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Depression

On hope lying dormant, then sprouting

It’s been a long time. I’ve gotten out of the habit of writing here, and my overall happiness factor has suffered as a result. This is a time when my overall happiness factor needs bolstering, given the doldrums of winter and staring daily into the belly of the beast of our current president. It’s hard at times like these to remember that somewhere, beneath the surface, is creativity and life and hope.

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Photo by Steven Depolo

This has been a really tricky time for me. Feeling seasonally depressed, creatively deflated, politically afraid and disoriented. Not to mention the fact that the two glorious humans I co-created are growing ever bigger and more complex by the day.

Cal has hit the peak of 3-and-a-half-ness. Oh sweet heaven above. This is a challenging age.

Lucky for me, a teacher of mine, from way back when Jo was an erratic, tantrumy 3 and 4 year old, gave a talk at our preschool. She reminded me of some stuff I knew once. Like how little kid brains are constantly trying to make sure they’re connected to our adult brains, and how when they’re feeling not connected or overwhelmed, their brains can freak out in the form of a tantrum. And during the tantrum, it’s the opposite of helpful to enforce or discuss rules, since their brains have gone all reptilian and they can’t even access the reasoning part of their brain anyway. She also reminded me of this: if a kid is headed towards a tantrum, the best long term choice for all involved is to walk straight into it with them. I know this goes against every natural human instinct in the book, especially when you’re Just So Sick of that whiny, little 3-year-old voice. But I’ve been trying that thing I used to do–the equivalent of walking straight into a hurricane–and it effing works.

I actually just read my own blog post that I wrote 2 and a half years ago as a tutorial. It’s both a shock and an embarrassment to find that not only did I have some pretty refined strategies for how to handle tantrums once, I actually wrote a step-by-step guide about it. Fast forward a couple years, and that same grounded parent and writer is at her wits end with this little person, with scarcely a clue for how to cope.

Well, thanks internet, for preserving a former version of myself who knew what she was doing. There I was, beneath the years, like a bulb sleeping under the frozen ground. Just waiting to be remembered.

Motherhood, trauma, and a washing machine

On New Years Day, I sat in the hard shell of a chair at the laundromat. I alternately felt fine and so broken that I wondered if any of the other launderers could tell. Did they see how my insides trembled as I struggled to get the washing machine handle to lock? Finally, the metal latch clacked into place, and my wavering insides smoothed down a little.

Photo by Kristen M.
Photo by Kristen M.

As the extra capacity washer swooshed our soapy rug around and around, I wondered if this could be considered a nervous breakdown.

For lots of us, the holidays represent a kind of emotional crescendo–family who we usually don’t see swoop into our lives, there’s all this uninterrupted time with our own kids, our partners. We’re suddenly unconstrained by the repetition of work and school schedules.

In this soupy December mix of people and time, two things rose to the surface again and again, not unlike the soapy rug, falling, rising, falling.

  1. I feel like an outsider in my house. AJ and Jo and Cal all seem to have an emotional shorthand, a way they just get each other. I’m not in that club. I don’t love wrestling with flailing limbs or kicking balls hard and fast or watching sports. I like to walk unflinching and straight into emotional conversations, for example. I’m not great at having big talks all sideways, where you’re not making eye contact and also playing basketball. These are just a few of the things.
  2. I get triggered as hell when my kids hit each other. Especially when Jo hits Cal. And then I start buying into this story I have about how they are bad kids, and I am a failed mother. It’s a real horror show.

After a good-old fashioned holiday break, getting wholloped by the old 1. and 2. again and again, I kinda lost it one day after Cal did some hitting and screaming at a new friend’s house. While the mother mercifully told me that it was all developmentally appropriate, I collapsed on the inside.

Fear reached back to that trickiest time when Jo was 3. Then it sloshed forward and swept over me. Falling, rising, falling. All the hitting and kicking. Crying and screaming. Friends leaving. Nasty looks and words from strangers. Shame is a powerful currency, and it was generously paid out to me during that time.

After Cal’s ill-fated playdate, I sent a distress signal to AJ, and by the time he got home, the most basic tasks felt mysterious and overwhelming. I could feel the rules that hold things together slipping away, my grasp on what to do next, how to do the tasks that need doing.

Days later, after the rules slid back into place back again, I kept finding things in weird places–my coat hung up with my shirts in the closet instead of on the hook by the door, playdough in the kitchen cabinet with the peanut butter.

My friend Clio told me that she thought it sounded like PTSD. The validation of that diagnosis helped.  Motherhood can be a traumatic event.

From my broken open, PTSD place, the 1. and the 2. demanded my attention.

As for #1: AJ, Jo, and Cal and their shared interests and maleness have a very strong gravitational pull. I’ve been orbiting around them more often than exerting my own gravity. So in the past few days I’ve been building up the bulk of my own planet.

Instead of the typical pillow fight, wrestle fest after dinner, I set up watercolors, because I like to paint. I’ve always told myself the story that my sons don’t like art, and just make a mess, so its not worth the trouble. I was wrong.

I’m also discovering the subtle hues of what works for me in terms of physical play with my boys. I hate flailing limbs, fast smacks, big crashes near my body. But I like close, squeezey wrestling and laying on my back with Cal airplane style balancing on my feet. So it’s not that I only want to sit and do arts and crafts. But if I’m gonna hang with my boys and their physical play, I need fewer flailing limbs, damnit.

As for the #2: I wrote a sign that says “Jo and Cal are good and capable,” because it is exactly this point on which I falter when they are slugging it out. When I can step between them and stop the hitting from this place, this knowing of their goodness and capability, I stay much more solid and clear instead of turning into a shame monster.

I want to be careful not to write this like a problem solved, because it’s not. Like all problems, there’s a rise and a fall. A circling. But I am moving forward in solid ways. My coat is hanging on its hook, the play dough in its smudged plastic tub. And I’m settling into what it feels like to exert my own gravity. I’m a planet of my own.

Motherhood is all of this

This one goes out to every mother who has ever felt lost. Over it. Wired and exhausted. Overwhelmed and broken. It also goes out to every mother who has felt at the top of her game. Winning. Like her kid is the bees fucking knees.

Perhaps, once or twice, you’ve felt trapped by motherhood. Or incomparably blessed by it. Maybe today you’re just going through the motions when all you want is a silent room and some grapes. Or you’re pumping your fist in the air because you’ve got this thing nailed.

If you’ve been at this gig for any length of time, you’ve spent good portions of time on both sides of this fence.

As I write this, I’m feeling pretty blissed out. Cal only screamed like a banshee twice so far today. I can hear AJ making breakfast downstairs and the kids are whooping happily outside. This is living.

A week ago, not so much. Way back then, in the distant past of last Saturday, I wanted to stop being a mom. As if I could just walk out wearing my uniform, flip off the manager and never look back. Imagine the freedom. The wind whipping my hair, a whole horizon ahead. All of that space.

How could someone not want to abandon this job after days of intermittent but relentless screaming? Those wild animal toddler rages. The utter loss of adult competence and control.

The truth is this: if motherhood were an actual job, the kind that you could interview for and request a transfer away from, precious few would keep it.

You see, a week ago, back when I wanted to quit, I’d been solo parenting for 4 days. That may sound minimal. For me, it was not. Given the latest, grating loop that our resident 3-year-old, Cal, has introduced to our lives, it only took 2 days for me to start feeling like a cracked out war veteran.

These days, Cal, screams bloody murder at the slightest provocation. “I want that TRUCK! Not THAT truck! NooooOOOOOO!! STOOOOOP!” He wants everything Jo has, the moment he has it, and not a moment longer. When the toy or rock or hot dog leaves Jo’s grasp, Cal could not care less. As long as Jo does have it, Cal is a desperate, wild animal. Sometimes, Jo marshals up his patience, tries to leave the room, or asks for help from me, but inevitably, frustration overwhelms and he hauls off and smacks Cal. This is met with fiercer Cal screams and a good old-fashioned brother brawl. You see how this goes. A nightmare boy typhoon that twists around again and again and again. After the umpteenth time, I start to hate it. And then I start to think I hate them. I can feel that twisting inside. I become a hard, knotty old broad who pickled sour and is out for revenge. I stomp around the house on tree trunk legs with a scowl on my face just waiting for an opportunity to bust my boys for bad behavior, because they’re so very bad.

Shockingly, when you add the stomping, bitter broad to the whole boy typhoon, things don’t tend to go well. There’s often shaming. And crying. It’s basically the worst.

And then somehow, things change. I scream and then we all cry. Or I slam a door and later, I lie to Cal that the wind blew it closed. Or I turn on the sprinkler and let the chickens out.

That’s how I found my first 2 or 3 consecutive hours of peace on that terrible solo-parenting weekend. We all needed it bad. It was like finding a spring in the desert, and we gulped it in and smiled a lot. I remembered that they aren’t only here to ruin my life, and that I can be soft, wise and relaxed.

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Then there was bedtime, and the barrage of questions and song requests and popping out of bed, and I morphed, exhausted, yet again.

After that, I slunk down the stairs to our couch and cried.

Motherhood is all of these things.

And while my story might not align with yours too well, I know there’s overlap. Maybe you have one kid and he keeps you up all night. Maybe it’s your middle-schooler whose anxiety holds the whole house hostage. Maybe peace and joy reign in your kingdom today. Any way you cut it, we are all brought low by motherhood. We all feel shame, and rage and hopelessness. The trouble is that unlike the shiny happy feelings, these ugly-step sister ones get shunned, or glossed over, or buried in our desperate pile of parenting books.

So remember this, the next time you see that mom pick up her kids from school looking flawless and at ease with her beautiful, obedient children. God bless her, she might be having a good day. Or she might not, and like the rest of us, she’s just really good at playing her role in the “I’m a tremendously good mother” pageant.

The next time your friend’s kid hits yours, or says something cruel, or has a complete meltdown in the park, remember how gritty and hard motherhood has been for you at times. You probably have all sorts of judgements and ideas and advice for how she could be a better mom and fix her mean kid, but then you can just remember how shitty it feels to be barraged with judgements and ideas and advice when all you feel is ashamed of your child’s behavior and humiliated by what her problems must mean about your own inadequacy.

Probably the best thing that any of us can do for each other or ourselves is to remember that our kids and everyone else’s are both adorable dreamboats and thorny little devils. That all of our lives as parents are sweet and disastrous. That none of us knows which way the tide will turn on any given day. One minute we are charmed. The next, undone.

And that there is nothing, nothing more relieving than simply being witnessed by someone who can see all of those things.

Boredom is my muse

I’ve been drowning in a birdbath*, you guys.

For three years, I’ve been in and out of triage: bought a house, had another kid, got a job. Whether it was up till 3 a.m. painting the rental in my third trimester or up at 11, 12, 2, and 4:30 with a puking baby, my default mode has been On. And not that nice bright, incandescent on. More of a twitchy, anxious flicker.

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“Bulb” by Jon Callow

So I haven’t quite known how to handle the space that has come with, well, stability.
I’ve been having lulls that last longer than 5 minutes, and I’m not feeling routinely on the verge of cracked out. Bonus!
Trouble is, I’ve built up a life based on a bunch of cracked out habits like nightly TV binges, drinking too much and staring at the wall anytime the kids are occupied or sleeping.
It’s left me bored and sometimes depressed inside a life that’s pretty darn ok. Death by birdbath.

I’ve been in a small-child-induced coma.
But not today! Because see? I’m sitting here on a bench at the Y after my dance class and writing this instead of staring into space for the 10 minutes before I have to go pick up Cal.

Turns out there’s more space in my life. And what requires empty space in order to exist? Ideas. Creative Impulses.

What if the boredom and even depression whose butts I’m all proud of kicking are actually a source of aliveness?

A sign of creativity yet to come.

What if the crumbs that collected on my sweatshirt as I binge watched 6 episodes of Transparent actually incubated the creative burst I’m having right now?

Well, kids, if that’s the case, I think we have a game-changer on our hands.

When in their midst, it is near impossible to feel the value of boredom or depression. But here I am, close on their heels, with ideas and vitality bursting out of my ears.

Every living thing has a dormant phase before it blossoms.

And apparently, so do I.

*This simile (and occult inspiration) brought to you by Jessa Crispin in her new, kick ass book, The Creative Tarot.  It’s brought tarot cards to life for me, and I’m not looking back. Jessa Crispin The Creative Tarot

Gratitude: the friend who just doesn’t get it

If one more effing person apologizes after sharing a sad, difficult, upsetting part of their lives with me, I’m going to scream. And my shriek will leave a tiny crack in the shell of robotic positive thinking that our happiness-obsessed culture shrouds us with.

I’ve written about this before, and it’s no surprise that I’m feeling it again a year later.

It’s winter. Trees are bare, skies are cold and dark, the world around us is not bursting forth. And yet.

And yet. We expect the eternal fruits of summer from ourselves. Regardless of season or circumstance, we should keep our chins up, find inspiration and, my personal favorite, be grateful.

Gratitude can blow me.

Here’s why: it’s become the well-meaning friend who just doesn’t get it. She’s trying to help, for sure, but here’s how good old Gratitude misses the mark: She’s only makes it worse if you use her to avoid difficult feelings.

Dark side of Gratitude Mask

Which is how A LOT of people like to use her these days.

It’s the polite and sunny way to end a particular kind of conversation.

I’m so sorry about your favorite grandmother who is dying. At least you can be grateful for the time she had.

Yeah. Thanks. Sorry for bringing up the whole dying grandmother thing. I don’t mean to be such a downer.

Why are sadness, grief, anger, fear, or disappointment so disturbing to us that we literally apologize for sharing them? We wish we hadn’t done it. Sullied the moment, spoiled the conversation.

It’s hard to hang out with pain that we can’t instantly fix.

And yet. And yet.

Hanging out with it, with a person in grief, with a bitter sadness, can actually be sublime. There’s a deep sense of wholeness that comes from letting the dark winter simply exist, without trying to jack it up on silver-linings of gratitude.

That’s why I feel–wait for it–grateful when a neighbor admits in a casual conversation over the fence that her cancer came back. “I’m sorry,” she says, “I know this is really heavy.”

Quite the contrary. Sharing your heavy reality creates more room for my particular mess.

So please. Bring on the downers. What stray puppydog facts and feelings of yours get smothered by the eternally sunny, productive and happy waters we’re all swimming in?

Make my comments box your own personal repository for whatever downer you’re sitting on.

I’d be most grateful.

There’s always space

There’s a price I pay for ignoring myself.

A million tiny times a day.

I’m bored at the park but I go anyway, because the boys want to. And I sit there on the bench and feel a little less alive.

I want to read my book, but I wash the dishes instead, because it’ll be that much sweeter to crack the book open  with the clean dishes steaming in the rack. But then Cal wakes up and the book sits still. And I feel a little less satisfied.

Reading this, I was reminded of how compressed life gets, under the routine requirements, obligations, appointments, demands.

It may just be the path of least resistance to turn our aliveness down under such circumstances, under the weight of many tasks that we wouldn’t willingly choose, but that relentlessly nudge for our attention.

And yet,

And yet!

There is always space to be found.

Like in the atoms I was explaining to Jo before bed.

There’s more space inside an atom than stuff. And we’re made up of atoms. So that means we’re made up of more space than stuff. Our bodies, this table, my shoes, that lamp, they’re all mostly space. Isn’t that crazy?!

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This from “Our Friend The Atom,” written in 1956 by Disney to captivate the nerdy brains and hearts of children everywhere.

It’s the smallest choice to read instead of wash. To pause and let the sun breeze over my cheeks before buckling a boy into his car seat. To ignore the robotic pull of dinner prep at 6 on a Tuesday and instead sip on champagne and watch the boys whiz by on their scooters.

It’s the smallest choice.

And a portal into the biggest space.

Energetic Boundaries 101

Some pretty mind blowing stuff went down for me in September that I’m only just beginning to articulate. I went to this rad women and kids communing with nature power weekend with Jo. We ate and sang and played and learned and gathered around the fire together. And once Jo got his bearings, and he and a friend were absorbed in scratching at the dirt with sticks, I took a class about energetic boundaries. Which is to say that for a couple of hours one morning, I sat in a circle of women on the ground near a big fallen tree I wish I knew the name of, and listened to this woman share her wisdom about the ways we habitually do and ideally can choose to create boundaries that protect or reveal ourselves.

I still don’t understand exactly what it was about that class that changed things for me, but it did.

Here’s the best I’ve got:

It helped me understand the fundamental way I align myself with other people. In short, I’ve got some pretty loosey goosey boundaries. And I always track the people around me. I take in what I think their needs and feelings are. I’m like an octopus with hyper extended tentacles, constantly scanning in all directions for what my people are feeling, thinking, wanting.

TentaclesOut

It. Is. Exhausting.

And obliterating. Cause where do my thoughts and needs and feelings come in, given the OCD tentacles? Well, dear reader, I’ll tell you. My needs and feelings are stifled at the bottom of the heap. They play second (or third or fourth) fiddle. Those suckers languish deep inside the proverbial haystack.

But somehow, in a circle of women sitting on the ground of a crisp fall morning, I gathered my tentacles in. I chose to create some boundaries. Now I look more like this.TentaclesIn

I deliberately chose to disengage with the endless stream of

Jo is happy and absorbed (sigh of relief) . Cal wants water and needs to put his pants on. Where are his pants? . That guy on the sidewalk seems really desperate . AJ is still mad at me after last night, but I don’t want to say I’m sorry . Jamie wishes I visited her more . Cybil called me three days ago and I haven’t gotten back to her . Ryan seems pissed, is it something I did? . This person wants . This person needs . This . Person . Feels . . .

Reeling in the tentacles made me lighter, buoyant even.

I started to float.

I could see and hear and feel things that hadn’t gotten in for a long time because there was so much noise and obstruction, and so little of my attention left over.

Here’s what I saw:

Everything is a game.

Every relationship, project, chore, obligation.

Some games have higher stakes than others, but at the core, there is a lightness, a playfulness in the atmosphere around all the heavy stuff.

The playfulness is this: in every game, you get to choose your move. Every time. And you don’t know what’s going to happen next. Then the other people get to choose their moves. Now it’s back to you. And the game plays on.

For years and years, I’ve gotten stuck trying to play other people’s moves for them, while my piece languishes in one damn square not very far from START.

That hyper focus outwards, on other people, has been crippling. It’s been deafening.

It has weighed me down, drowned me out, and left me listless on the couch because I’ve quite literally forgotten myself.

It was part of the reason for my post-partum depression with both kids–in that first year, rarely was I able to see and act on my own feelings and needs in the snow-storm of everyone else’s.

Well, I found my way out of that bullshit.

I have a new sense for where I end and everyone else begins.

And I wanna play.

For now, while I’m still learning these new moves, and how to keep my own needs and feelings at the core, I try to keep the tentacles for me. I use that super scanning empathetic power on myself first, because then I know the most key intelligence about the game: where I’m starting from. If I don’t know that, I can’t really play.

It’s game on, people.

 

The housewife doldrums

It’s a fuzzy pressure behind my eyes when Cal, Jo and I pad downstairs in the morning. It’s a weight pulling my shoulders forward and down after I sing “Happy Birthday pancake” (long story) and close Cal’s door for naptime.

I go there every Monday, Wednesday and Friday when I’m home with the boys.

Ah, the housewife doldrums. Where many have dangled their feet in the warm, slow waters and pondered the pots and brooms and dustpans that await them.

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Photo by me_maya

The air is thick and sleepy here. It suspends the forward march that keeps clothes folded in their drawers and pots bubbling tappity-tap-tap.

Perhaps you’ve been here too, this sort of relaxing and depressing place, where you start to become Her. The Woman you didn’t want to be.

She lives here, in the sway between doing and un-doing that is my weeks work. Washing clothes and dishes so they can get dirty, buying and growing food so it can get eaten, holding safe boundaries until strong, capable legs trample them down as they’re meant to.

In this hypnotic back and forth and back again, I forget the shape of my desires. I become The Woman who does the work that’s needed. She stares off into the distance, waiting until a small, urgent voice calls for her again.

I hate her.

She was inside that humorless, late-afternoon look my mother used to get, her slender fingers deftly dicing yet another onion for yet another meal.

Back then, I vowed never to be her. But I didn’t give her enough credit. She’s a skillful shape shifter. Why should she keep clearing space for herself when it gets filled with everyone else’s needs and wants? Conserving energy feels safer than trying.

I need to sit her down. Pour her some iced tea and rub her feet for a while. Perhaps then she might remember how to stop waiting. How to move forward with her whole self. Dustpan, desires and all.

Learning to feed my hunger

I will never let another pair of pants tell me I’m fat again.

This from the mouth of my friend Rachael, as she speared another piece of perfectly roasted cauliflower off of the plate in front of us. We met for drinks, Rachael and I, and as the fathers of our children readied our kids for bed, we ordered another cocktail.

I eyed that tiny plate of cauliflower with resentment. It was so good. And there was so little. What a tease tapas can be.

R’s declaration convinced me of what I already knew—I must go buy new jeans.

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Familiar, anyone?

Oh, the ever changing expanse of the post partum body. I’ve been rail thin with huge boobs to very squishy and everything in between. The rail-thinness was the product of exhaustion, depression, and breastfeeding in my first four months with Jo. I remember being stunned by the sight of myself in the mirror after a shower–I finally had the body I’d been told to strive for. It was strange and thrilling to see it on me. And I enjoyed it, guiltily, like a $50 bill you find on a busy street. Does this really belong to me? I didn’t work for it. It simply came through suffering over those early months of becoming a mother.

My current squishy reality, were I to guess, is the product of going to dance class less, breastfeeding less, and a little practice I’ll call The Celebration. It starts around 8:30 most nights when the boys are in bed. AJ will make some popcorn. I’ll grab another glass of wine and the cheese puffs. And then we’ll trot out a pint of ice cream while watching some show on the computer. It’s such a miracle to Eat and Watch without having to share or explain to the children. To be left alone to make terrible health choices and then to fall asleep on the couch. Don’t ask about the couple weeks when I worked through a box of 24 Haagen Dazs ice cream bars.

The Celebration also unfurled itself during the first few months of my job. It was just so miraculous to sit, unfettered at a desk—no one needing a snack or crying or hitting. So I would buy a tub of dark chocolate peanut butter cups at Trader Joe’s and polish of half (or more!) in an afternoon. Partytime.

The women’s group I attend every month? It is an oasis. Smart, interesting, engaged women, their beautiful child-free homes, wine and food. Last month, when I walked in, I thought, “Get ready, self. Time to over-eat.” I do it every time. The Rosé and cheese platter and berries with homemade whipped cream are just so damned abundant and miraculous that I have to pack it in so that it will last until next month.

I’ve felt uneasy about The Celebrations, just as I feel uneasy inside my jeans. And it took writing this to really see it:

I’ve gone and confused food with relaxation.

One feeds my body. The other, my soul.

In the confusion, both my body and soul have gotten squishy.

When I’m experiencing a significant break, rest, respite from the relentlessness of motherhood, I pack food into myself. As though the food will tide me over until next time.

It doesn’t.

And then, instead of really sinking into the moment, feeling the rest, the support, the entertainment, I zone out on food.

This week, I’ve been reading Women Food and God, and I tripped over this sentence several times because it was such a zinger.

To discover what you really believe…pay attention to the way you eat. You will quickly discover if you believe the world is a hostile place and that you need to be in control of the immediate universe for things to go smoothly. You will discover if you believe that there is not enough to go around and that taking more than you need is necessary for survival.

Guess which one I am, piling more sesame noodle salad onto my plate at my woman’s group like it’s the last meal I’ll see for days?

So, I’m turning over a new leaf. The concept of mindful or intuitive eating. I learned about it from this insightful TED Talk, and while at first I was left laughing off the possibility of mindful eating, it’s been surprisingly helpful in practise:

I eat what I want when I’m hungry. Eat till I’m full. If I’m not hungry, and I want to eat, pause the food train and be in the moment.

It’s felt like a homecoming to listen to and trust my body.

The new jeans aren’t too bad either.

Why complaining makes me happy

I’m an excellent faker.

Surface, social me is deeply devoted to lots of smiling and genuine, Mid-Western eye-contact. My interactions are all unconsciously coated in a thick glaze of I-exist-to-make-sure-you-feel-fantastic. I exude happy and approachable, regardless of my internal state.

During sophomore year of college, a friend formed the outline of a rectangle with his thumbs and pointer fingers, and he looked at my face through the frame. “You? Depressed?” Then he shook his head in disbelief. Actually, I was horribly depressed that endless, grey winter. I flirted briefly with the thought of suicide and wept in a bathroom stall.

During that time and every time I’ve felt bad since, the thing that makes me feel most crazy, most removed and despondent and numb and afraid is when people think I’m fine.

Thankfully, I don’t feel so misunderstood anymore.

I’ve learned to complain.

I’ve learned to inject some aliveness and truth into the litany of the How Are You’s. Like last week, at my office. “Well, I’m pretty terrible actually. Cal screamed bloody murder about his awful diaper rash most of the night, and I feel like a twitchy Army Vet with PTSD. How are you?” And then I walk on with my coffee cup to my desk. Feeling like a whole, real person.

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Photo by Oakley Originals

I know this whole idea would be a lot more palatable if I called it “truth-telling” or “venting” or “being honest.” But those are Have A Nice Day words for what I’m actually doing. The thing that helps me feel redeemed and engaged and more happy with my life is complaining.

Since before Christmas, I’ve been in and out of some dark days. Feeling trapped by parenthood, bitterly resentful towards AJ, tired and bored. I fell into a conversation with my mom over our holiday, and she said, “Well, it just seems like things are going really well for you.” I refused to take the Faker Bait. “Actually, things aren’t going that well. I’ve been having a really hard time.” And then I cleared out every gripe I could find, and laid them all at her feet, like evidence. It was cathartic to set things straight. With my angry little pile of troubles taking up some space between us, I felt known by my mother. It felt good.

So why does complaining, that life-giving art that I’ve recently discovered, get such a bad rap?

Duh. Everyone hates a complainer. Even I hate a complainer.

But there’s a difference between complaining and being a complainer. Being a complainer is looking at the world through sad, complainer glasses, where everything you see is some degree of sucky. Complaining, rather, is sharing about the sucky things that are happening in your life at that moment. You can choose to engage in complaining or not. And the minute you’re done complaining, you can do some reflecting or celebrating or enjoying. That’s the great thing about verbs. And complaining.

There’s also this:

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You need not look far to find dozens of reasons how and why you should commit to your own happiness through gratitude, not sweating the small stuff and looking on the bright side. If we all took these directives to heart, perhaps ours would be a world of happy, appreciative, stress-free, smiling people. I suspect a significant number of them would be secretly crying in bathroom stalls and thinking about suicide between gratitude sessions.

I think gratitude is incredibly helpful. It can re-frame all sorts of things and breathe life into cold, hard places. In our current cultural moment, it’s offered as a cure-all, and like any tool, sometimes it’s not suited for the job. Gratitude is not my go-to choice when I’m strung out on sleep exhaustion, angry at my husband and a good friend asks how I’m doing. Complaining is. That’s because it helps me feel known. It acknowledges my current reality. It takes the air out of my angry, resentful, pitiful place, which frees up some space that can be filled with other things, even–gasp–gratitude.

Gratitude and complaining are different tools for the same job–both have the ability to connect us with our lived experience and people we care about. Depending on the situation, both tools can have the exact opposite effect. Noticing things I’m grateful for when I’m swimming in pitiful seas might give me some perspective and remind me that there are also nice things within reach. Listing gratitudes can also make me feel angry, invisible, patronized, lonely and misunderstood. Same goes for the complaining–it can be alternately liberating or toxic.

Since I’ve been having a pretty crappy time of it, complaining has been my tool of choice. And it’s done quite a job. Again and again, I’ve found myself basking in a post-complaint glow where I’m lighter, kinder and feel more love and appreciation. Take that, gratitude.

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Photo, once again, by Oakley Originals.  Complaining by me.