Ever since I was diagnosed with depression a year and half ago I have been hyper aware of physical and mental changes within my body. A flutter in my chest signaling a bout of anxiety, an intense overreaction to an argument between siblings or a melancholy mood that lasts longer than a day or two has me fearing the worst.
The “funk” from a few days ago lasted longer than I would have liked and had me questioning whether this was a “normal” down week just like everyone has or whether a call to the doctor was in order for a dosage change. Even a healthy dose of reality — an afternoon spent with a good friend whose husband’s body is slowly declining from ALS (Lou Gherig’s disease), and a visit with a childhood friend and her mom this weekend, the latter of whom I just learned is dying from a terminal brain tumor — wasn’t enough to pull me out of the negativity. What did I have to feel sad and frustrated about? These people were dealing with life threatening illnesses and facing it head on with a smile and a healthy dose of optimism, and here I was mulling about because my kids didn’t pick up after themselves, my adolescent daughter had retreated in a world of her own and wouldn’t talk to me except for an occasional “Huh” or “I don’t know” (though a lot can be understood from her oh-so-loving looks), and, although my son’s concussion wasn’t healing as quickly as we all hoped it would, a trip to the neurologist last week had confirmed that his test scores showed “a pattern of healing.”
“Get over it and pull your head out of your ass,” my mind was screaming, but as I have learned over the years, sometimes your mind says one thing and your body reacts in a way all its own. Even a scheduled day trip to visit my sister and my almost two-year-old niece to bring her her birthday present (a dress-up box filled with costumes ranging from knights and princesses to kitty cats, tigers and fire fighters, like her daddy), weren’t enough to pull me out of the doldrums. If the anticipation of a visit with a two year old, who lives her life without a care in the world and who can fall it to a fit of giggles merely because you ask her if she’s turning 10 on Tuesday, isn’t enough to turn things around, then I was in some serious trouble. I wasn’t just excited about seeing my sister and niece either, I was also excited about the trip because it would provide me with six uninterrupted hours of quality time with my daughter which, hopefully, would allow me entrance into her twelve-year-old life and mind, if only for a brief moment.
Two hours into the trip with a daughter who continued to meet my attempts at conversation with shrugs and, by this time, the all-too-familiar “I don’t know,” had me second guessing whether this trip would revive me or have me checking into the psych ward at the local hospital upon my return home. Where had my little girl gone? She was so vibrant and strong only a year ago, and here I was sitting next to a child on the brink of “teendom” who looked as if she had the weight of the world on her shoulders. “Is something wrong?” I asked. She replied with another shrug.
I felt my elevated mood begin to wane and her uncommunicativeness was beginning to worry me. Luckily, by this point, we were almost to my sister’s where reinforcements awaited.
A few hours later I was sitting in my sister’s backyard watching our daughters play and giggle, and it made me smile to see the 12-year-old who was so silent and seemingly unhappy just hours before beaming as her young cousin dragged her by the hand from wagon to playhouse to slide … My daughter was the center of her two-year-old cousin’s universe and she was relishing every minute of the attention.
Later that night I took solace in the words of author Mary Pipher, author of 1994 best-selling book “Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls.” I had had the book in my home library since the late 90s and had begun reading it on countless occasions, but it always ended up back on the bookshelf gathering dust within a day or two, not even the first chapter completed. But I picked it up again recently, hoping to find something within its pages that would help me reach my daughter who seemed to be fading into the landscape of our lives. There I sat in my sisters living room after an afternoon of watching my daughter light up at the mere sound of her two-year-old cousin’s voice, and found the words that began to put my heart at ease:
“Girls become fragmented (in adolescence), their selves split into mysterious contradicitons. They are sensitive and tenderhearted, mean and competitive, superficial and idealistic. They are confident in the morning and overwhelmed with anxiety by nightfall. They rush through their days with wild energy and then collapse into lethargy. They try on new roles every week — this week the good student, next week the delinquent and the next, the artist. And they expect their families to keep up with these changes.”
And right there, in my sisters living room, it all came back to me. Laughing behind a friends back because she was still wearing dresses in sixth grade, and then feeling guilty about it when another “friend” ratted me out. Being nervous about dancing with boys at the school dances, and then crying when the boy I wanted to ask me to dance didn’t. Quitting chorus in seventh grade because it was no longer cool and joining the band because it was, then quitting band in eighth grade because its coolness factor had been significantly underwhelming compared to that of the yearbook committee. The bullying and the name-calling in high school because I talked to a boy that someone else liked, and the continuation of that when I dated someone those same people did not even associate with.
For my daughter, this is all just beginning, and she is going through what every other adolescent girl, myself included, has gone through in middle school. She is trying to figure out where she fits in in the social hierarchy that is junior high, what she likes, what she doesn’t.She’s wondering what it is that makes her happy, what frustrates her, and what causes the uncontrollable tears that often appear out of nowhere. She is at the cusp of declaring her independence from her father and I, but still needs us to be there, to comfort her and to be understanding when she turns to her friends for advice instead of us.
On the three-hour ride home, I used my newfound enlightenment to begin a conversation with my daughter about the changes I was seeing in her. I talked to her about her declining interest in sports and her recent infatuation with horses. I praised her for working so hard in school, and for still getting good grades, despite all the changes happening within her mind and body. My daughter began to answer my questions in complete sentences, and then, surprised me even more when she broke down. Giant crocodile tears streamed down her cheeks and she began to gasp for breath as the floodgates opened.
She had been keeping a secret from me for weeks and it was tearing her apart. “Please don’t be mad and don’t yell at me,” she pleaded. I took a deep breath and braced myself for the worst and when she revealed her secret, all the tension oozed out of my body along with the breath I had been holding.
My daughter had failed a quiz; A first for her. She was devastated and I wanted to hug her for that (and would have had I not been going 70 mph on Interstate 495). We talked briefly about how I could help her with the math she was struggling with, and then she opened up about how she had been feeling lately (lethargic and unenergized), friends (a friend had hurt her feelings by saying something about her to someone else that wasn’t true) and she was nervous and excited to play in the final at a local soccer tournament later that afternoon. It was the best conversation I had had with her in weeks, perhaps the only complete conversation I had had with her in weeks!
We sang and danced to the radio the rest of the way home, every other song evoking a squeal and an “I love this song,” from my daughter. The two of us were smiling as we pulled into the parking lot at the game, and were still smiling at the end of the soccer game (which we won, even though it wasn’t my daughter’s “best game”). It didn’t matter. We had conquered the first mother/daughter adolescent hurdle together and as a result, we had both been lifted from our funks. Not a bad deal, and imagine that, it only took a little talking, a lot of listening and being reminded of my own tumultuous adolescence. Until the next adolescent tragedy … here’s hoping my daughter
weathers the storm much better than her mother did.