This week I’ve found myself tongue-tied again—not that I can’t talk out loud, but that there is a sort of silence inside myself, a part that feels incoherent and stuck and unable to express itself.
It reminds me of my frustration and confusion when my son was four. I struggled a bit when he was two. I really struggled by age three. Four was only worse. And the hardest part was that I couldn’t articulate the problem. He and I would have these conversations that would become arguments, and I would end up afterwards unable to explain to myself what happened.
Some of it, I think, was that he had moved beyond using single words or two or three words to talking in sentences. He could say the individual words in a way I could (mostly) understand, but the way he was stringing them together didn’t always make sense to me. He would say these sentences that were somehow impossible, and then get mad at me for not understanding him.
But some of it is still going on. He dawdles and then gets offended when I tell him to hurry up. I try to remind him of the tasks he’s too distracted to complete, then he gets annoyed at me for nagging him. He does something sloppily on purpose and then gets mad when I call him on it. Some days, some nights, it feels like all I do is tell him he’s doing everything wrong, and then after he’s in bed I wonder how it got that way. What do I let go? I feel like he’s pushing me on everything to see what he can get away with. All of it is a battle.
I am using words right now to try to describe what is happening, but words are not the panacea they usually are. I feel like I’m missing the core of what is going on here, the key that will unlock this puzzle. And I could rely on buzzwords like “power struggle” or “testing boundaries,” but that doesn’t really click, either. It doesn’t touch the heart of this, which, to be honest, is that I’m terribly anxious about my kid, I guess. That’s what it feels like: anxiety.
I am afraid we’re not connecting. I am afraid I’m being too harsh, or not harsh enough. Every time he does something wrong, I’m afraid he’ll still be doing it that way when he’s 30. Yet I’m also afraid he doesn’t really feel how much I love him. Isn’t there a book title that goes, I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change? This feels like that.
What the wordless part is feeling:
What I do when I feel wordless:
- Play Plants Vs. Zombies.
- Play Solitaire.
- Play Words With Friends.
- (On a good day) Color in coloring books.
I play Plants Vs. Zombies when I want things to be simple. The mission: Kill zombies. I have patterns I follow and plans for coping with certain situations. There are still things that happen that I’ve never seen before, but I’ve begun to have more faith that I will figure out a plan, that I will muddle through. Of course, sometimes, I lose—but it’s just a game. The odd thing is that sometimes playing the game helps me observe my own thoughts from a distance. I’m panicking right now, I think when I suddenly wind up with too many giant zombies and not enough pea shooters or squashes or mines. When I’m in the zone, I tell myself, I handled that well. I’m calm today.
I play PVZ when I just want to shoot away my problems, destroy them, without thinking about them or dissecting them or writing about them. There was a zombie there, but then its head fell off, or it incinerated, or it blew up in a blast of potato. For someone so haunted by her past and its echoes, it’s the perfect metaphor. All those dead guys came back to life, but then I dispatched them. They keep coming (in their adorably bad suits), and I keep killing them.
It scares me a bit that I can play PVZ for hours. I am smart—why am I so addicted to this game that is really fairly mindless? I mean, sure, I mix it up occasionally by going on jags with Words With Friends, or Solitaire, or both, but even WWF, my “smartest” game, is still something I use to zone out, and it can suck me in for longer than I care to admit.
In therapy, I realized that a part of me is still completely stuck in grief, in the very moment when Mama’s death came fully crashing down on me. I’m not stuck in the sense of wanting to escape; I’m stuck as in feeling like I should stay in that moment, the emotional climax of my grief, because it feels… comforting, I guess. Familiar. Right. Because it feels like everyone should be feeling the same way, almost as if there should be a national day of mourning for my mother. It felt like an atomic bomb went off in my life, and everyone should acknowledge that Mama was gone from the world.
And yet the world carried on as normal. The injustice and horror of that is still sticking with me, with this part of me.
My therapist shared a poem with me that captures some of this feeling:
Funeral Blues, by WH Auden
Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.
Let aeroplanes circle moaning overhead
Scribbling on the sky the message ‘He is Dead’.
Put crepe bows round the white necks of the public doves,
Let the traffic policemen wear black cotton gloves.
He was my North, my South, my East and West,
My working week and my Sunday rest,
My noon, my midnight, my talk, my song;
I thought that love would last forever: I was wrong.
The stars are not wanted now; put out every one,
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun,
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood;
For nothing now can ever come to any good.
“The stars are not wanted now.” Yeah. I remember the night I learned that Mama died, my best friend and I were playing together and I was laughing. She asked me, “How can you laugh when your mother is dead?” and I stopped laughing and said, “I don’t know.” And I didn’t know. I didn’t know how it was possible.
All the stuckness I’ve been feeling, all the depression and lethargy and unwillingness to do adult tasks or write or even read: All of it feels like it’s come from this part, the one who is stuck in that very moment when my grief reached its height and perfectly took over the world.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about moments of mortal terror—an idea I have that PTSD is caused when your brain decides that are about to die, or accepts that you will not escape from this situation that will maim you in some physical or mental way. I think this is the moment that your brain chemistry permanently changes. I wonder if absolute grief is the same way. When Mama died, I died. My whole mission, my whole world, my sun, my moon, my stars, my heart, my imagination, my security, my comfort, my food and clothing and shelter—everything was taken from me. Intellectually I know that she was not a reliable source of any of those things. I know that I was already experiencing food insecurity, wasn’t sure when I would or would not receive attention, was living in a caretaking role. I know that my imagination and love lived on. But to this part of me, that didn’t matter. She was my everything, and then she was gone. She was taken from me. The world took her away, and it broke me.
Yesterday, when I realized part of me had never left that moment of crisis, I also remembered: I know 32 other women who have experienced the same thing, that permanent, life-changing moment. And they are all also struggling with that right now. How do I live with part of me frozen in horror and grief and anger and terror, while the rest of me needs to go on being an adult and learn, somehow, to start over?
This wordless dismay that I had when my son was four and we ended up in arguments I couldn’t understand—is this the same as the wordless grief I experienced when Mama died? It feels different. When he was four, I asked myself, “Wait, what happened? How did we get here? I love him so much—why are we arguing? Why is he mad at me? Why am I mad at him?”
In those moments, I felt like I was on the opposite sides of an enormous gulf from him—a river raging between us, with me on one bank of an impassible gorge, and him on the other. “Why are you over there? What have I done? What’s wrong with me?”
But I will say that those moments resonated with the utter loneliness and devastation I felt when Mama died. As if the conclusion I drew was, “Of course you’re divorced from your son, unable to reach him. You’ve been alone since Mama died. It mangled you. There’s something wrong with you, and you’ll never be able to join the human race.”
Plants Vs. Zombies is about a last stand. Your only human companion is Crazy Dave, who blathers in unintelligible gibberish and offers you strange plants he’s been obsessively breeding to kill off the unstoppable plague of zombies. No wonder I identify with this game. I’m alone in the world, and I’m the only one who can defend myself. Civilization is gone. I have no friends. I just have a crazy pseudo-guide who doesn’t really explain any of the tools he gives me. I have to figure it all out myself.
My spiritual director said something to me that struck me right in the heart: “Your son felt like a distraction from the video games you were playing.” Perhaps it feels to me like Plants Vs. Zombies is the real world. It felt like the struggle I was living every day. And my son was living in some kind of foreign world I didn’t inhabit.
I know when he was very small, I lived under the delusion that he didn’t really need me, that he was better off without me, that I needed to separate myself from him to avoid contaminating him with my despair or hurting him in some way with all my emotional issues. So, as he got older, some days I felt he was better off with me isolating myself in my video world than trying to interact with him in his world.
I want to stop being a zombie killer, always fighting, unable to relax my vigilance for a second or I will die. I want to let my son in.