“What are we doing in the closet?” whispered my imaginary racoon.
“Shh,” I answered, and took a careful sip from my tea mug. I didn’t want to be discovered, nor to spill on all the coats. “We’re playing with the kids.”
Critter tilted her head and looked at me.
“Mooooooo-mmy???” Called my five year old daughter.
“Aaaaaah youuu?” added her two-year-old sister.
I could hear them nearby in the living room, lifting tossed blankets and digging through piles of toys as they expertly combed the scene for my whereabouts.
I took another quiet sip of long-cold tea, and felt the first smile of the day start to spread on my lips. It felt like my first smile all week.
“What’s so funny?” Critter asked.
“This is the best game, ever.” I answered.
In my pocket, the countdown timer on my phone silently ticked away the seconds. Only four more minutes and forty-two seconds left of engaging with the girls before I would have fulfilled my duty, and I could retreat back into the almost-manageable world inside my head.
This week had been hard on the girls and I. A few weeks prior, when I had realized the school holiday was coming, I had promised myself I would maintain our routine of getting up and out of the house each morning.
The plan was to bring the girls to the gym for our allowed two hours of childcare per day. I was counting on those pester-free periods to get caught up on my overwhelming pile of freelance work, and move forward on my personal writing.
After each morning work session, I saw myself taking the girls on an outing – to the library, the dollar store, or a visit to one of their great-grandmas. Then, we would return home for lunch and the baby’s naptime. While the littlest one dozed, I would squeeze in some quality one-on-one with my big girl, and then send her off to play while I hunkered down for another couple of hours of satisfying productivity.
“But what really happened,” said Critter, butting into my internal narration, “was that you slept-in every day, fought incessantly with the kindergartener, and took your Facebook addiction to new heights. It took you three hours to get breakfast on the table, five to brush your teeth, and seven to decide that you weren’t cooking dinner. Every single day.”
I turned to Critter and glared at her in the dark of the closet.
Being all gifted with night vision, my conscience personified had no trouble reading my expression. She just didn’t care.
“Honestly, I don’t know why you bothered,” she drove on. “It was painful to watch. And the look on your oldest kitten’s face was shattering when she asked you each morning, ‘What are we doing today, Mom?’ and you looked at the floor and answered, ‘I don’t know.’ I could see her pulse quicken every time. And then her questions came more often; ‘What’s for breakfast?’ ‘What’s for snack?’ ‘Are we going out today?’ It became obsessive. And every ‘I don’t know,’ drove her a little more batty. This morning, she looked like she wanted to shake you.”
My stomach turned. Although I felt Critter was being a bitch about it, I knew she was right. My daughter had become painfully anxious as each day passed and she watched my eyes fog over, thicker and thicker. Her disappointment and insecurity added heaps to my guilt and shame.
It bubbled up behind my lips like hot acid.
“Thanks for the recap, you mold-licking pest.” I growled. The words squeezed out through my clenched teeth and my breath steamed out through my nostrils.
Critter straightened up and eyed me coolly.
“If you think you’re going to scare me off this tender topic, you’re mistaken.” She said.
Tears burned in my eyes.
“God-DAMN IT, Critter!” I hissed. “ Can’t you leave me the fuck alone? Don’t you see that I’m a mess? I can’t do this with you right now. Go the fuck away! You’re not helping!”
The girls voices drifted down from the upstairs where they continued their search for me. Squished in between our winter coats and snowpants, I panted rage. My tea mug shook and sloshed precious caffeine onto my night shirt.
I felt the cold soak into my skin, and gasped. Critter and I both looked toward my belly, where the spill bloomed.
“I’m making a mess,” I whispered, and my mind started to float away to the numb place.
Critter called me back.
“Yeah, you are.” She stated.
I looked at her. She looked at me. My gaze started to slip down to the floor. Critter stepped forward and touched my arm.
“No,” she said. “Come back. Be here.”
I looked into Critter’s eyes, and tried to be there. My mouth was open. My mind was an ocean of grey, indistinguishable from the pea soup fog above it.
A tear spilled down my cheek.
“Oh, Critter,” I sighed. “What am I going to do?”
Critter looked into my eyes and stroked my arm. I could feel warmth radiate from the dime-sized patch of skin where her paw touched. It soaked deep and spread wide, into my bone, up my arm, and right through my chest. If this warmth were water, I would be sopping wet. Instead, I was sopping warm, thoroughly soothed and comforted inside every single cell.
She stretched both paws up to my belly, and I bent to pick her up, leaving my tea mug on the floor. I held Critter’s body to my heart and swore I could hear the staccato rhythm of our heartbeats combined.
“You’re asking the right question,” she said, and wiped a tear off my face.
I inhaled deep and sighed from my navel.
“What do you want to do?” she asked.
Without thinking, I answered, “I want to be present for the kids.”
“Then, do that,” Critter said.
“But it’s so hard,” I said. “I look at them, and see every beautiful thing that they are. But then they start talking, and I get overloaded. They babble, drone, speak over top of each other and ask meaningless questions… It makes me want to scream. I can’t process it right now. I just can’t.”
Critter put her forehead onto mine and looks through my eyes into the grey matter behind them.
“You can,” she said. “Just a little. Just enough.”
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Keep on doing this,” Critter said, waving her paw toward the hanging outerwear behind me. “Bite-sized bits of attention. Keep it manageable. Try to give them as much structure as you can.”
Then, she looked back into me.
“Stop saying, ‘I don’t know what we’re doing,’” she finished.
My heart started to pound again.
“But, I DON’T know what we’re doing!” I said. “I keep making plans and failing them!”
“Then, stop making plans.” Critter says. Like it was as simple as that.
I thought, What if it is as simple as that?
Critter watched me consider that for a moment. Then, she continued.
“It’s like when you or the girls are sick,” she said. “You pay attention to the symptoms, and try to make a call by bedtime about what is going to happen tomorrow. You give your big one a heads up if she might miss school.”
I thought about that.
“Sure,” I said, “but that’s much easier to anticipate than this. I can see and touch a cold or flu. I can take a temperature, listen to the cough, tally the patterns of sleep, appetite, or behaviour, and then make an educated guess about how severe it will be the next day. But with my mood, anything can happen. I can go from zero to a thousand, and back again, within a day.”
Critter raised an eyebrow.
“Is it really that hard to predict?” she asked.
I thought about it. I replayed the week, each day from morning to evening, and mentally graphed my levels of energy and functioning.
I realized I had known since Monday morning that the whole week was going to be a shit show.
“Holy cow,” I said. “You’re right.”
“I know,” she said.
“So, what do I do?” I asked. It felt like something was about to come clear.
“Read the signs,” Critter said, “and adjust your plans accordingly.”
Holy fuck. Did that ever sound simple.
“That’s it?” I asked.
“That’s it,” she confirmed.
Just then, like a herd of baby buffalo, I heard the girls come down the stairs.
“Mommy?” said my oldest; “Where are you hiding?”
Then, my phone deetle-deeted, as the timer ran out. I let it carry on while I watched through the crack where the closet door hinged. The two-year-old turned in a circle, while the five-year-old’s face lit up like a birthday cake.
She grinned as she walked straight to the closet, then paused with her hand on the handle.
She pulled the door open slowly, holding her breath with her mouth open.
“Tadaaa!” I said. “You found me!”
“I always find you, Mommy.” my daughter said.
“Yes, you do, my love.” I answered.
And it was true. She always helped me find myself. Someday, I might tell her how much help we both had received from a certain imaginary raccoon.
If you feel like your grief and depression throw you so far off-balance, that you can’t react and adjust your course, look deeper.
When you start to spiral downward, do you panic?
If so, who are you most loath to disappoint? Is it your kids, your partner, or your clients and colleagues?
Can you imagine a scenario where you gave these people a heads up about your state, adjusted your plans, and everyone took it in stride?
When I finally explained to my daughter that we had to change our plans for the rest of the week, she was disappointed. I had thought that would be excruciating for me, but it was actually easy. I just found myself explaining to her, as I did ten thousand times on the average day, that sometimes we feel disappointed; it’s okay to be sad about it, but ultimately, we need to figure out how to flex and find another way to meet our needs.
We will be rescheduling our fun for the week after Christmas, when my energy is very likely to be back.
That conversation with my daughter was incredibly liberating. Getting things out in the open and establishing new plans lightened my brain fog considerably. I was even able to get some of my freelance work done in the afternoon and release even more overwhelming pressure.
My daughter hasn’t forgiven me yet for letting our “fun week of holidays” dissolve into an unsettling stretch of cabin fever and tv overload. It’s going to be work to process this with her, but I feel like I can handle it. Confronting my fear about letting her down freed up some energy I have desperately need to manage this mess of a week.
I think I’m going to be alright tomorrow. We might even leave the house.
I hope that you find a way to brush off the fog that wraps around your brain, and that the solutions you need are sitting right there when your vision clears.
And if you need some ideas for engaging with your kids when your mental fuel gauge is on E, check out this brilliant post by The Ugly Volvo.