Wanted: a win, easy or hard. Not being picky.

The past three years have been hard.

That’s not accurate. The past three decades have been hard.

But let’s not think in terms of decades right now. Let’s pick up one of the themes of the last blog post again. Namely: what do you do when you’re singularly unsuccessful in everything you do?

Okay, I can’t claim I’m singularly unsuccessful in everything. I think I’m a decent mom. Not the best, mind you, but it’s a wonder I’m any good, given all the mental health issues. And I cook well. And I organize everything for my family. Oh, the joy! To be a glorified servant to mostly ungrateful people.

But, as I said last time, I’m jobless, careerless, and pretty much prospectless and likely to die in poverty because I’ll get no pension if I keep going on like this. For a person who grew up with the ooohs and aaahs of teachers, with the how-smart-you-are and the subsequent, continuing to this day, exclamations, “Oh! Astrophysics!” it’s kind of a bitter pill to swallow to not be able to get your ducks in a row.

And, boy, are my ducks all over the place.

Last time I tried to look for an industry job, I was unceremoniously dismissed for being “too unstable.” In this case, “unstable” means: PhD in Astrophysics, half a post-doc in Astrophysics, which I quit (HELLO, depression!), then baby, ruined health, ruined body, getting back in sort-of shape, a stint in web development, then climate science. That last bit went horribly wrong, and I mean badly, horribly, you’ll-never-work-in-this-field-again wrong.

And here I am, an unemployed mom of two, with several large gaps in her resume, wondering what the hell I’m going to do with my life, and agonizing over petty cash. Watching everyone pass me by. To be forty, and highly educated, and to watch all your dreams shatter in slow motion, your erstwhile peers becoming financially comfortable and settling into careers, and you slipping into a different socioeconomic class than everyone you know and just not being able to belong anywhere anymore. To have lost twenty years to mental health problems and the inertia of a neurodiverse partner who always stayed at home–so you didn’t do anything in your youth, and now your youth is gone and you still can’t do anything, but for different reasons. You and your big brain are largely useless to the world, and to yourself.

So, I need a win. Any win, as long as it’s for me.

I don’t mind working for it. I don’t mind training for it. I don’t mind spending a lot of time and effort to make it happen. I don’t mind if it’s as small as earning a hundred bucks a month–even that is a dream, right now–or even smaller, as small as selling a couple books per month. Or getting a couple reviews on a book. Or getting editing jobs. Or getting fitter. Or being able to hike uphill. Or sleeping well three days in a row. Anything, anything will do.

I don’t know if any of this is ever going to happen. I don’t believe it will, to be honest. Things don’t usually work out for me. But what else is there to do? Sitting and waiting for death is just dumb. I’ll keep trying to make things work, although in my heart of hearts I know it’s kind of futile.

Bleak, I know. If you ask my husband, he’ll tell you that’s just my pessimism, of course things can work out.

— (What the hell does he know? Things work out sweetly for white men with full resumes. They get relentless women who break themselves to make dudes’ lives work, so that people look at them and say–oooh! A hands-on dad! How awesome!)–

But I, being strictly logical and a scientist, look at past evidence: everything I touched crumbled and burned. It’s not the jobs, it’s me. I’m unable to bring things to fruition. I know many people want to see themselves as victims, want to believe what happens to them isn’t their fault. Thing is, this is as much true for the good things as it is for the bad things – but people never credit the good things to chance, do they? They credit their ability, hard work, and challenge.

I won’t do that. If the good things are part talent and work and part luck, the bad things have to be partly blamed on me, too.

As I said, it’s been a bad three years. Burnout, a huge emotional disappointment – a betrayal, if you want, by someone I thought was my friend – my daughter’s debilitating anxiety, the near-disintegration of our family, which took dozens of hours of counseling and a large change in school to save, the discovery husband’s high-functioning autism; all those things have left us reeling. I’m reeling. And my own inability to do anything with my life, earn money, be productive in any way…

But then again, maybe I’m too harsh on myself.

My daughter’s five-year-long anxiety, which culminated in her not sleeping and not being able to go to school, was resolved only last fall. We’re still recovering from that.

My husband was finally able to get evaluated by a professional re: autism. After lots of family therapy – he can’t go to therapy on his own; he literally doesn’t know what to say, so he ends up not resolving anything – he exhibits great progress with the regulation of his emotions and temper. He’s more open, calmer – and people notice. Our house isn’t the arena of daily shouting matches anymore. Our daughter sleeps at night. She goes to school. She does homework, on her own, for the first time in her life.

But this all doesn’t count, does it? Because that’s not how success is measured. It’s all unseen, unappreciated, unpaid work. And so, the danger remains that if I don’t manage to find or create a job for myself, I’ll keep not being able to follow my friends to outings and trips. And from there, greater dangers – like old age without pension – loom ahead.

Five months and five days, or: it never goes away

Sometimes, I’m convinced I don’t count.

I could tell you exactly for what and to whom, but I suppose the important thing is: the answer must be, to me. Because, let’s face it, I’m not in anyone else’s head, and I can’t know if I count to them at all. I only have their words and reactions to judge from, and I attach myself to people whose words and reactions don’t match. And I don’t know how society in general sees me, victim as I am – as we all are – to confirmation bias and other fallacies of the brain. And my brain has never been kind to the rest of me.

But, yeah. All that’s irrelevant, because it’s how I feel, and if there’s one thing I learned in the past two struggling years, it’s this: you have to at least try to accept that your feelings matter.

As with everything, this is an uphill battle. Some days are good, and I can put my foot down and say, “No! This is what I feel, and you won’t gaslight me!” Now, granted, this happens mostly with my husband, who’s already doing his best – jury’s out on whether his best is best enough – but, anyway. Small victories.

So, back to our subject: I quit the SSRI a few weeks back. It’s been fine. No particular anxiety – except the usual, like, “I’m the only one in my neighborhood, circle of friends, town, or maybe the universe who is highly educated but has no job, no career, no prospects, and will have no pension and die in poverty, nevermind those few trips I dreamed of taking and things I wanted to experience in my already slipping-through-my-fingers life.” Or, “I got fat again.” (I did. I have learned to accept my body, but my body can’t take me places anymore. I used to do ballet and hike uphill, although with difficulty. Now, I’m really overweight – because the last months, years, decades, have been hard and I’m very consciously allowing myself to binge-eat a little – and feel bad about it, because my knees hurt and I can’t even do the ballet trainings right.) Or, um, other things of sensitive nature. The not being a woman, for example. I struggle with that, too. As I always did, as I always will. And other stuff, too personal to mention. Yes, more personal than being in love with a guy that used to be my best friend, and publishing a book about all the pathetic details of it, and him abandoning me in every possible way you can abandon a person, and me being a freaking mess on-and-off ever since.

The latest “off” phase lasted five months and five days.

I hadn’t cried about it, or him, or whatever it is I keep crying about, since September. I know the exact date, because I wrote it down, as I write too many things that happen down. September 13 is where I closed my memoir, thinking, that’s over. I’m healing. I have friends, I am loved, I have my children. There’s a sort of life to be lived here, unimpressive as it is.

And then, last week I made the mistake of looking at the book’s reviews. There was a new one, by a woman who wrote, I must admit, I wanted to march to Munich and shake Ioanna quite a few times. Her patience is inspiring, she must be a truly great friend to have and know.”

Yeah. Great friend, inspiring, patient, whatever. I still don’t count.

Right after I read the review – and quite a bit dazed by the fact that a stranger, number one: wanted to shake me back to my senses as she read about how I lost myself to a person who according to most of my friends didn’t deserve a tiny bit of me, and, number two: came to the conclusion that I’m a great friend while I’ve been agonizing for months about whether I’m the one being unfair to him, I reached into my nightstand, where I keep proof copies of all my books, and took Until We Meet in Denver out.

That was a mistake. Because, as you’ve already figured out, I’m not over that story yet. I was over it, for five months and five days. And then I wasn’t.

Does it ever go away?

I’ve been talking with one of my most loyal readers, Phil, since the book came out. His answer to my question was, no. If you’ve been hurt deeply, it doesn’t really go away. You learn to live with it. You kind of get over it. You even forget about it and have a nice time, and are grateful for family and kids and those friends who didn’t abandon you, and maybe also for the coffee you can afford this week (because you’re moneyless, careerless, jobless, and prospectless, and generally fat and useless – whoops, RSD brain got out of control there for a while), and you think it went away.

It doesn’t go away.

I’m still confused, and hurt, and I haven’t really had closure – although I’ve accepted that I probably never will, because he won’t give it to me, since this has grown larger and more horribly painful than what either he or I ever imagined it could be. And, although I thought the crying part was over, because it’d been, let’s not forget, five months and five days, on that day I took the book out, I started reading the epilogue, and again, I cried.

It’s not only the lady who wrote the review, or Phil, or my friend Dimitra, or Sasha, or James, or everyone who’s ever said to me, “he’s an asshole, forget about him.” Every woman and most men who’ve read the book shrug and say the same thing. It’s almost embarrassing how often the “shake Ioanna back to her senses” thing is mentioned. And, for some of the more hotheaded ones, “if he ever crosses my path…” They are quite emphatic about all of it. In my mind, I wrote a book about how I loved a wonderful person, how I tried to understand him, and how I got very, very hurt through a combination of circumstances, mental health disorders, and life. But what all those people, friends, acquaintances, readers, got out of it, was: this dude is just an asshole.

And you, Ioanna, you are naive.

The thing I don’t tell my friends, readers, reviewers is: I don’t care what any (or, more precisely, pretty much all) of them say. He is not an asshole. I know this person. He is my friend. Was my friend?

So, the point is – and thank you for reading up to here, because I’m just venting and ranting, aren’t I – I don’t count. I don’t count as a woman, never did. I don’t count as a professional, or as much of anything. And, last but not least, I don’t count to him. He will keep going on his trips and his excursions, have his diverse experiences, which is (was) all he cares (cared) about, and I’ll keep being here, fat, careerless, jobless, prospectless, and crying over the pages of a paperback once in a while.


Can I overdose on…

I have ten Lorazepam pills left.

Why am I googling this? What the fuck’s wrong with me? Of course I can’t really overdose on ten milligrams of Lorazepam. I envisioned drifting into a nice deep sleep, just maybe not hurting that much anymore, if only for a couple hours. I mean, sure, if I didn’t wake up from said sleep, it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world. Not that I’m suicidal. I’m not. Never was. What an absurd idea. I’m strong. This is why I have to suffer. Life doesn’t throw metaphorical bricks on people who bruise easily.

I used to have more of those pills, but I gave some to that friend I tried to care for last year. I couldn’t bear the thought he’d be left alone with his panic attacks, with nobody to help him. Of course, I knew he’d taken them before, and he wouldn’t be in danger of an adverse reaction – I do think of everything, after all, I wouldn’t endanger someone like that. Well, friend’s gone, so are my pills. My soft heart might have saved me from, I don’t know what. Temptation? I don’t think you can do much with sixteen milligram either, so nothing’s lost. Nothing’s gained either.

The pain is growing. In the past months, years, decades, I’ve been verbally and emotionally abused, accused, ignored, even neglected by people who should have been there for me. I’ve been made to feel as if I were completely worthless. I used to attribute that to my Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, but it’s not only that, I realised – and Dimitra agrees, so this is my sign that I’m on to something. Some folks just treat you like that, won’t even realise they’re doing it, or, even worse, they’ll feel justified in doing it. My former boss did it. My husband, the man who I now know always loved me, neglected me – unknowingly, because of his emotional handicap. Although now he has understood, and he’s transformed into my greatest supporter. Still, the hurt remains. Can I detach my worth from having been treated like that? Maybe. Can I detach my worth from still being treated like that by some people? Am I worth anything, after all?

The pills. I have a whole bunch of SSRI in the box. Can you overdose on those? Would my husband notice if something was wrong with me? I guess he might. He’s getting better at this. A couple years ago I bet he’d find me dead in the morning and wonder what’d happened. But now I think he’s more sensitive to signs of depression – like me lying in my bed all day, crying, and not being able to do anything at all. Which is how today has been.

I mean, I did put on pants. They’re pyjama pants. I still count it as a win.

How am I going to take care of my kids? They start school tomorrow. And, whatever do they gain from having me around, always in tears, asking myself why, why this is happening, why does everyone else seem to catch a break – lots of breaks, some of them. Why don’t I get to catch a break, too? Is this how it’s going to be? Dreams being broken, one after another, until you’re too old to make any of them come true, and then you just die?

I mean, if this is how my life is going to be, why not accelerate the inevitable?

Of course I won’t accelerate the inevitable. These are just thoughts. Depressive thoughts. I might need to up the SSRI dose.

To tell you the truth, I’ve never had such a bad case of depression before. I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t know how I’ll survive this.

I found this beautiful sign on an excursion yesterday (an excursion which, happily, kept me from crying for a whole day – thank you, Nicolas, for such a nice time!). It says, in German,

“Always have more dreams than reality can destroy.”

It seems to me that reality is winning.

So you think you know what fatigue is

A couple weeks ago, and just as we’d finished the lunch I’d lovingly prepared, my husband told me, “I’ll go out for a walk, okay?”

By the way I looked at him, he knew how I felt about that. He didn’t understand, so I told him how hectic my day had been up to that point, at just about 1:00 p.m.–not even halfway into the day. I hadn’t gone for a walk, of course. After the first three sentences, he shouted, “Stop, I’m already stressed!”

So, let me explain to everyone who’d like to listen what mental load is.

I wake up groggy and tired. My neck’s hurting again. Bad posture at the computer? Who the fuck knows. Husband is sweet–he makes me coffee. Daughter has school at 8:30, which means my office is hers for as long as the zoom meeting with her teacher lasts. Her teacher says it’s always one hour long, and if it’s going to be longer, then she’ll send an email with the info. I haven’t gotten any emails today, so I decide to go out for an hour’s walk. I’ll be back when her lesson is over.

Another ten minutes of quiet to finish my coffee–I’ve allowed Son to listen to an audiobook while Daughter is in “school”–and I put on my hiking top and shoes. I have to do some walking every day, and if I don’t do it now that it’s early, I won’t do it later, when I’m swamped. Our health has been deteriorating during this lockdown. Our eating habits, too. We’ve had fries for three meals in a row. I don’t have ballet right now, which was my way of staying fit and active, and I’m only getting fatter. It’s okay, you’ll think, but it’s really not. I don’t get fat in the “nice” way–or what is considered acceptable in today’s society, at least–not at the hips or butt. My extremities remain matchstick-thin while my midsection bulges. When I’m fat, I have a fat belly, a fat back, and no waist. I’m like a barrel with legs. It’s unacceptable.

But that’s not even the main reason I have to go outside: I have to go outside every day because otherwise I ‘ll lose my god-damned mind.

It’s not only exercise, either. I take with me an invitation to Son’s birthday celebration, which I’ll throw in his friend’s mailbox (only one guest allowed. Corona!). I also take a lot of change with me. Some people don’t bother with small coins, so I regularly have to see that I do something with Husband’s change. It’s such a bother for him to deal with the insignificant details, so he just doesn’t. But my thinking is, we shouldn’t be throwing money away, now should we? The change is for buying eggs at the nearby farm. They have good eggs.

I pop some Ibuprofen before I leave. I can’t count on the walk to fix me–if the neck-related grogginess continues, I won’t be adequately functional today. And there’s a lot of shit to do. Ibuprofen wakes me up. Lately, I totally get why soccer moms in rich neighbourhoods take stimulants. I’d be tempted, too.

I start my route tracker and go first by Son’s friend’s house. Letter in, check, first thing done. I’ve walked 4 km by the time I’m back in my neighbourhood and at the farm. Workout, check. It takes me a while to count all the change, but when it’s done, I pay, and, check! Another thing taken care of. Along with the raw, free-range eggs, I take six cooked, coloured ones (pink, blue, green, yellow, orange, purple) for the kids. Maybe it’ll improve their mood, and they won’t freak out when I tell them to do their homework. Maybe it’ll just make them happy for ten seconds, and I’ll have ten fewer seconds of grumbling.

I’m back. Run upstairs, Daughter still in front of the computer. Why the hell do they make the kids sit in front of a screen for so long? This is not healthy. They get pale and lethargic. Son is playing some game on the old iPhone I’ve given him, so I tell him to stop and get up from the chair. He gets headaches if he plays for too long. He can walk around the room or do some stretching while he listens to a book. No child should be sitting for ninety solid minutes.

Back downstairs. I have to prepare food. Look in the fridge. It’s a whole logistics nightmare to make sure we have everything we need but still not too much, so that it doesn’t spoil, and heaven forbid I forget to buy Son’s favourite sausages or Daughter’s favourite muesli.

Not that I ever forget. I have a detailed database in my head. This is where all the sugar I eat goes: the planning capacity of a caretaker’s brain is endless.

The boiled potatoes have been in the fridge for several days, so has the salad and the rice. I have to figure out how to make meals everybody likes without throwing stuff away. That’s an everyday struggle. Okay, we have lots of cheese–so, potato gratin for lunch, a salad for me and Husband. Phew, that takes care of two out of three. I can make a stir-fry with the rice for tonight; I still have those expired vegetable cans that can go in there, after all. There’s also chicken stock, so I’m thinking noodle soup for the kids (they don’t eat Asian food, the soy sauce and all the crunchy vegetables are just too weird for them).

The kitchen’s a mess; I have to cook and clean at the same time. The plates from breakfast are still on the table. As soon as I’ve put one in the dishwasher, I see the stuff in the sink that needs to be washed by hand, so I do that. Then I run upstairs again. Is the lesson finished? No. It’s been nearly two hours–Daughter is going to be exhausted after this. My blood pressure rises just thinking of the torture that’s going to be convincing her to do homework. She’ll blow up and cry, she’ll get stressed and start fidgeting, she’ll start shaking. I’ll have to be her rock, keep her sane, hug her, tell her to give me all her stress. Mommy’s here.

Is Son playing instead of listening to the audiobook? No, he’s on his feet, listening intently. Phew. Lower probability of hyperactivity and headaches later. Back downstairs. Dang, why are there still plates on the table? Did I get sidetracked again? Duh, of course I did. And, gosh, I should wash the bedding today. Haven’t done it in two weeks. How grubby can sheets get before they’re too grubby? Never mind, I’m never getting this done today. I have to cut potatoes and grate cheese. Clean salad, soak the buns for my french toast tomorrow morning. I made banana buns last week, and nobody’s eating them–and I refuse to throw away food. My breakfast for the week is settled. Fine by me.

When am I going to finish the proofread I have to hand in next Monday? I only managed ten pages yesterday. I don’t even know if I’m doing a good job. My brain’s just too addled and distracted these days.

I have a first appointment with a child therapist tomorrow, because Daughter has been depressed, crying, stressed. I have to take care of her mental health, because nobody else will. Don’t get me started on Husband’s family. They’re willing to ignore all elephants in the room. I’m talking about roaring, stampeding elephants. If they can pretend a problem doesn’t exist, they will, and we all know humans are perfectly capable of pretending problems don’t exist. And the problems I sought a therapist for are only the recent ones, which are on top of all the issues Husband’s possible autism and my chronic anxiety have been causing for years: the hypersensitivity, the panic attacks, Daughter’s debilitating anxiety, her insecurity, her difficulty sleeping. I’m in charge of the family’s mental health. I have to fix it.

Husband’s coming with me to the therapist tomorrow, so that she gets a complete view of what we think’s wrong. My mother-in-law calls to say she can’t make it to babysit, but grandpa can come here and stay with Daughter for two hours so she’s not alone. She gets so insecure. I think it will be nice for her to spend some hours with grandpa.

Mother-in-law and I agree to talk again at 13:00. I set a reminder on my phone because there’s no chance I’ll remember.

I’m grateful I’ve been able to get help for all the members of the family, and at the same time I’m just a little resentful that nothing happens if I don’t do it. Our daughter would be irrevocably traumatized hadn’t I stepped in and set the wheels in motion. Now three of us–all except Son–are in therapy, plus there are the family therapy sessions. The progress is slow but significant. We need a lot of work. Husband doesn’t always see it. One little success, and he thinks we’re finished. I have to convince him anew every fuckin time that he has to continue therapy. (Yes, that’s my job, too. I have to keep this family together.)

Husband has his first autism evaluation appointment next week. The family therapist has been insisting he do it for six months now. I almost had a breakdown during our last family therapy session, so this time the family therapist told Urban, “You’ll keep postponing it forever, so do it now. Call the autism center. Today!”

Really, I’m telling you, I was close to burnout for a couple days there. It was touch and go. Now, second burnout in a year, that would have been an achievement. But that’s Urban. His inertia is a thing to behold. I still love him, for whatever reason. (I know the reason: he’s the only absolutely logical person I know who’s absolutely secure in his skin and nevertheless has no ego–he admits what he does wrong and he’s willing to correct it. If the inertia doesn’t take over, that is. Which it usually does. Still, have you ever met someone who’s 100% secure but not selfish and insistent on his opinion? The line is so fine that pretty much everyone falls on one side or the other. Not Urban. He’s just absolutely okay.)

Where was I? Ah, Husband and his possible autism. He goes to therapy, but I’m not allowed to talk about it with him anymore. I posed too many questions. I was too critical–of the therapist, mostly. If you ask me, his therapist knows nada about adult autism. She thinks the person who has to have everything at right angles on his desk and freaks out if you touch his stuff just had an overprotected childhood.

Fuck. There are still two dirty plates on the kitchen table. Why are they still there?

Daughter comes down after two hours of zoom lessons. She’s exhausted. I have a plan for homework, but if I tell her now that we have to do homework, she’ll explode. I’ll be there for her, of course, like yesterday, and I’ll sit her down and gently insist we do it. I’ll write down the math exercises for her, while she tries to soothe her trembling and her nerves by drinking some water or eating a snack. I’ll try to soothe her by showing her just how good she is at math. This is how we do things these days. She can do everything on her own, of course, under normal circumstances–her teacher can’t believe I have to help her so much at home since she’s a model student in school. Her teacher doesn’t get school is different from home. Her teacher doesn’t understand the difference between having to obey a person of authority and the insecurity caused by an emotionally unregulated parent. Every single time Husband berates Daughter has her questioning his love for her and freaking out about whether she’s made him sad. Teacher doesn’t get any of that.

So, no homework. I reckon it’s snack time. I know they’ve barely had breakfast, so I sit them down and cut some bread. They dive in, and the ham and salami are gone in a second.

Mental note: buy more salami. Open app on phone, note down salami. While they eat, I sit and help them. I’m actually sitting!

Now I tell them to get carrot leaves and parsley to feed the piggies. They must stay occupied for half an hour or so. The piggies are fun. Thank God for the piggies. They make me feel less lonely—you already know about my husband and my loneliness.

Maybe I can steal a couple minutes’ work while they play with the pets.

Daughter does her schooling at my desk, so I have to sweep the eraser bits to the floor. Who cares about some dirt—next week it’ll be swept by our cleaning lady. She’s not all that good; if I have a basket on the floor, she wipes widely around it, not even bothering to push it to the side and wipe beneath it. But again, who cares. The important thing is that we’re not filthy.

Trim nails (I hate my nails hitting the keyboard when I type), light candle (soothes me!), get my cold tea. Ready. Open document. It takes a while for me to concentrate. I have to be well concentrated for a proofread. Am I doing a good job? I did a second pass yesterday, and I found things I’d missed. In my mental state, I’m terrified I’m still missing things. Okay, then, it’s settled: two passes for everything. Even if $4/1000 words aren’t worth the time I’m investing. But I want to do the best possible job. Four dollars are more than zero dollars, after all.

 The kids come before I’ve done two pages. They want to watch TV now, or play on the phones. But there’s another drama: they want to use my computer (it’s the only place where they can play a specific game), the same one on which I’m working. You’d think giving them a smartphone each to use for the time I’m indisposed would be entertainment enough, but no. (Mental note: tell Urban to finally make a kids account on his computer so they can play when he’s not here.)

Okay, new idea: I’m buying Minecraft for Son. I promised it would be his birthday present. His birthday is in just two weeks. It’s fine, he’s just getting his present early. It’ll keep him occupied. Then maybe I can work for this meagre fee I’m charging. Maybe I can even make the 7.99 Euros I spent for the game in the little time I have until lunch.

Probably not.

Son returns with the phone. I have to remember my Microsoft account password to log into the game (why? WHY?). Fat chance. I set up a new one. This takes another five minutes. While I’m doing this, Daughter comes in and wants my face ID to download something. I berate her—”You see I’m writing something right now,” I tell her, “why do you think I can do it? Wait, please.” I kid you not, she came yesterday to ask for my fingerprint to download a game while I was on the toilet. But if I open the door while she’s on the toilet, there’s hell to pay. “Do you like it when I do this to you?” I asked her, and she was mortified. But still she stayed until she got the ID. Kids don’t really have boundaries, but hell, they’re big enough now, they’ll have to learn.

Where was I? Work. Let’s continue the proofread until Urban comes back from his therapy. Darn, he’ll be back any minute. Lunch. I got to make lunch. I’m hungry.

Deep breath. Another one. A sip of my nice cold tea.

I can proofread a little more. On to the next page. I do my best to concentrate again.

Son comes back. “I can’t play!” How the fuck do you play Minecraft? Holy cow, why does this have to be so fuckin hard?

Okay, I need to start with the salad now. I’ll proofread tonight, when the kids are asleep. Theoretically, I like to shut down the computer in the evening and wind down, but yeah. Ha-fucking-ha.

I managed seven pages. Maybe 1.5k words. 6 dollars, maybe 4 Euros or so. Well done, Ioanna.

I go downstairs and make lunch, leaving them to play. Daughter comes down the stairs, and I tell her to leave the phone and come for lunch now. “But we have barely played!” she starts–already in the ear-piercing half-crying mode I can’t stand. “I don’t give a shit,” I snap. Of course, she deteriorates to sobs, and I immediately regret it. I apologize, hug her, hold her until she’s calm again. I apologize again and again. No matter now swamped mommy is, no matter if she needs to work on her computer and the kids insist they want to play on there too, no matter how much of a struggle it is to make them do homework, cook, get groceries, do wash-up, keep them fed, physically healthy, mentally healthy, coordinate as best as possible so that Husband doesn’t get overwhelmed (hint: everything that’s not organized and figured out overwhelms him, so basically everything in a child-full life), no matter what, Mommy has to stay calm.

Okay. I’m calm. Lunch.

We sit down. Daughter’s not eating, she’s just sitting there. The three of us are happy with the food Then we’re finished, and while I clear the table, I tell them about homework. Daughter very nearly has another meltdown, but I hold her and soothe her and tell her we’ll do it together, and it’s going to be fine. I don’t know why she keeps having these meltdowns. She can do her homework all right. It’s not too hard for her.

She brings the printouts of Monday’s exercises (it’s Wednesday today, but we’re taking it slow. She wasn’t doing any homework until last week). She makes a mistake. “I don’t want to show my teacher that,” she says. In the meantime, Son is climbing on and off his chair, fidgeting, looking at the simple (for him) math sheet in front of him, he grumbles, he throws the pencil around. He doesn’t do math. I try to convince him to do it quickly and go play, but no dice. “Go tell daddy to print the page again,” I tell Daughter, “so you can do it as nicely as you want.” I try again to motivate Son. “Come on! We’ll do it together! I’ll tell you and you’ll write!” We’re cheating, but who cares. He’s good at multiplication, it’s just such a drag to write everything a bunch of times. But he doesn’t stop moving and fidgeting. He just won’t sit down and do it.

Daughter comes back. “Daddy was in a meeting, but he turned off his camera and talked calmly with me! And he said he’d print it! And he wasn’t mad at all!”

“YAY!” we say together and throw our hands in the air. Daddy is patient! Daddy is learning! Daddy didn’t shout! Yay! The little joys!

Son is grumbling, mock-crying, fidgeting, while Daughter is trying to do math. She starts half-crying, too. “Come on,” I tell her, we’ll do it together!”

I turn to my other side, to Son. “Come on,” I tell him, “it’s easy! You wrote three times two is six, look, the same calculation exists in all exercises! Write it in all of them and you’re halfway there!” I binge on their Kinder chocolate all this time. Who fuckin cares about weight right now. I have to stay sane. I have to get them to go out today, too. Since I started forcing my daughter to get out of the house every day, she’s less pale and doesn’t cry all the time.

Husband can’t do homework with both kids at the same time, he says. Too confusing. Too demanding. Too exhausting. It can’t be done.

Not like I have a choice, right? But he does. He has a choice. Why does he always have a choice?

After a while, I don’t feel like torturing them (and myself) anymore. I let them do whatever they want with the phone and come to my den to write this post. I could have proofread several pages in the time I wrote this, but I didn’t. I wanted to write it so that you know and I remember. This is my life. This is why I collapsed last year. This load, emotional, mental, and physical, that nobody–not even your closest person–can understand.

This is what most of the people I know don’t get: the mental load of doing yet another thing is almost insurmountable. So much mental energy is expended in overcoming the mountains of doing things that are emotionally difficult. Do you know how much strength it takes to know Daughter’s meltdown is coming and steel yourself, and stay there, and be their rock, and push on? Most people leave. Urban leaves. The emotional strain has reached destructive levels.

And this happens every day.

But I fuckin stay.

“It’s easy,” a violin-playing friend said when I said I just can’t muster the strength to practice every day. But it’s not easy, because I truly, honestly forget. God knows I have a shit-ton of things to keep in my head, to organize, to bring to fruition. “You just have to practice for five minutes a day,” he said. “Do it in the morning.”

Thing is, I know it only takes five minutes a day. Only, before the five minutes, you have to tune and figure out where you left off. You have to make sure your music stand is steady (you had to disassemble it–floor cleaning, kids throwing stuff around, you know) and then you have to make sure people who barge in the room every three seconds are otherwise occupied. Before you do all that, it already feels like a huge hurdle to overcome–never mind that you feel the weight of all you have to achieve in the next eight hours already now, now, which raises stress levels already to red. And, by the time you’ve tuned, flexed, practiced, re-tuned, wiped down, loosened, tucked in, put together, disassembled, at least have an hour is gone. And in your state of exhaustion and anxiety, going to the other floor, where the instrument is, is a hurdle. Opening case, tensing bows, tuning, wiping, it’s all a hurdle. Trying to concentrate: huge hurdle. It’s not a five minute thing. The mental barriers of stress, tiredness, reluctance are the worst. Why don’t we all have good habits if it’s as simple as that? (Hint: read James Clear’s Atomic Habits and all your questions about habits will be answered. This is not product placement. I just loved this book. It helped me make my walks into a habit. Thank heavens. Thank you, James.)

This was half my day. A chaotic process of jumping from one subject to the other every four seconds. Brain science and psychology tells us it takes a lot of energy to change focus all the time. This is why multitasking is a huge drain of mental energy. And let’s not go into the emotional energy, of which you need to have endless reserves in order to deal with a possibly autistic husband, a child with anxiety, and all the rest. Emotional load is a real fuckin thing. It’s crushing.

Thank goodness I’ve dealt with most of my own issues–the Rejection Sensitive Disorder, the chronic anxiety (really! I didn’t even get dizzy once today!), the borderline borderline, the body dysmorphia (but see “barrel with stick-legs”–am I really over that?) and whatever else there was. They’re not gone, not all of them, but who has time to think of her own mental health right now?

I still have to make dinner, make sure the kids go outside for at least half an hour, do homework with them (stress levels hitting deep red), send Daughter’s teacher her exercises, work some, tidy up Daughter’s room with her. (Tidying up is a long process. We started one week ago. There was no floor to be seen. Now we see the floor. It’s going to take a month or two. Her room was like a rubbish damp. I won’t start.)

The kids have to shower and wash their hair today, but Husband can take care of that. All in all, it’s 15:38 and I haven’t really finished even half my tasks of the day.

Available on Kindle Unlimited!

“That, my friends, is a great book.”Rebecca Hefner, author

15. Don’t be a superhero

<< 14. Unemployment and anxiety / 16. Reassessing two decades >>

Yes, that’s my advice. Don’t be a superhero, like my mom was, like I tried to be. Don’t take care of the household, the kids, make sure everybody’s safe and fed, bring in money, put everyone else’s needs before yours and ignore your own physical and mental health. You have to pay attention to the signs your body and mind are sending you: if you break, you can’t help anyone, now, can you? The others can share the load. Even children can be taught to help with nearly every chore, including organizing their own time.

 Urban is adamant that we’re going to share the load from now on—and I’m not talking about housework, I’m talking about those most insidious of burdens, which break down your defenses from the inside: the evil twins, the mental load and the emotional load. And yet, I’ve ordered takeout a bunch of times in the past couple of days because he doesn’t always remember to cook. And let me tell you, recovery has now made me hungry! I need big, nourishing meals!

You might think I’m spoiled, expecting my husband to work and cook every day, and you might be right. But think of the fact that, for twelve years, I made sure we had three good meals every single day. Every day I asked myself, does Urban have enough food? And when the kids came, with their incredible appetite and their hypoglycemia-induced tantrums, this became a real need. Small kids don’t wait for the food to be ready; they cry because for them, hunger is a dramatic occurrence (all right, I’ll admit it, I’m also a drama queen when it comes to food). I don’t know if it was love or my near-OCD—I suppose it was a little bit of both—but I always had good food in my home, even when things were tough, sometimes even when I was sick or when I was leaving for a work trip. Now that I’m not well—and that Urban is temporarily working part-time due to Covid—I was kind of expecting a similar treatment. I wanted there to be food before I get hungry, because I get hangry. Urban is the kind of person who, two hours after our usual lunch time, will come and say, “Shall I make something?” By that point, I’ve already raided the fridge and I’m already feeling neglected and not at all pampered.

Anyway, lack of pampering aside, the point I was trying to make before that brief excursion was: don’t be a superhero. I had this crazy idea that I can do everything, that I should be able to do everything, that my endurance and energy would just never run out. On the day of my breakdown, mere hours before, I told Tyler, “I have so much energy! I have so much to give!” Little did I know, a few days later I’d be on the couch, barely able to keep my eyes open at six o’clock in the evening. All right, the sleepiness might be because of the medication, but still. I crashed, hard, and it took days to be able to even go from the bedroom to the bathroom. Don’t do that. Don’t push yourself to exhaustion. Don’t be me.

So, from now on, we’re sharing the load, apparently. Do I believe that? I know that Urban’s intentions are sincere, but he has this tendency to get comfortable and let others do the work, although he does do his share without complaint when he has to. But by not being physically with me and the kids most of the time, he gets off doing a lot of stuff, and this I’m also a little resentful of. I understand that I can’t have everything be done my way, and I don’t expect to have my way in every issue that comes along. But there has to be communication, which is a skill Urban was never trained in. You can see it in his parents: his dad is the same kind of uncommunicative introvert—when he tries to engage you in small talk, it feels like an interview, or rather an interrogation—and his mom just takes care of everything—no communication needed there. Urban is, moreover, used to ignoring us when we speak, which is no wonder, since his mom will just go on and on, and if you don’t have that skill, you can barely survive ten minutes in her household.

I’ve started cooking now, and I think it helps us all to have regular meals again, when we can sit and eat like a family, instead of the kids getting hungry and munching on random stuff and me getting cranky and irritable. And I also think it’s a good way of starting to be active again: cooking is one of the easiest chores for me. When Urban cooked, we were a little scattered, since all the snacking meant that the kids weren’t hungry anymore at mealtimes. I am assuming again the role of the manager of the household, I guess.

But it has to be different this time. It can’t reach the point where I break from the strain of fixing everything. I know I have to let them figure it out, even if it causes some agitation in the house.

So, yep, no more superheroes here, folks.

12. When “mama” turns to “papa”

<< 11. Panic Attack Thursday / 13. Getting flatter >>

There comes a point in most mothers’ lives when their kid will say “mama?” and they’ll answer “no.” This might seem harsh to you—or to those of you who haven’t had to endure the relentless badgering of small children. But the simple truth of the matter is: at some point, being on stand-by twenty-four hours a day, every day, answering all questions and solving all problems, leads to sensory overload, and you have to stop.

And then your kid says “mama?” and they probably just want to show you a picture they made, or tell you there are green strawberries in the garden, or ask you if they can have a cookie, but you just can’t deal with any—any—new information, request, or problem right now, and you just say, “no.”

Yesterday, my daughter said, “papa,” and Urban said, “no.”

I felt vindicated because he’s finally starting to understand how it is, and at the same time I wondered at how soon he reached that point. It was the eighth day after the breakdown, and he’s taken this whole week off. The kids only go to school for two to three hours a day as the Corona restrictions are slowly lifted, and there are no extracurricular activities. Our daughter is doing much better at math—the psychologist suggested we treat her more like an adult and less like a child, and the new sense of responsibility has boosted her, so there are fewer homework-related fights. The house hasn’t been cleaned in weeks, and it doesn’t bother us too much. His job is: keep the kids alive, take wife to doctors’ appointments. But still, it only took him eight days to reach the stage of saying “no” without waiting to see what the question is.

I don’t know how other parents do it, but I have to admit that I feel less of a superhero than other working moms I know. From the outside, they seem to have everything under control: work, household, kids’ activities (our kids barely do anything, and it’s still too much for me), even excursions to the nearby lakes and mountains on Sundays. Germans are big on hiking. I don’t really understand where they find the strength. On Sundays, I’m exhausted. I need to sit down and relax, otherwise there’s no way I’ll survive the week. But they work forty- and fifty-hour weeks, and they take their kids to guitar lessons and tae-kwon-do, and deal with the school projects (lots of parent involvement in Bavaria schools—I won’t start ranting about that now, although I’d like to), and go to parent-teacher meetings, and their houses are squeaky clean, and their gardens are perfect. Perfect! No weeds in the grass, meticulous alignment of flower beds, perfectly trimmed hedges; our whole neighborhood looks like a five-star resort. We’re the only house on our block with an overgrown garden.

All right, we’re also the only house with a novelist, but I tend to downplay my own achievements. Maybe I’ll come to that in a future post.

Anyway, the parents around me seem to be the epitome of German efficiency. Meanwhile, for years I’ve been trying to keep up and barely managing. Every day, I went to work in the morning, opened my Google calendar, and checked all the activities of the day: did my daughter have a doctor’s appointment? Did I have to bake something for Kindergarten? What meetings did we have at work, and did I have to prepare anything for them? Was there any shopping to do, and when would I do it? What would we cook today—did I plan the week’s meals adequately? When did I have to pick up the kids? What snacks would I take with me to stop them from having a hypoglycemia-induced meltdown in the car? Was there a playdate? And after work you have to pick them up on time, taking care not to do anything to displease the teachers, because teachers expect so much—I told you, Frau McKinney, your daughter needs that kind of notebook and this particular kind of pencil, while she has the other kind; and the implication is clear: why aren’t you paying attention, Frau Mom? Are you an inadequate parent? And then you go home and there’s the whole homework clusterfuck and you have to cook because they get tantrums when they’re hungry, and they won’t tidy up (my kids’ rooms look like landfills, and I have no strength to tackle that too), and they fight all the time, and they won’t. Stop. Saying. Mama.

And in the midst of it all, my mother-in-law will visit—rarely, thank heavens—and she will invariably make a comment about how untidy the house is or how we absolutely need to do this or that with the garden, because if things aren’t in her absolute rigid order, they’re wrong. My husband’s family has very definite ideas of right and wrong, there’s no room for personal choice and interpretation there. And, because I shouldered all the mental and emotional load of this family, I dealt with my in-laws for years, while Urban happily earned the bulk of the money that keeps our family fed and the mortgage paid, and never bothered to tell them to sod off and leave us alone.

So, yesterday, a child said, “Papa,” and he was already so overwhelmed that he had to say “no.”

The thing is, I understand him, and I’m still trying to find ways to make his life more bearable. Added to the mental load of planning for the family and the actual work caring for us entails is the emotional load he has to shoulder: he’s worried about me—scared out of his wits, sometimes—but at the same time, he has to give the kids the sense that all is well, that life goes on as usual. And I’m worried too: if his burden becomes too much, like my burden became too much, there’ll be no adult to take care of this family.

I’m sure his mom wants to help—she never understands what a source of stress her constant nagging is—but, as helpful as she’s been through the years, I just can’t handle the strain right now. If you ask me, she’s the reason Urban is so insensitive to emotional cues. I’m sure you had to develop some extra indifference and unresponsiveness to stimuli to survive growing up in her house.

Anyway. How am I doing? The jury’s still out on that. My irrational fears about my various health issues are still here but behaving themselves. I’m mostly able to sleep, although I still wake up in the middle of the night. I’m still tired and overwhelmed by small tasks. But today, I made myself a big sandwich, and I forced myself to eat it. Baby steps, as they say.

I don’t know what will happen when Urban has to start working again—he works from home, thankfully—but I’m thinking this is a good chance for the kids to learn to be more independent. Maybe what we’re experiencing now will prove to be a blessing in disguise. You never know how these things will turn out, after all.

3. Raising an adult

<< 2. Something nice / 4. The storm and the calm after >>

For the past couple of days, my husband has been exhibiting a remarkable degree of emotional intelligence. The change wasn’t instantaneous. I think he’s been developing an understanding of our kids and their feelings—or me and my feelings—at a higher rate during the lockdown, and even more since we got professional help with dealing with our pre-pubescent daughter. I now think—or at least hope—that our sixteen-year-long journey as a couple, otherwise known as “Becoming Proper Adults” has paid off: I finally live with an emotionally intelligent adult. His progress is astounding. I never thought that a grown person could improve so much.

I’m convinced Urban’s emotional development stopped at the age of about eight. He’s a very calm, organized, introverted person, but has difficulty dealing with any kind of stress or changes to his schedule. For most of our life together, unexpected tension resulted in tantrums, things thrown, walking away in anger, banging doors. He didn’t understand the feelings behind simple gestures. In the first months of our relationship, I gave him a mug with a picture of a pirate mouse sitting on top of a treasure chest and the words “You are my biggest treasure” painted on it, to which his response was, “I don’t like mugs with pictures on them.” There’s a host of things to unpack right there—suppressed intergenerational war trauma, Germany, you see—which we are now beginning to tackle with the help of a psychologist.

And what about me? I just struggled to survive in my adopted country, strove to understand Germans and their ways. Years passed while I single-handedly took care of household and children and saw to everybody’s small and larger needs—not the sausages from that supermarket, mama, I know they look the same, but they taste differently—at the same time trying to be an adequate researcher. Shouldering the mental load of running a family while burdened with this handed-down emotional wound and having to deal with Urban’s dysfunctional, overbearing, sometimes downright hostile family brought me to a state of extreme irritability. For months before my breakdown I couldn’t stand the barest hint of a raised voice. It immediately sent me into a spiral of hyperventilation and despair—sometimes accompanied by hysterical crying. The kids got scared, I felt bad—what kind of a mother am I, unable to keep my cool during a regular family quarrel? Sometimes Urban showed maturity: he soothed me by saying it’s okay, everyone is allowed to get upset. Still, noises had to be kept low, interactions had to be polite, the kids needed to be nice to me, Urban had to be patient with all of us. At the smallest hint he was upset—a mere twitch, the slight alteration of the pitch of his voice—I freaked out.

He’d been making progress on the emotional intelligence front all these years, but I think he became more emotionally mature after my first hysterical crises, which started a couple months before the breakdown. But he still shouted at the kids—unable to deal with the behavior of our daughter, who’s reaching stages of development he somehow skipped when he was that age—and I just couldn’t stand it. Our daughter would cry, she’d scream that daddy doesn’t understand her, and I’d have to stop whatever I was doing because, in case you have forgotten, I’m the problem solver in this family. I’d have to convince her that daddy loves her, and I’d have to coax him into actually giving her what she needs, which is always a good, long hug. Urban still doesn’t understand the significance of hugs: even as a kid, what he wanted when he was upset was to be left alone. For me, as a child, being left alone was proof that my parents didn’t love me, and I’m sure our daughter feels the exact same way (she tells me so).

I’d been telling him for weeks: I can’t keep living like this. The strain is too much. The lockdown was a factor, sure, the months of homeschooling took their toll. Trying to make those two do anything was a constant, often futile struggle, like pushing an elephant uphill. Kids are little emotional elephants, if they don’t want to accommodate your wishes—ten minutes homework, not a big deal, you’d think—there’s nothing you can do to make them. On top of everything else, this was just the drop that overflowed the glass of my sanity.

All those days with two kids at home, trying to get answers to simple questions while they talked and shouted, jumped around, ignored me, fought, and didn’t do their damned homework, drove the stress levels to new heights. Every day there came a point when I felt dizzy, and I had to go out. I took short walks, breathed in the cool air, and then I came back, thinking I’m all refreshed and calm. But ten minutes in, the dizziness would return, and I would beg them to speak one at a time, to ask for things one at a time, and to just answer my questions. It never really worked. And when Urban emerged from the basement after work, he just added to the mayhem.

Somehow, now it works. Everybody talks in low voices, differences are solved quickly and without fighting, and Urban is the model of the perfect, calm parent, who treats his children with endless love and respect, who never loses his patience, no matter what tantrum the kid has worked itself up to, no matter how bratty or disrespectful or stubborn they’re being.

I watch him go about it, and I don’t know who this person is. For the past seven years, since our son came into this world, Urban’s frayed nerves and shouting were things you could depend on. Even two weeks ago, I dreaded going to my room to work, because I knew that five minutes later I would hear him shouting at our daughter, and she’d start to cry hysterically, and then the little one would start crying too because he can’t stand the others screaming at each other, and doors would be slammed and harsh things would be said. And every time, my anxiety would go up a notch.

But now, he’s perfect. I watch with suspicion, wondering how long it will last. The kids are also wonderful, but I trust them more: they can get used to new behaviors, they can easily develop new habits, they’re still young, moldable.

Dimitra says he’s scared out of his mind after what happened. This might explain this new personality. I have to say, I like this man, the one who’s not irritated all the time for reasons he doesn’t understand, the one with the calm, soothing voice, who makes everything all right. If this continues, I might even remember how it was to love him.

2. Something nice

<< 1. The issue of breakfast / 3. Raising an adult >>

“Think of something nice,” the paramedic said. I was connected to the EKG machine, my muscles were trembling, and the friendly, helpful people in the orange suits had trouble deciphering the wonky readout. “Are you cold?” he asked. “You’re shaking.” I wasn’t cold, the weather was rather warm. I was warm, and I told him so. “Close your eyes,” he said. “Think of the holidays.”

What holidays? Who the hell knows if there are going to be holidays this year? We have to pass through five different countries to reach Greece from Munich, and nobody knows how long this Corona thing is going to last and which of those countries will open their borders until then. I might as well think of something else. But what?

The feeling of my son hugging me, pressing his baby-soft cheek against mine, his little arms around my neck, just didn’t cross my mind—I’m embarrassed to admit it, but it didn’t. Neither did the image of my daughter, who’s turning into an intelligent and beautiful young woman day by day, resisting the unfortunate example of body negativity and teetering self-esteem her mother is providing. I could have imagined those two hugging me and telling me “I love you, mommy,” like they do every evening before they go to bed. This is the most wonderful moment of my day—any day. But I was just exhausted, and I couldn’t think of anything fuckin’ nice.

I’d been at lake Starnberg that day, with my goofy friend Tyler, Tyler of the striking blue eyes. I tried to hold on to some of that, the serenity when standing on the shore looking at the Alps in the distance, the view of the boats sailing on the water, or at least the image of the pretty eyes—my brain was mush, no point trying to remember conversations, no matter how pleasant or enlightening—but all of those things, though easy to put on the something-nice shelf, still slipped out of reach of my probing mind and merged into the reddish darkness behind my eyelids.

The paramedics gave me a sedative and were on their way. It still took me a long time to fall asleep. Urban stayed with me the whole time, stroking me, soothing me. In the end, he fell asleep, poor guy.

I still made him promise he’d take me to the doctor the next day. I have little faith in his ability to take care of me. Earlier, when I was hyperventilating and my hands were getting numb and my blood pressure was spiking to a number I just don’t want to know, he stood there, frozen in place, staring at me, asking again and again, “What should I do?” It was Dimitra, my guardian-angel Dimitra, who told me “you’re having a panic attack, get help,” and damned if I know how she figured it out through chat messages. “I saw it coming on,” she told me a couple days later. Maybe this is how she immediately knew.

The thing is, I always, always have to save myself. Every single time. I dread the time when I won’t be able to, when I’ll be unconscious and he won’t notice because he’ll be spending the evening in the basement, in front of his computer, like he always does.

I’m kind of tired of saving myself. I’m also tired of being the default problem solver. But I suppose now that I’m sitting here, on the couch, my only activities writing, going to the bathroom, and asking for stuff, they have to learn to solve their problems themselves.