A Tag-Along for Target Practice

Last week, I told you about my village, the circle of family and friends whose support gave me the energy to crawl out of my latest depressive relapse and care for my girls during my husband’s work trip.

All the help and connection I received lifted me up and got me moving. I rolled one good day into another as I enjoyed and looked forward to each opportunity to exercise, write, and be more than an aching brain.

But when the friends went home, the Facebook chats trickled to a close, and the post-workout highs wore off, I was right back where I started: alone with my spiralling thoughts and the crap-crusted carousel of my kids’ incessant needs.

This is where my depression lives, and the place where I built cerebral training camp.

My plan looked like this:

First, I would clean up lunch, which neither child would have eaten. I would scrape their plates onto mine and shoo the girls into the living room while I stress-ate my second helping.

Then, I would wrestle the one-year-old into a clean diaper and referee between her and the four-year-old until we had litigated our way through two or three storybooks.

Finally, I would lay the toddler down for her nap, and set the preschooler up with a craft of some sort so I could retreat to my room and follow a guided mindfulness meditation.

The first day after my husband left, we went through the preparatory steps. The girls and I were pretty worn out. Little One went down to sleep without protest. I checked on the Big One, and saw that she seemed to be drifting off in her room.

I tiptoed into my room and climbed up onto my bed, the only tidy spot in the house. I took out my phone, turned off the ringer, plugged in my earphones, and called up the body scan meditation at palousemindfulness.com.

I had just lain down and closed my eyes, when Big One’s smurfy voice intruded in my quiet.

“Mommy, can I come and cuddle with you?” she asked.

“It’s Mommy’s quiet time, Sweetheart.” I answered, my eyes still shut.

“What’s in your ears?” My daughter chirped. “What are you doing?”

“I’m listening to some relaxing words,” I said.

“Go play,” I thought.

“Can I listen, too?” the four-year-old asked.

“Hmm…,” I said, frowning.

“Pleeeeeeease, Mommy? Can I please listen to your relaxing words with you?” She begged.

I cracked an eye and looked at her, considering. She raised her arm and started sucking on the back of her wrist, leaning into her curious self-soothing reflex. Above her purple sleeve, she blinked her giant globes of chocolate brown, silently pleading.

I saw the outer corners of her brows sink and her breath snag in the top of her chest. The needle on her anxiety gauge was creeping toward the meltdown zone.

We have been living at the upper end of my girl’s anxiety range for awhile now. I have been searching for ways to help her let go and relax. This slightly annoying request actually presented an opportunity.

I was painfully aware that she had been watching me crawl through a long string of bad days. I had felt her eyes on me many evenings, as I slithered up to bed the moment her dad emerged from work.

I knew she had heard me say, “I’m too tired to play,” too many times, because she was starting to use that line on me when I asked her to tidy her toys or brush her teeth.

I realized that I needed to show my girl the other side of overwhelm. I wanted my anxious, frustrated daughter to see me working, building calm and strength. I hoped to plant the seeds for her own rebellion against the evil empire in her thoughts.

And someday, I wanted to explain that she was the reason I was doing this work. I needed her to know how badly I wanted to be there for her and her sister, and that all the times I had to tap out of motherhood made me sad, too.

“You know what, Honey? Let’s give it a try. I’ll turn up the speaker, and we can listen together.” I said.

My Big One grinned as she clambered up onto the bed beside me, and laid her head on her daddy’s pillow.

With that, she became my first, and only, bootcamp recruit.

We lay there softly, and the recording began. The instructions dissolved, though, before they reached my ears. All I could feel was the quiet, covering us like a blanket.

With my eyes closed, my other senses reached out. I could hear my daughter continue to gently suck her arm for a few minutes, then felt the bed jiggle as her hand came down and she nestled her body into a supine posture of openness.

My firstborn’s peacefulness was sweet and comforting, like home-baked pastry. I took a deep breath, and my throat welled up: such a rush of gratitude and relief.

A tingling in my chest told me I had just released a tight cramp. My heart had been gripping sadness, a sweaty fistful of grief about my girl’s ear-piercing meltdowns and all the things that were tougher than they needed to be.

As I breathed in the quiet, the wad in my chest unfolded further. I saw a hopeless feeling in there. It hovered behind my daughter’s worries and her never-satisfied restlessness, the way that she kept pushing away her peace and sleep, and sliding deeper into my familiar, miserable spiral.

Looking at these feelings was hard. They were sucking me in, dragging me back to prior moments of grief, frustration, and guilt.

But thankfully, amazingly, I realized I didn’t need to go there.

Because of mindfulness, the mental-ninjutsu I have been working so long to learn, I had another option. It gave me a perspective I could reach for beyond the emotions that threatened to overwhelm me.

Counselling, books, and guided meditations like the one I was currently ignoring had helped me see a helpful truth about depression and anxiety. I recognized the chilly muck of rumination, the old, grey thoughts and feelings that trap my brain like quicksand.

Those painful feelings wanted me to do something, but I was so terrified by their strength that I became paralysed, enthralled by my grief instead of taking action to care for it.

I caught myself as I was about to dive in and wallow in memories of every difficult moment with my daughter. I remembered I needed to do something, to take care of my feelings. So I took a breath.

I listened to it whisper in through my nostrils.

I felt my chest tense up as I tried to bring the air in deep.

I felt the breath slowly drain out, dragging against the back of my throat.

I felt the absolute quiet in the pause between my breaths.

I remembered that my girl was right beside me. I heard her breath, even and deep. I realized she was asleep. She had let go, and was doing the thing she needed to be restored.

I listened to my breath. It was not so even, but it was there. My lungs were doing their restorative work, and I realized, so was I.

Even though I was struggling, I had shown up, and I believed that I got stronger each time I consciously decided to let go of those old, worn-out thoughts.

I squeezed my feet, let them relax, and felt a flow of warmth run down my body.

I am going to do this,” I said to myself. “I am going to make this work.

I know you are,” came a small, furry voice.

I could almost feel a puff of warm breath, and a tiny, wet nose tickle my ear.

Thanks for the vote of confidence, Dark Critter,” I whispered to my imaginary raccoon.

Anytime,” my dark friend answered. “By the way, you’ve slept through it.

Wha??” I asked. I suddenly realized the recording was silent, and the baby was stirring in her room next door.

“Aw, crap!” I said out loud, startling the four-year-old.

Better luck next time,” the Critter chuckled, and I knew she meant that there would be a next time, because I was going to keep at it.

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