Addiction is a Disease. Period.

In the last year we’ve lost three of the greatest actors of our time: James Gandolfini. Philip Seymour Hoffman. Robin Williams. Only after they died did we learn the true depth of their suffering.

After Gandolfini’s passing you didn’t hear as much anger or blame in the response. People were just sad. Because his compulsion was overindulgence – we can all relate to that. He was a man of big passions, he loved food, he loved cigars. While worrisome (and ultimately fatal), this type of behavior can even be admired in a man of his stature – he deserved to put his feet up and enjoy himself after all his hard work. People weren’t angry at him.

In the cases of Hoffman and Williams, I don’t have to discuss how visceral and inappropriate the response has been. And I probably don’t have to spell out that the difference is because their problems were addiction and depression. It is widely known that if a person had cancer we’d all be rallying to support them and their family, bringing food, making hospital visits, starting funds, holding charity baseball games, leaving coffee cans around town for donations. But when they have the disease of depression, or alcoholism, and a host of others I’m forgetting, we shun them. We blame the sick person.

Ironically, while looking for answers to Williams’ death, I found comfort (or at least a laugh) in Chris Rock’s retweet of an Onion story about how assigning blame is now the fastest human reflex. I think when we’re feeling grief over a suicide or an overdose, we blame the person because we are hurting and it’s their fault. Then it becomes very easy not to see the victim’s hurt.

When I first studied alcoholism, I learned that anyone can suffer from addiction. And many people in your daily life are actively struggling with it. It is very easy to put on a mask of normality and continue about your business. You can rise to the highest position in your career and go on for years in an active drugs and alcohol situation without anyone really suspecting what’s going on. A “drunk” is not just the guy living in the gutter.

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

Thank you Mrs. McShea, 2nd grade

In elementary school we learn (well we used to learn, I don’t know if it lives up to common core standards nowadays) that you have several aspects to your “self” – mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical. We were told that in order to have a happy life, we should work to keep all these areas healthy. My husband and I are teaching our kids that when your body is sick, you go to the doctor. When your mind is sick, you go to the therapist. There is no shame in this. It’s common sense. Our society needs to embrace this ideology and stop shunning normal human responses to stress. Because we’ve got more stress than ever nowadays.

Throughout my life I’ve loved people who suffered from mental illness. I’ve loved people who suffered from depression. I’ve loved people who suffered from addiction. Those people deserve no less respect than the ones stricken with other more socially acceptable diseases. They crave compassion just as any other sick, hurting person does, and it is not their fault that they are sick.

Until you’ve walked in someone else’s shoes you have no idea what they suffer. There but for the grace of God go I. In these times of loss no one has the right to cast judgment, or call someone a coward, or say how could they not get help. These men were fighting battles their whole lives, as any addict does. Sometimes they win. Sometimes they don’t.

I don't have his egg anymore :(

I don’t have his egg anymore :(

Mr. Williams’ death hit me hard. The odd thing is several of my friends said they thought of me when they heard the news – I don’t know why, except that I’ve obviously loved him as so many other people have throughout the years (or maybe it was my Mork from Ork action figure). People say he had everything, and how could this happen. I think we need to flip that around and see the other side: the fact that he was able to get up, get out of bed, get to work, get on stage, get in front of people – everything that he gave in spite of what he was dealing with is nothing short of a miracle. We should simply be grateful.

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Summer, Boys, Bikes, Freedom

And a woman who held a babe against her bosom said,
– Speak to us of children!
And he said:
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts,
For they have their own thoughts.
You may strive to be like them,
but seek not to make them like you.
You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.
The archer sees the mark upon the path of the infinite,
and He bends you with His might that His arrows may go swift and far.

Khalil Gibran – The Prophet

One of my dearest friends gave me those words and they hang on my fridge, an everyday reminder of what’s important to me. If our refrigerators are a peek into our minds, I am a more than slightly crazy person. But my kids are doing great.

Anyway these words ring truer for me this year more than any. When she first gave me the poem my kids were so young, probably still in preschool and kindergarten. At that time letting them fly into the world meant spending a few hours a day away from me in the full-time care of another competent adult. And that felt huge for both of us.

This summer, even the past few weeks, have meant whole new worlds opening for them. Last year it started with the baby steps of letting them walk home from school with a gang of friends and hang out downtown, terrorizing local businesses with noise, food messes, and probably the occasional profanity. Today, they are free to go wherever and whenever they want. They tell me whose house they’re going to, or what store, and hop on their bikes and off they go. They haven’t started taking the money directly out of my wallet yet – they still ask for it and wait around to count it.

They even had their first real babysitting job yesterday, the two of them together (I figure that’s better than one, in an emergency they might be able to use each other’s help, or just make each other more panicked, but eventually somebody would figure out what to do?). Letting them be in charge in someone else’s home (and that dear lady for trusting them) felt like baby steps into adulthood, just as those preschool steps felt so many years ago. It doesn’t seem like it in my memories, but I have to admit it – ten years is a long time.

The choices they are making show me how far these arrows will go. The other day when they wanted to go for a ride downtown I gave them all the cash I had, which came down to a whopping $4 each to spend at the candy store. I figured it would be gone in seconds, on milk shakes or the biggest bag of candy ever. But they came home and handed me a Kit Kat. It was the best part of my whole week.

Best candy bar ever

Best candy bar ever

Their thoughts are their own and they make that clear when I try to impose mine, which is great. They’ll listen to advice but make up their own minds (and that’s when I have to back off). As another friend said the other day, her girls who are the same ages as mine won’t speak all day but then something will come out and she has to be READY and focused at that moment to hear what they have to say. But when they do share what’s on their mind I’m so pleased.

The ways in which I strive to be like them are many. They’re small adults but still uncomplicated. They ask questions and really are curious about how the world works. They fight bullies and speak truth. There’s no drama or if there is, they get over it in the boy way of punching each other, being mad for a little while, and then getting over it.

I know I can learn more from them, or from the journey I am taking because of them, than they can learn from me. They’ll get educated on the subjects they need to learn eventually. That’s not my job. Making sure they know what’s important – and knowing when it’s their turn to teach me – that’s my job.

Feeling Contemplative on a Bike Ride

A day for me. As a home child care provider, let me stress to you how rarely this happens. I have worked for 12 years in my home, every day, all day. Think about it – when you’re a child care provider, you can’t leave the house. You don’t run out for a cup of coffee, or take an afternoon off for a dentist appointment. You don’t even get to stop at the market on the way home for a gallon of milk. You just – stay home. It’s a little confining. Don’t have claustrophobia and become a home child care provider.

Lately I’ve found myself taking a few steps back into the world. It’s been wonderful getting re-acquainted, and seeing the town around me for the fun and lively place it is. Of course in true motherly fashion, the day for me became the day I scheduled the recall work on the car. But that’s OK because it forced me to take a bike ride around my town, which is one of my favorite things to do.

I dropped the car off early and relished the quiet morning before the world woke up. I rode to the bridge over the river and took pictures of the rowing crew working out. Smelled the fresh air and flowers (and the garbage truck), and watched all the people dressed up in business clothes heading to work.

As I passed the sights along the way my moods changed wildly: traffic building at the highway entrance. A homeless man sleeping along the bike path. A grandmotherly lady with her bike basket, smiling and ringing her bell. The words “kill you” graffiti’d on the bridge underpass. A nanny with two young boys on bikes. A young guy with headphones actually smiling pleasantly. A serious bike racer all decked out in spandex.

My mind wandered and I couldn’t help but flash back on the days when I used to get up and go, like these folks, to a real professional-like office job. I thought about the plans I’ve made that have come true, and those that didn’t. How I felt about the loss of those things and how I’ve come to be content where I am. The benefits of a corporate job versus being my own boss and working with children. I thought about working at home and how nice it would be to work away from home again. Did I make the right choices, for myself and for my children?

I was probably in this speculative mood because we spent the weekend at a family wedding. My sons got it – the meaningfulness of what was happening. They knew they were part of something big and they took it seriously. They loved every minute of spending time with family and were incredibly sad when it was over. When I asked Older why he didn’t want to leave he said, “I don’t know when we’ll have everyone together like this again.” I promised right then to find an occasion, or throw a party for no reason just to make it happen.

My husband and I have recently had some deep conversations about the meaning of real parenting. Is it sending your kids away to camp to teach them independence? Is it letting them lay around the house all summer and get the desperately-needed downtime their bodies require for summer growth spurts? Is it strict discipline or having fun? Where is the balance and what is right? Does any of it matter that much, if they grow up to be relatively happy and sane people?

In the end that’s really the most you could ask for. I think parenting comes down to this: having fun. Teaching them to be grateful for what they have and to share what they can. Keeping them interested in trying new things, and showing them the joy of exploring new places. Letting them know that things may turn out as planned, or they may not, but you move on and find the next thing. Giving them a sense of hope, and the resiliency to keep moving ahead no matter what comes.

Don’t Make Me Go All Amnesty on Your Ass

Some moments in child care take everything you’ve learned up until that moment. It sometimes feels like the culmination of my whole life as a daughter, sister, mother, master’s degree student, teacher, and therapist. The last of which I’m not, but often find myself having to be with the demands of the job.

This week’s moment was with my brother and sister pair. They are typical siblings with the usual squabbles who band together rabidly if anyone else bothers them (she’s MY sister – only I can beat the crap out of her!). This time it was brother who took the blow. I missed the beginning of the fight but saw and heard the outcome. He hit the deck, hard. Full-on WWE body slam.

I walked into the room and all eyes were on me. I had a lot of choices as to how to handle this situation. I could yell and make a big scene, I could punish her, I could try to set an example for all the kids by showing everybody how wrong this was, and how angry it made me.

Sister was too afraid to even say she was sorry. She was staring at me waiting for the hammer to come down.

I looked at brother. He was laying on the floor, pained not only because he’d whacked his head pretty good, but I could see it in his eyes: How could she do this to me? My heart melted.

I didn’t say a word to anybody. I went to him, knelt down, pulled him into my lap, and just sat and hugged him in silence.

No one knew what to do. They spoke a few words here and there but were at a loss as to what I was thinking. I looked around at the kids and realized they were all playing their roles. Sister knew she was in trouble and was trying to blend into the background while knowing she still had to atone for it.

The other instigator of the fight knew this was big, but was thinking I didn’t know she had anything to do with it and she might get off scot free. My class clown started being funny to try to distract everybody from the tension. But I wasn’t going to move on without addressing the moment.

As I sat and held brother I took a moment to collect my thoughts and decide how I was going to handle this. It was good to let the kids stew for a moment, worrying about how much trouble this was going to be. And it’s good for me not to have to make snap decisions all the time. Sibling fighting is a ploy for attention, and sometimes when you give the right attention the fight is resolved (doesn’t mean there won’t be another one).

I remembered raising my own boys and being so angry at one when he’d hurt the other. It didn’t matter who was the perpetrator or what they did – when one of my babies was hurt, mama bear roared. It was unacceptable to me – you do NOT hurt your brother! This is your FAMILY. That may be the one thing I fought them the hardest on, and I know I got it from my mother.

My sister and I rarely had fights but when they did, they were a doozy. I didn’t necessarily want her to be punished – I just wanted someone to understand how I felt. My mother would spend a while talking with her in her room, then come to me. Usually we’d have to say sorry, but it didn’t feel so hard after we aired our feelings and got the attention we needed.

In the end I just ignored everyone but brother and kept asking him how he felt. We talked about how hurt and scared he was. I asked why she pushed him down. He said he took her toy. I said, “Do you think taking her toy made her angry?” He nodded yes. Then I asked, “Do you think it’s fair to be tackled for taking a toy?” After that, sister approached and genuinely apologized to him.

I don’t know how much it sank in – it certainly didn’t stop them from battling out the rest of the week. But for the moment, she really saw that what she’d done was wrong. Brother felt comforted, not because it came from me but most importantly, because it came from his sister.

And at lunch time, when sister told me, “You always give me the food last,” I resisted the urge to tell her that those who try to destroy their brother will eventually pay the price.

Remembering a Hero

There’s nothing I hate more than when someone passes and the tributes come rolling out. Our heroes should hear the tributes and get the thanks before they die. So I sit here with the regret I knew I’d have for never sending that fan mail to Maya Angelou.

What held me back was, she’ll never read it anyway. Who’s to say she would even care? She’s heard it all before. But who’s to say she wouldn’t have read it, been touched, and even written me back? (That’s positive thinking. I stole it from my therapist friend.)

So now, without irony, I roll out my tribute to Dr. Angelou. I had the privilege of seeing her on two of her lecture tours in 2003 and 2006. She was still agile even moving in slow motion, so eloquent and funny, full of wonderful stories, bawdy, and even a little harsh. Tough love, but mostly love.

She spoke so much truth and beauty that I found myself scribbling what she was saying on the covers of my Playbill. Here is what she said (paraphrased, not direct quotes, from notes I scribbled on my Playbill in the dark ten years ago):

We all have the potential to touch. Our power to make the world a better place is immense.

Laugh as much as possible.

(On a young girl’s stubborn use of the n-word): It’s poison and it diminishes me. It diminishes us.

We are more alike than unalike. Too many facts hide the truth. If we truly internalized this our world would not be in the state that it’s in.

Be careful when a naked person offers you a shirt.

(On her uncle, who helped raise her): I am where I am today because somebody dared to be a light and shine on me. He made me love to learn. The power of the light to infect, to lead someone out of the dark, to dim, into the light; for each one of us who dares to think we can be of service – we are lights, and we have the possibility of lighting our family. It is time for us to take the responsibility of being lights.

I can still hear the breadth of her voice and the timber and cadence she used while saying those words, and I could’ve listened to it forever. She was mesmerizing. Once at a work convention we had to answer the question, “Who would you have dinner with if you could choose one celebrity?” and I chose her. That day I met and became friends with an amazing woman who I’ve kept in contact with for years since then. She said when I spoke Maya Angelou’s name, she thought, there’s a person I want to be friends with. So I have proof that Miss Angelou brought people together in ways she never knew.

The regret I have for not sending that fan mail reminds me of the time I saw Stan Lee in the lobby of a hotel and was too afraid to approach him. My husband tried to coach me on what to say but I was frozen. I even thought about writing him a letter too, explaining that the dork who was secretly trying to take his picture with her phone was too shy to say something like, you are amazing and your work is a gift and thank you so much for sharing it with us. (Well it WAS Comic-Con weekend and I’m sure the poor man had enough of weird people coming up and worshiping him to hold him for a long time.)

So, Stan Lee, thank you for the world you created that enthralls and entertains my sons and me. Thank you for sharing your creativity and stories and the life lessons snuck in there (or slammed over our heads with Thor’s hammer). Thank you for inspiring us to create as well.

Thank you to all the friends and mentors, famous or not, who have inspired me on the way. It takes a lot of support and guidance to keep a person going. It often comes in the smallest moments, when you’re least expecting it, sometimes from the last place you’d expect. In reflecting on Maya Angelou’s legacy, I hope to be more open to those moments.

And I take the responsibility of working as hard as I can to raise good people. During her lecture she recited some verse on the death of a loved one: “Look for me. I am present in the songs children sing. I’m living in the games children play.” That is where our work lives on and our light shines strongest.

Pawns in the Game of Common Core Chess

Here’s something new. Louis CK has a new season of his show starting tonight, and while on the press tour he has decided to start a battle against common core standards. Just when I thought I couldn’t love him anymore.

I came across this information in this month’s New Yorker blog, which mentions US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s battle FOR common core and support of standardized testing. In Arne’s opinion, opposition to the Common Core State Standards has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were. You’ve bet your house and where you live and everything on, ‘My child’s going to be prepared.’ That can be a punch in the gut.'”

Wow. There are so many things wrong with that statement I don’t even know where to begin. Let’s just start with my rage. My privileged, white suburban mom rage.

I happen to know my kids pretty well. I know they’re not Einstein, and I know they’re also pretty damn smart. I also knew what I was getting into when I made the choice to live in my town, all by my big grownup girl self (and I managed to make these life decisions without the benefits of MCAS, PARCC, or Common Core in my public school education!).

I know that my kids aren’t stressed out because they’re over-scheduled privileged white suburban youths. Their weekend soccer games are their outlet, the place they get to shine, as opposed to the school system that tells them they are built wrong (but perhaps I’m just an overwrought soccer mom whose priorities are in the wrong place).

My kids are stressed out because every day they are made to feel there is something wrong with them if they can’t easily understand the work they’re supposed to be breezing through and producing results on. They’re stressed out because every night we struggle through homework for hours and spend most of that time with nobody in the house, including mom and dad, understanding the meaning of the questions or the point of the exercise.

My kids are stressed out because they hear that their teachers are doing a shoddy job when everyone in the class hasn’t gotten stellar ratings on a test that shows absolutely nothing about their abilities or chances for future success in the real world, where people’s talents and performance aren’t based on filling in bubbles on a page.

As to Arne’s opinion on us suburban moms and how we feel about our schools: my kids have had what I feel to be the best education they could in this day and age, and that is in spite of testing, not because of. They’re getting a good education because of their TEACHERS, who are outrageously dedicated and caring despite the ridiculousness of the situation they’ve been put in, and the incredible (and unnecessary) amount of stress they have to shoulder on a daily basis.

That the head of the education department in this country considers parents to be whiners because their kids aren’t successful is telling. It shows the true depth of his ignorance regarding the people he’s serving.

The Washington Post further states that “when confronted with the truth through lower test scores and other indicators, the unhelpful response, in Arne’s view, is to say, ‘Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better.’ The more productive response for a community or a state is to ask, ‘What can we do to get better, so our students can graduate from high school, succeed in college and be competitive for good jobs?’”

I’d say the most productive response would be to say, why don’t we ask the experts what children need to succeed in school? And why don’t we leave that schooling in the hands of the educators who actually have experience, knowledge, education, and wisdom in the area of working with children? And why don’t we take some of the billions of dollars we’ve spent on testing and put that back towards education?

Aye, there’s the rub (Hamlet reference. I know that from my public school education). Far too many people are making far too much profit off our children. That’s why they are no more important than numbers on a graph, and their mothers are marginalized as hysterical, spoiled, over-reacting princesses when we question why our kids, teachers, and schools are suffering.

I have to fight the battle every day to convince my kids that school is important and homework is important even when I don’t believe in the system. It can be easy for people like Arne Duncan to confuse my frustration with white suburban privilege. I do believe in my schools and teachers. I believe in my kids. And I’m bright enough to be able to see when they are being used as pawns in a political game, and then blamed for not knowing how to play.

This year I let my kids choose if they wanted to opt out of their standardized testing. They wanted to do it, if only because of the candy and free time at the end of the day. Next year I don’t think they get the choice. They will not be subject to this madness any more. As a parent, it is my job to protect my children from those that would abuse them, and that includes the unskilled, ill-informed politicians who are wrongly in charge of their education. Arne, we’re not playing your game anymore.

Tax Time

This happens every year. I don’t do my taxes quarterly, as I’m supposed to, just because I’m lazy. So tax time is several hours’ worth of digging through a giant pile of receipts. It is a bittersweet exercise in remembering the highs of the year and realizing how much my kids have grown.

It’s like going through a scrapbook of the year. As I check store names for deductible items I find a record of my family’s activities: meals out at favorite restaurants, holiday and birthday fun, visits with friends and relatives. Ticket stubs from the movies we saw (Star Trek Into Darkness: yeah!! Thor the Dark World: eh) and trips to the museum (including a memorable one playing with cousins in the giant stick house).

Here’s a receipt from the day Younger almost had to get a tooth pulled, and was in so much pain that I bought him a toy just to take his mind off it. All the early weekend morning soccer game Dunkin’ Donuts runs, and treats bought at convenience stores. The days we rode our bikes on the Cape Cod bike trail to the general store for root beer, Italian ice, and cinnamon donuts that you can’t find anywhere else.

The night Younger and I wandered through the mall for three hours trying to find him hiking shoes for our trip to Utah. No one understood why we were going to the desert except the girl in the Merrell store, who finally got excited and jealous for us, and from whom we happily bought overpriced shoes that he’d be able to wear for all of one season.

And here’s the restaurant we found on that trip, where Older loved the brownie sundae so much we had to go back and get him another before we left. And of course I said yes because it was VACATION.

Here was the day after Thanksgiving, when we had to drive from one family in NJ to the other on Cape Cod. It was a mighty trek across five states and though we tried to make it, we had to stop for lunch at a diner. It’s not even that they were cranky, because they’re superhero travelers now, but more because we all needed a break from the monotony and to look at each other’s faces. We played Chat Pack and laughed at the crazy, big, loud family at the table next to us.

The annual weekend in NH with Grammy that we’re still trying to squeeze out of them before they get too old and uninterested to go. If she keeps up the swimming/spending/eating/spoiling trends we’ve set, I think we’re guaranteed to get them for at least a few more.

The afternoon when Younger and I went to a lecture at the museum to research a school project. We ate lunch in the museum cafe and I marvelled at my grown-up boy, wondering how many lunches we’ll share in the future.

The last batch of Valentines to pass out at school. It’s simply not done in middle school. Which is a relief for me, rushing out to buy them the evening before they’re due, getting home to find out there are only 20 and we need 24, stuffing them all into those little envelopes and spending the rest of the evening at the kitchen table making sure he signs every single one. Or, is it a relief after all?

The grocery receipts tell the story of school lunches: the snacks they liked as young ones are long gone. Fourth-grade juice boxes have been replaced by fifth-grade water bottles. And that reminded me of the kid on Younger’s baseball team whose nickname was Juice Box, and we all thought it was the greatest thing. Will he be begging them to stop this year?

And that reminded me that Younger refuses to try out for baseball this year because he’s all about soccer now. The little league pictures of smiling boys in baseball hats are already relics.

During tax week I’m up until midnight several nights in a row, exhausted from trying to get through this exercise, which makes me an emotional wreck as well. I’m involuntarily crying on the receipts that I’m trying to read clearly (with my new reading glasses because my eyes are getting worse as I get older). But I am filled with the memories of a beautiful year. Time passes quickly, parents. Soak it up while you can.