose husband, rumor has it, earns well over six figures. Who lives in a gorgeous McMansion. Who has a housekeeper and nanny. Who gets to spend a good portion of her time doing what she loves — working out, training, writing, being with her kids — because she, unlike me, doesn’t have to worry about making money or cleaning toilets.

To say that I felt angry, bitter, and jealous when I read her post would be a gross understatement. It is a side of myself that I’m not fond of, that I strive to overcome. But there it was, out in full force, and my day had hardly begun.

I thought of other stay-at-home moms I knew whose husbands’ incomes allowed for a similar lifestyle and I wanted to post on Facebook, If I hear one more well-to-do stay-at-home mother whine about how hard her life is I’m going to scream! How about doing everything you do, plus holding down a full-time job and doing all the house cleaning with little to no time to yourself? And BTW, if you can’t refrain from whining in your current circumstances, you’ll probably never be content.

Of course I didn’t post that. It’s only on my blog that I rant, because hardly any of my Facebook friends read it, thank God. Luckily, I was able to calm myself down by taking a few deep breaths and talking some sense into my negative mind.

I don’t want to be the kind of person who is jealous of other people’s lives. My life might not be exactly as I want it to be, but I have so much to be grateful for.

Yes, my job needs to change, and soon. Six years of summer programs is enough for anyone. I want and need more work/life balance. In the meantime, my students are really terrific and I know I make a positive difference in their lives.

I am healthy. I have healthy children. I have a pretty, albeit messy and somewhat outdated, home, but it’s mine and I love it.

I wouldn’t want any husband except my own, not for all the money in the world.

I don’t have a nanny, but my youngest son alternates weekdays in summer between my in-laws’ and my mother’s homes. They love to have him over.

Both of my parents are alive. The woman whose blog post triggered my downward spiral lost one of her parents at a young age. I can’t even imagine how much that must have hurt, and the impact it must still have on her life.

No one’s life is perfect, no matter how it might seem on the outside looking in. And if it is perfect, good for them! We should all be so fortunate. We should all wish each other and ourselves to be happy, healthy, safe, and prosper, and to know peace, joy, and love in our hearts and in our lives.

My negative reaction to this woman’s blog post had nothing to do with her life and everything to do with me and how I was feeling inside – exhausted, in desperate need of vigorous exercise, guilty for not being home more for my children. Thankfully, I was able to recognize this and make a conscious shift from being an angry, snarky bitch to moving one step closer to the woman I want to be.

Should I Wring My Son’s Neck or Hug Him?

The past few weeks have been an emotional roller coaster as I’ve waited, belly tight and heart in throat, to find out if my 17 year old son would graduate high school or not. It all hinged on senior English class. In spite of standardized test scores that are through the roof, and his teacher declaring he was one of the most talented writers in class, he was failing. He simply wasn’t doing the work.

His entire high school career, if you can even call it that, has been a roller coaster ride for our entire family. Flunking classes, skipping classes, experimenting with drugs. My husband and I tried everything we could think of as parents to help him get it together — grounding, taking away privileges, family counseling, threats, encouragement, even a 10 week stint in an after school drug rehab for potheads. Nothing worked. Finally we realized that the only thing left to do was let go and leave the responsibility of his life outcomes in his hands, with the caveat that if this crap was still going on when he turned 18 in August he would need to find somewhere else to live.

The email from his English teacher came as I was standing in line at the grocery store deli awaiting my turn: Hi Aaron, I just wanted to let you know that you earned a 90 on your final exam; your essay was well written, insightful, and fully developed. This means that you pass senior English with a 61.

I didn’t realize how loudly I’d cried out, “Thank God!” until a few people standing close by turned to look at me. I immediately called my husband with the news, and of course that’s precisely when my deli number was called. I rattled out my order, ignoring the deli guy’s irritated expression. Yes, I was one of those rude people talking on my cell phone while he was trying to talk to me, and I didn’t care.

As I told my husband that our son would indeed graduate, without warning the tears began to fall. Weeks, no, years of built up stress, of feeling like a failure as a mother, of wondering why I was so good at helping college students find academic success, yet my own son was a hot mess, melted away in that moment. He would graduate. This difficult phase was officially behind us.

The deli guy softened his stance upon seeing my tears. I managed to get through the rest of the order before texting my other sons, mom, dad, and brother with the news. This incited a flurry of texts, ranging from pure joy to my brother warning me not to give God too much of the credit, in response to my “Thank God!”. It might very well be God, I told him, cause I’ve been praying my ass off for weeks.

The two saving graces in this whole situation have been my son’s job and my brother. About three months ago my son started working at a popular family-owned restaurant in town. He has not missed a shift or been late once. Not even on the day I took away the keys to his grandfather’s old jalopy, which he’s been driving, as punishment. Somehow, he managed to get to and from work anyway. I strongly suspect, due to the fact that it was nearly midnight when he arrived home from work, that he walked the two miles. Clearly, he wasn’t lazy. He was simply unmotivated by school.

As for my brother, his high school academic experience was similar. He barely scraped by, was in danger of not graduating, and made it at the last minute, in part thanks to notes written by my stepfather’s friend’s dentist, claiming my brother had dental work done on several of the days he was absent. He didn’t finish college, and spent several years after high school helping an uncle with his painting business, when he felt like getting up and working. Then, almost magically overnight, everything changed in his mid-20s. By chance he met the owner of a start-up technology company, got a job as an inside salesperson, and made $90,000 his first year there. He has since moved on to outside sales, client management, and is highly successful. An entrepreneur at heart, he’s also looking into founding a non-profit organization that, ironically, focuses on providing educational opportunities to disadvantaged populations.

So there’s hope after all.

Granted, my son might not end up as successful as my brother. Then again, who knows what the future holds? As for me, though I’m beyond thrilled and relieved that he’ll be graduating, there’s a part of me that would like to wring his neck for all the hell he put us through. The other part just wants to hug him.