How Much I Learned from One Day of Mood Tracking

This past Sunday afternoon, I finally sat down with my thirteen year-old to create a mood tracker bullet-journal style.

It was an activity months in the making.  Once I expressed an interest, she would bring it up from time to time, asking me when we’d actually sit down and bu-jo together, as she says.  Eventually the questioning took on an annoyed tone as she began to wonder when and if it would actually happen.

Initially, it really was just a matter of scheduling.  When did we actually have an afternoon off to spend together with markers and blank books?  Looking back, I now realize there were other factors at play – none of which had to do with this lovely little being who wanted to spend time with me on the cusp of not wanting to spend time with me.  So I shoved those aside, or at least down enough for the day, so she wouldn’t begin to take things personally.  Those factors, however, say a lot about where I’m at right now.

First, I was unsure where to start.  I’ve never bullet journaled before and haven’t sketched or doodled just for the joy of it in decades.  Ain’t no mom got time for that.  And I certainly couldn’t let go enough to enjoy it.  If I was going to do this, it had to be done right and in an aesthetically pleasing manner.  And if I was going to invest time and blank page space, the information I collected had to be useful.  I wanted facts and indicators I could bring back to my practitioners to prove my case and plan of treatment.  When I finally sank into the couch with her, I realized I hadn’t started because I didn’t know which layout to use to best serve my needs.  Bless her thirteen year-old technologically saavy heart, she launched you-tube and pinterest searches in conjunction, showing me what she found.

Of course, I had to create my own hybrid version of a few I’d found.  I also think I let go of the idea of perfection for this month, figuring I won’t know what exactly works for me until I actually interface with it and can adjust as needed going forward.

After I created a grid with just over two weeks’ worth of dates running down its side, I set about choosing mood indicators to list across the top.  Five manner of emojis was not going to do it for me.  I was seeking language to differentiate blah from ennh to my physician.  I needed specific descriptors.  But choosing those descriptors was another story.  I broke out a pencil and began a list on a separate page.

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Jennifer Butler Basile

In a very short time, I realized how many more negative descriptors I had than positive ones.  Why did I have so many words appropriate for shitty ways of being than good ones?  The easy answer is that I’ve had lots of practice, apparently, with low moods.  The more difficult answer I’m still unpacking is how my mind tends to the negative.  Is my brain wired to a pessimistic program?  Or is it stuck in a rutted road of negativity since it’s been travelling in that direction for so long?  Does it need a reprogram?  Is that possible?

My final list, which I’m still not completely sold should be absolutely final, has one more negative descriptor than positive, but I forced myself to beef up the positive side so it wasn’t totally lopsided.  I also find my negative words so much more specific, evocative.  I find the positive descriptors more vague and general.  Again, I’ve been living in the land of low moods so apparently I know them better.

Writing such a raw, vulnerable list with my daughter at my elbow was unsettling to say the least.  The fact that she aided my progress both makes me proud that she’s so creative; that she’s so willing to accept me as I am.  It also makes me hopeful that perhaps an idea like tracking moods will become so commonplace to her generation that dialogue surrounding mental health will be like breathing air.  But I’m also terrified.  I’m afraid she’ll see what a broken person I am.   And not due to some ‘I’m so strong and perfect’ façade I’m trying to portray.  Just, I don’t know, that I struggle.  As in, how can I take care of her if I haven’t perfected how to care for myself?  But even as I write that, I know that’s all a part of being human and she’ll figure it out sooner or later no matter what.

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Jennifer Butler Basile

The reason I wanted a mood tracker was to turn a highly subjective entity – moods and feelings – into a quantifiable collection of data.  For some reason, I think I actually expected that by putting it into a grid would miraculously turn it from one thing to the other.  Perhaps I knew that was wishful thinking and why I postponed it for so long.  I also realized how much my procrastination is fueled by my perfectionism.  I also learned that, whatever its origin, I need to check my negativity so that it doesn’t rule my life.

So before I’ve even collected more than a day’s worth of data, my mood tracker has already proved to be an illustrative tool – in ways I may have never even imagined.

 

‘Sweetness and Light’ Amidst the Darkness

“’So what new stuff are you going to plant in the garden, Mom?’ I ask.

‘Plant?’ Mom says. She looks out at the yard and shrugs.

‘How about if we make a list? Marcy said it was good for you to make lists and cross things off. When you first got home, you made lists.’ I stand up to go get some paper and a pencil. I want Mom thinking violets, daffodils, tulips, bright colors flashing in her brain.

‘Thinking about spring tires me out, Chirp,’ Mom says.

‘But in May we can pick lilacs!’ I say. ‘We love picking lilacs.’

Mom reaches for my hand. ‘Just sit with me, honey.’

I sit back down.

I need to stay patient with Mom, especially since her new psychiatrist just told her that he thinks her depression is chronic, which means it will never completely go away. She’s been depressed at different times in her life and will probably always struggle with it. That’s news she needed like a hole in the head just two weeks after gettting home.

Three black-capped chickadees play follow-the-leader around the rhododendron bush. I can’t tell if Mom’s watching them.

‘You don’t have to pick lilacs,’ I say. ‘You can just keep me company when I pick them.’

Mom puts her arm around me and squeezes tight. When I look at her face, tears are streaming down.

‘Listen, Chirpie,’ she says, brushing the tears away like they’re pesty no-see-ums. ‘I need to tell you something important, okay?’

‘Okay.’

‘You’re a really special girl. A beautiful, strong, special, special girl. You know that, right?’ She’s gripping my arm.

‘Uh-huh.’

‘Good,’ she says. ‘It’s important.’ She lets go of my arm. She rests her hand on my knee. ‘When I was a girl, my mother loved to tell me what was wrong with me. I made no sense to her at all.’ Mom stares out at nothing. ‘Luftmensch.

Luftmensch?

‘It’s a Yiddish word. It means a dreamer. From my mother, the worst thing a person could be.’

‘But didn’t she like some things about you?’

Mom doesn’t answer for a long time. Finally she says, ‘My hair. My mother liked my hair.’

Wind whips across the yard. The grass shivers.

I touch Mom’s hair, but she doesn’t look at me.

‘She didn’t love me,’ Mom says quietly. ‘That’s just the simple, hard truth.’

A crow screeches, and all three chickadees take off into the air at the exact same time.

‘Wow!’ I say.

Please, Mom. Please, Mom. Notice.

‘Wow,’ Mom says, with a little smile.

We watch the chickadees until they disappear into the trees.

‘Lilacs are my favorite flower,’ Mom says.

‘I love them,’ I say

‘Me too,’ she says.

‘They smell so good.’

‘Like sweetness and light, Chirpie.’

I put my hand in Mom’s pocket. She reaches in and holds my hand. It’s sweetness and light, our hands together in her warm pocket.

— from Nest by Esther Ehrlich

All Sorts of Bombs

The hours that stretched between late afternoon and evening yesterday were tough.

I hustled my three girls off the bus and into the car, rushing off into the next installment of the ‘passport debacle’ (I may pen a frustrating short story of the same title). They were tired, hot, sticky, hungry, and probably would’ve had to pee if they weren’t so dehydrated from the high temperatures. After toting them through two venues and experiencing botched passport attempts (adding to the overall debacle), they hooted and hollered, spat and pinched the whole ride home. Home. The place where I got to give my husband a quick smooch, eat a hamburger right off the grill as I set the table for the sit-down dinner the rest of my family would be enjoying while I rushed off to a curriculum night at the school. School. The place that was boarded up tight because the curriculum night is, in fact, tonight. I got back in the car and thanked my lucky stars that I’d loaded Led Zeppelin II in the CD player so I wouldn’t go out of my ever-living mind. I promptly popped a bottle of beer when I got home and joined my husband on the porch. Trying to recount my frustration and agitation to him, I was repeatedly interrupted by our cherubs, one of whom snagged a butterfly net over my cranium, God bless her.

In a rare moment of calm, I said to him, life would be so much easier if we hadn’t had them.

That’s one of those statements you know you probably shouldn’t say out loud; that you know was a mistake as soon as you see your spouse’s face.

In his ever-present magnamity in the face of my melancholy, he replied, but we wouldn’t have the joy, either.

I know, you’re right, I sheepishly yet grudgingly replied. Still, my days the last week or so have been fine – until I have to get them off the bus.

And then – not with a lightning bolt, but with a gradual blossoming like a-bomb footage on slow mo – I realized that I’d have had depression anyway – with or without them. If left to my own devices, depression would’ve snuck in in the quiet moments, seeped through the cracks of career dissatisfaction, cycles of stress and PMS, self-loathing and pity.

abomb

Life with three little people is insane. It would be so easy to pin my struggles on them. It’s hard to see anything else, to even draw a spare breath. And the tenor of my life with them did seem to kickstart whatever this alternate mental atmosphere I’m living in is – but in that one absurdly clear and dissonant moment, I saw my struggle, my illness, my self for what it is.

That doesn’t make it any easier to raise three littles in the midst of all that. But it makes it easier not to resent them and their needs. And to love myself – faults and all.

Playing the Odds

 

We always hope that our child will get the best characteristics from that special person we partnered with and ourselves. A winning combination. We hope that the less desirable pieces of ourselves will be filtered out in the next generation. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen.

Our second daughter was an easy baby. She ate well. She slept well once she discovered her thumb. She rolled with the punches of a dual-sibling household. Her laugh came easily as did her socialization. We labeled her gregarious and thought for sure she’d be comfortable in any social situation as she grew.

Partway through her year of preschool, she began complaining about going. No one likes me. No one plays with me. Kindergarten followed with more of the same, with daily fights of shoe, sock, and shirt selection – one of which ruffled me so much I slid into a tree one snowy morning. This year, it intensified, with afternoons added to the agenda. Denial of a specific snack or a disagreement with one of her sisters would send her reeling. Over-the-top anger. Violent outbursts. Negative self-narrative.

My husband and I tried extra cuddles and attention, positive reinforcement, avoided giving such outbursts attention . . . it only seemed to escalate. It was not a fun time, to say the least. What finally pierced my heart was when she began with self-harming statements.

I’m just going to throw myself out the window and break my head.

It would be better if I just died.

How would you feel then?

I doubted whether my first grader had horribly morbid intentions. I sensed it was a more dramatic way to express inexpressible incredibly pissed-off feelings (which was later confirmed by the school psychologist) and that she didn’t fully understand the gravity of her declarations. BUT – and a big one – I’ve read and heard enough about mental illness to know you never take such statements lightly. And I’m a former English/Language Arts teacher, used to evaluating journals and writing pieces where many such revelations come out in school. Teachers and school personnel have strict protocols to follow surrounding such language – even if it’s erring on the side of caution.

What scared me most about these statements was that they reminded me so very much of my own running narrative born of postpartum depression: I hate my life. Just kill me now.

Had my child inherited the very worst part of me, the part from which I truly hoped she and her sisters would be free? In tense conversations after the children went to bed and my husband and I tried to find a solution to this seemingly impossible one, I said, You know why I’m paranoid, right? He did. Though he’s never seen me as such, he knows I think of myself as broken, flawed, and that my worst fear is that it affects the children. What if she’s got what I have? This fear hadn’t fully formed itself in my soul until those words issued from her mouth, but then it blossomed exponentially. We agreed to make an appointment with the school psychologist.

Fortuitously, the school psychologist’s curriculum already brought her into the first grade classroom discussing identification and expression of feelings. Ironic. Perhaps my anxious little bean hadn’t progressed far enough into the curriculum, but my concerns meshed nicely with the goals of the program. The school psychologist helped us extend and reinforce what they’d been discussing in the classroom in our home.

It wasn’t an instant fix. Though it started with a great amount of enthusiasm, a week into our initiatives had my daughter ripping up the yellow diamond of construction paper listing her triggers (you know, the warning zone meant to make her more aware of them in order to cut them off at the pass). In her calm moments, she could tell you exactly what bothered her. When she was seeing red, there was no talking her down until she’d run herself out. Closer to the end of the year now, I hear her using more of the language from the school program on her own. It makes me happy to see her acknowledging ‘rock brain’ moments and telling said rock to get lost.

And that, I think, is the memory and lesson I choose to take away from this year. For all the machinations I took this year, in the end, it was she who enacted the change. She has the power to determine her own destiny. She is not a mini-me, though she looks an awful lot like I did as a child. She isn’t my clone, complete with my anxious tendencies. After all, she inherited her father’s temper, too. 😉 She is a unique individual who will create her own unique solutions for any problem she encounters.

Being aware of how my genetic make-up may influence the presentation of her behaviors is good to keep in the back of my mind, but it shouldn’t be in the forefront.  Using what I learned in my struggles to create a support system for her only makes sense and compassionate parenting, but it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy.  She is a certain percentage of me, a certain percentage of her father, but she’s 100% herself.

 

a onesie gifted to us by a dear friend

a onesie gifted to us by a dear friend


 

Related Posts:

Vantage Point

You Got Some ‘Splainin to Do

 

Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry

 

The book begins like any other for children. A breakfast scene, a mother making pancakes for her daughter in a sun-filled kitchen. She helps her dress and tells her how “beautastic” she looks before sending her off to school with “a kiss and big smile.” But here, the mood shifts. Annie, the daughter, hopes that Mommy “is still smiling when [she] comes home” because “sometimes my mommy doesn’t smile at all.”

angryAnd it is no mistake that the tone and plot of the book changes with a shift in mood. Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry by Bebe Moore Campbell is the story of a child living with a mother suffering from bipolar disorder.

Indeed, when Annie returns home from school that afternoon, it is not smiling Mommy that greets her. Her mother yells at her to stop making noise, to get in the house, to ignore the neighbor’s inquires about her school day. Then she turns on the neighbor, accusing him of always spying on her.

And apparently this isn’t the first time, for once Annie gets inside, she follows a well-scripted plan. She calls her grandmother. “Mommy is yelling again,” she says. After her grandmother assures her she’s done nothing wrong, she tells her to go to the neighbor’s house until she comes to get her if she feels scared. When Annie tells her she’s not scared talking to her, she is to get her “secret snack without bothering Mommy.” But most importantly, to “think happy thoughts.”

The next day dawns much differently than the first. The rain pours down rather than sun through the windows. Annie is left to fend for herself, eating cold cereal rather than hot pancakes. But her friends help her brush out the knots she missed in her hair. They joke and laugh on their walk to school despite the raindrops.

True to her grandmother’s directive, Annie does manage to think happy thoughts. She says, “Sometimes my mommy has dark clouds inside her. I can’t stop the rain from falling, but I can find sunshine in my mind.”

How do we, as parents, ensure our child finds the sunshine in her mind – even when we simply cannot? Whether it’s from bipolar or another mental illness, how do we shield our children from the worst of the disease without also blocking out our love for them? Annie’s grandmother emphasizes that her “mother loves you even when she’s yelling.” She even goes so far as to say, “It’s okay for you to be angry. I know you love her too.” How do we teach this give and take and encourage our child’s healthy feelings in response to our unhealthy ones?

An author’s note before the story, which also provides important information on bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses, states that “the ‘village’ that supports the children of the mentally ill – the grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers and neighbors – can help foster within these fragile children a sense of security and hope that life can get better, and encourage self-esteem in the face of extremely trying situations.”

Is that how we parents support our children? By farming it out to the surrounding village when we can’t do it?

This book is directed toward the children of parents with mental illness. I’m looking at it through the lens of guilt and worry that comes from being a parent with mental illness. Perhaps I should take Grandma’s advice: have a healthy snack, look to the support of neighbors, and think happy thoughts. I feel terrible that my conditions keep me from being ‘the end all and be all’ for my children. But maybe I never was supposed to be anyway. Maybe it really does take a village.

At the very least, Sometimes My Mommy Gets Angry takes on the task of telling the story of one special little girl’s resilience in the face of great difficulty. And that’s a story a lot of kids out there really need to hear.

 

A Child Registers Who’s Raising Him

 

“But a child is a sensitive instrument. You can hide the factual truth from a child, but you can’t blanket influence. Your agitation will out, and over time it will mold your child’s temperament as surely as water wears at rock. It was not until I was nearly twenty, deep into my own way with anxiety, that my mother spoke to me explicitly about her anxiety and the grief it caused her. But by that time she essentially talking to herself. I’d become her. It wasn’t merely genetics. It was the million little signals: the jolting movements, the curious fears, the subtle avoidances, the panic behind the eyes, the terror behind the hugs, the tremor in the caresses. It was the monkey. A child registers who’s raising him.”

– from Monkey Mind: A Memoir of Anxiety by Daniel Smith

 

Hide and Seek

 

Tip: Always be the seeker in Hide & Seek. It’s gives you 30 seconds of peace.

 

Come, now. We’ve all done it. Or at least wanted to. We’ve all paused for a moment before seeking, enjoying that glorious moment of silence, relishing the fact that we are free to roam about the house with no shadow in our steps.

And then we hear the giggle, the irrepressible bubble that cannot be held by hands, cannot be stayed. The insistent pssst, or even the outright, “In here, Mama.” They cannot stand to stay hidden, cannot bear to be apart from us. After they give us a turn at hiding, they will crawl right back into the spot we just vacated, so dear is their desire to be like us, learn from us, stay close to us.

Other than the tempting tricks we can play during this child’s game, there are serious questions and consequences it can raise for adults. In our role as parents, will we choose to hide our mental illnesses? Will we seek to be completely open and honest with our families, including our children? At the very least, we must seek solutions to live a healthy, fulfilled life. But will we pop the pill in secret and stuff the rest of our struggle down our throats with it instead of voicing it, breathing it?

There is the great possibility of two sides to a person with mental illness. Stigma makes me not want to write that because I fear untrained minds will go straight to schizophrenia, but that’s not what I mean. Light and dark. Public and private. Hidden and sussed out. The very same reason I didn’t want to allude to two sides is what may keep sufferers suffering in silence. It may be to keep a modicum of positivity in their lives – rather than dwelling on the difficulties. This and a fierce sense of protection for their children, I think, drive the decisions that most mentally-ill parents make. While I don’t consider myself the best at looking on the bright side, I know I do not want my children to know I suffer from depression and anxiety.

Yet, I resent the times I must plaster on a smile. I regret that I must function in spite of my foul mood. I revile the perfect, perky person I must be at all times for my children when I’m hurting.

There must be a sweet spot, somewhere between ‘Ready or not, here I come’ and ‘A-ha’, in that glorious moment of silence, where mom can hear herself think and child is about to unleash a cascade of laughter. Where child and mother are happy and true to themselves. Where hiding is only temporary in certain situations. And seeking is rewarded with sharing love and validation.

 

Vantage Point

An exploding moment.

One that stretches out inexorably like a slow motion sequence in film.

When tragedy occurs at breakneck speed, but your body cannot catch up; cannot speed up to stop it.

My four year-old teetered on the edge of a boulder that stretched in a line of them on the causeway. My mind was already fast-forwarding to the next scene, the one where her battered and broken body lay below or plunged into the icy depths of water beyond.

My voice exploded from my lungs in a staccato screech more piercing than that of the gulls above.

“Michael, the baby, the baby, she’s going to go over the edge, get the baby!”

Stuck to that spot by fear, I didn’t spring forward; I shook my arms, I stamped my feet. I screamed for her father to do it.

He saved her, while reprimanding me for just standing there. If I were going to have such a violent reaction to it, surely I’d do something about it . . .

In the instant replay, she hadn’t been teetering on the edge. She’d been dancing on the top, but not close to falling below. From my vantage point, it looked like she’d surely fall away from me.

From my vantage point.

My nine year-old watched me in the moments that followed. I caught her studying me. Sizing me up. Not like a cruel critic, but as if she might be wondering just what my vantage point was. What would make me screech like holy hell at a threat that no one else perceived. Like she’d just had her first cognizant look at her mother’s mental illness.

I felt shamed. I felt like she’d seen the ugly underbelly that, between my disguises and her naivete, I’d managed to hide until now. That now she had seen the irrational powers that ruled me.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t think I should explain it away – and didn’t have the words even if I thought I should. I returned her gaze and pulled her into a hug.

A little while later, I watched her as she stood at the shoreline, hands dug deep into her pockets, jeans tucked expertly into her boots. She is becoming a young woman. Yet, in the wake of the waves crashing upon the shore, she looked so small.

And I thought – is that why we come to the ocean? To be reminded of how small we are? How insignificant in the face of the universe? Comforting to think that our worries are but grains of sand. But suffocating to think of the press of dangers and concerns able to crush us out in one single second.

Which vantage point will my daughter take? Will she recoil from the threat around every corner, refusing to turn and meet it? Or will she refuse to be frozen by fear and tackle her problems head on? Will she see my struggles as problems or failings on my part? Or will she see that I soldiered on in spite of them?

This screenplay is an on-going saga. If only I had the control.

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