Wednesday, February 15, 2017


It's no secret I'm no fan of secrets. I blog about things you're not supposed to talk about in polite society. Fuck polite society. I was brought up to be a good girl. Good girls are always polite, never rude, never never never burdening other people with their sadness and anxiety. Chin up. Don't cry. Don't make a fuss. Put on a pretty face and cheer up, girl!

When I was a teenager, back in the 80s, during the height of mall bangs and matchy-matchy clothes and Lee Press-on Nails, when I'd be in bed crying, or just staring at the wall, unable to find the inner energy to go to school or to hang out with friends, my mom would knock on my bedroom door and say, "Hey, Beck! Let's go to Osco and buy you a new tube of lipstick."

That was Mom's solution to everything when I was a teenager. Feeling down? Let's go buy you a new tube of lipstick. That will brighten you up!

Sometimes she'd say, "Hey, Beck! Let's go to Skaggs," and because I was an asshole teenager who often talked to her parents as if they were complete idiots, I'd yell back, "Mom, it's Oscooooooooo."

Mom, Dad, and me, circa 1985

The drugstore just down the street from where we lived in Overland Park, Kansas, a snooty suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, had once been a Skaggs, but it had recently been bought out by another company and renamed Osco. Before it was Skaggs, it had been called Katz, and sometimes Mom would really slip up and call it Katz and I'd be quick to scold her in my most assholish teenage voice, "Mom! It hasn't been called Katz since YOU were a teenager."

Mom had been a teenager in the 1950s, during the height of pointy bras, curly hairdos, high-heeled shoes, and TONS of makeup. Her own mother was a licensed beautician and would later own a beauty salon. Mom started wearing makeup when she was 13, one year after she'd stopped believing in Santa and one year before she'd started dating Jim Kerner, the guy she'd marry when she was 18.

She passed up a scholarship to go to MU. Mom secretly wanted to be an architect, but she knew only ugly girls went to college. Instead, her parents sent her to beauty school and she got her beautician's license "just in case" she'd ever need a job. She worked during summer break in high school, cutting and perming and coloring people's hair, but after she graduated from high school in May 1956 she spent much of her time planning for her wedding, which was held in November of that year. Good thing she dropped all of her college-prep classes during her senior year of high school and instead took sewing and cooking and other classes that would prepare her for the life she thought she was meant for, as the wife of Jim Kerner and the mother of their four children--Jay, Kit, Pat, and Jenny.

Mrs. Jim Kerner and three of their four kids--Pat, Kit, and Jenny, circa 1965

Mom was only Mrs. Jim Kerner for ten years, from 1956 to 1966, from age 18 to 28. While they were married Jim had, on two separate occasions, had her unwillingly taken to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a "nervous breakdown" and where she received electroshock therapy. In 1966, before she could be accused of suffering a third nervous breakdown, Mom finally got the nerve to divorce Jim, who had been physically abusive with their kids and was cheating on her with his secretary, who he later married, and then divorced when he married wife number three. He's on wife number four now.

Mom would be on husband number three now if Bob hadn't passed away a few years ago. Thankfully, third time's a charm. After her miserable marriage to my rage-filled dad from 1969 to 1992, Mom was single for ten years before she decided she'd like to find a companion and joined, where she met Bob, who'd recently been widowed. They dated for six weeks or so before they eloped and Mom moved to Nebraska. We, her adult kids, thought she was nuts.

"You barely know him!" We complained.

But it turns out Bob was a nice guy. A little controlling, as all Mom's men were, but not abusive. He liked blondes so Mom dyed her salt and pepper 'do blonde, which turned a brassy reddish color that I didn't care much for, but hey, I'm not the boss of Mom's hair and she was, after all, finally happy.

Bob, Mom, and my daughter Katie, circa 2012

I try not to make too many comments about Mom's hair and makeup because I don't want her to reciprocate. I stopped wearing makeup on a regular basis fifteen years ago when my boyfriend Will, who is now my husband Will, complained that he didn't like the taste of lipstick and he thought I was pretty without "all that crap" on my face. I'd stopped dying my hair and perming it when I was in my mid-twenties when I got a wild hair up my ass and decided to let it grow out naturally and, turns out, I actually liked it. I'd had "dirty blonde" hair as a kid, and when I was an anorexic eleven-year old Mom sent me to stay with her mom, who thought I was just starved for attention and dyed my hair blonde. From age eleven til my mid-twenties I'd dyed my hair blonde, brown, brown with blue bangs, black, red, and brown again until I finally let it grow out naturally and decided I actually liked it.

Mom thought I was nuts. Mom, like her own mother before her, does not abide natural hair. If God wanted us to have natural hair he wouldn't have invented hair color and perms. Mom once told me when I was a teenager that the reason it's important for women to wear makeup is because, just like peacocks and peahens, men are just naturally more vibrant looking and so women need to add color to their hair and to their faces to keep up.

So, yeah. I try not to give Mom beauty advice because I don't want it back. But once she came out and asked me if I liked her "blonde" hair and I said, "Honestly, Mom, I prefer your natural color."

"But it makes me look like an old lady!" she said.

"So what? You are an old lady. A beautiful old lady. There's no shame in getting old, Mom. The alternative is death."

She dropped the subject. I noticed, though, after Bob passed away, Mom let her natural hair grow out. I think it looks beautiful.

Mom and Katie, 2015

Mom still insists on wearing makeup, though. The first time I ever saw Mom leave the house without makeup on her face was a couple of months ago when I drove her to the ER late at night. She'll be 79 in May of this year. She has COPD and has a nasal cannula that transports oxygen from a tank to her lungs. If she takes it off for just a few minutes, she quickly runs out of breath as if she'd just run around the block a few times. Our family got together in December for Christmas. We all smushed in together for a big family photo, Mom and all her surviving kids--Jay, Kit, Jenny, and me--as well as our spouses and some of our own kids. I was to Mom's left, sitting so close I could hear her labored breathing. I looked at her and saw that she'd taken out her nasal cannula and hidden it behind her back. She was sitting awkwardly. I glanced behind her and said, "Mom, are you sitting on your oxygen tank?"

"Shh! He'," Mom said.

"But doesn't that hurt? It can't be too comfortable--"

She cut me off. "I'm fine! Let'"

Mom and Her Progeny, Christmas 2017

Mom likes to keep up appearances, as many women from her era do. And although I'm certain I drive her nuts, the coolest thing about my mom is that she really does love me just the way I am. And, although when I was a kid I wasn't encouraged to talk about ugly subjects, Mom's chilled out over the years. As far as my writing goes, Mom's always been my number one fan. She'd prefer that I write best-selling romances and tone down all the political junk, but for the most part, Mom encourages me to share my story--all of it--the good, the bad, the ugly. She doesn't even mind if I share her story, since it's so intertwined with mine. 

The year I turned 40, my brother Pat died of liver failure at the age of 49. I was struggling. I'd had a lot of mental health issues when I was a kid, a teen, and a young adult, but in my late twenties my doctor prescribed me sertraline and it was like a miracle. It lifted the depressive fog I'd known for what seemed like my whole life. I could read Harriet Lerner's amazing self-help books and go to therapy and talk about my problems and actually feel helped. But when Pat died, I began to spiral out of control again. It didn't matter that I had met Will, the love of my life, and that we had an amazing daughter, Katie, and I had a great job at the library and our lives were so freaking happy. Not even the sertraline helped. 

The therapist I was seeing at the time encouraged me to share a secret that I didn't think I'd have the courage to share. I'd had the guts to share it with my mom back when I was little, and I'd told my closest friends and lovers, but I'd never shared it with my siblings, and I certainly didn't feel like I could talk about it openly in public.

But when Pat died at such a young age, I realized that I could die young, too. And even if I didn't die young, I would definitely die sometime, and I couldn't see how I could ever heal entirely while holding on to such a horrible secret. I had to let it go.

One by one I told my siblings. I told some family friends. They, of course, were heartbroken, but none of us died. And, I began to feel better. 

I'd always wanted to be a writer, but I had trouble finishing anything I started. Nothing I wrote was ever good enough because what I really wanted to write about was a big ugly secret I thought was too horrible to share. But the more I share it, the better I felt.

And so, I began this blog.

I was worried what my mom would think about me sharing such ugly family secrets, so I asked her permission. What she said was beautiful.

"You have my permission to write anything. About yourself. About me. Write what you need to write," Mom said.

It was hard. And so, so amazing. Freeing. Healing. Just what I needed.

When I was young, very young, too young to know any better, and when Pat was young, too, but old enough to know better, he sexually abused me numerous times. By the time he was fourteen and I was five, he invited his friend who was even more sexually mature that Pat was, and what they did to me scarred me for life. But it didn't kill me, and over the years I've learned to to live with it. The worst thing of all is that I was told not to talk about it.

"Don't tell Mom or she'll have to go back to the hospital," Pat said.

Mom had never been sent to the hospital for electroshock therapy while I was alive, but I knew that she had been before I was born. I later learned that our grandmother, after she would abuse Pat, would tell him the same thing. "Don't tell your mother or she'll get so upset she'll have to go back to the hospital."

In the last few months that Pat was alive, but he knew he was dying, Pat shared with me that his earliest childhood memory was him clutching Mom by the leg as Jim pulled her away on one of the two occasions she was sent to the hospital. I asked Pat if he'd ever discussed it with Mom, and he said no, he didn't want to upset her. And then he took a swig of Peppermint Schnapps.

I've learned to share my story, to write openly about my mental health struggles, and, miraculously, it's become this beautiful thing. I've had so many people write to me and talk to me in person, telling me how much my words have helped them heal. So many people have suffered with mental health issues and family dysfunction and family secrets, and sharing my story has helped them know that they are free to share theirs.

One person I know is too young to share her story publicly, and so I've been hesitant to write openly about it myself, but it's intertwined with my own story so much that not sharing her story feels like I'm keeping secrets of my own.

It's no secret I'm no fan of secrets. I blog about things you're not supposed to talk about in polite society. Fuck polite society. I was brought up to be a good, secret-keeping girl, but I have learned to be an open book. But it's different when the story is not yours alone to share. It's different when the story belongs to a kid, too young to fully understand what it means to share your ugly stories.

This kid is my kid. She has an ugly story I want to share. But I'm torn. Do I want to share it to make her feel better, or to make myself feel better? 

I keep running into people who, after I share with them my kid's ugly story, they share their kids' ugly stories with me and, in doing so, make me feel so much better as a parent. See! These people are awesome parents and yet they have kids who struggle, too! It's not all our fault. In fact, maybe we all struggle, and the more we hide our struggles the worse the struggle is.

Then I worry that maybe I've been avoiding writing about my daughter's ugly struggles because I like to keep up appearances. I'm a great mom, everybody. Look how awesome my kid is. Obviously due to such good parenting. So when my kid struggles, what's it say about me?

"I honestly thought if we didn't abuse her she'd turn out OK," I said to my husband when the doctor told us the news.

We both laughed, but it's true. I attribute much of my mental health issues to my shitty childhood. It's my parent's fault. It's my brother's fault. It's society's fault. If I had been allowed to share my ugly struggles as a child instead of waiting til I was a middle-aged woman, I'd have been better off.

But now I see it's not so easy. It's complicated, this ambiguous life.

"Your daughter has Major Depressive Disorder." 

When the doctor said it, I felt both saddened and relieved. Katie's been struggling with anger management and signs of anxiety and depression since first grade. I've never shared the details of my own ugly struggles with her, not wanting to burden her with my problems, but she knows I had a shitty childhood and that I take medicine and read self-help books and have something called Posttraumatic Stress Disorder. She's too young to know the details, but she knows her Mom has ugly struggles, and so did her Uncle Pat, and so did her Grandma Bev, and so did her Great-grandmother and on and on and on.

I honestly thought if we didn't abuse her she'd turn out OK.

And guess what? She will.

We were hesitant to give Katie psychotropic meds because of her still-developing brain. The black-box warnings on my own prescription sertraline state clearly that it can lead to suicidal thoughts in people under that age of 25. I mentioned this to Katie's doctor, and she assured me that the FDA requires them to put that on the medicine, but if you dig down deeper into most of the cases where a young person has committed suicide while taking this medicine you can see that it's their family history and their own unique brain chemistry that lead to the suicide and not just the medicine per se. 

"I guess it's just like how she's got your allergies and takes Children's Zyrtec, just like you take Adult Zyrtec. It's kinda the same thing," my husband said. "I've seen you off your meds, and let's just say, you do a lot better when you're on them."

Still, it's a concern. We don't want to medicate our ten-year old with powerful medicine that can alter her brain structure if we don't need to.

But it's gotten to the point where we feel we need to. Several doctors and social workers and therapists, both from school and in private practice, have recommended we go this route. We've tried other options. We first took her to a child psychologist when she was in second grade. She's been seeing the school social worker on a weekly basis since third grade. She was tested for and accepted into the gifted program at school, which we hoped would help her find her tribe where she could relax. We've tried taking her to church, enrolling her in basketball and Girl Scouts, inviting kids over for playdates. We'd see some improvement, but none of it was a panacea for the social isolation she felt, her anxious over-thinking, or her anger that seemed to come out of nowhere. She reminds me so much of myself when I was her age. Now I understand that maybe it wasn't all my parents fault, and just how awful it feels to watch your pride and joy suffer with their own ugly struggles.

"You have my permission to write anything about me, " Katie said.

"You're only ten. You're not really old enough to know what you're giving me permission to do. When you get older, you might be embarrassed about what I write about you now," I said.

I had mentioned that I wanted to write about our decision to medicate Katie, that the more people I meet who share with me stories of their own kids who are struggling with the same mental health issues, the more I realize how common it is, and how none of us should feel ashamed about it. 

"You can write about me, Mom. Maybe it will help other people, and that makes me feel good."

The other day, Katie stumbled and dropped a clay pot she'd labored over in art class. We didn't hear about it until Katie got home from school and told us herself. No phone calls from the school nurse or the social worker, telling us our child was with them in tears. No emails from her teacher warning us of the major meltdown our child had and what they did to work it out.

"What did you do when you dropped your pot," my husband asked Katie.

"I picked it up. My art teacher said we can glue it back together," Katie said, smiling.

"I think the medicine is helping," my husband said.

"And Jack. Jack is helping, too," Katie said.

Jack is Katie's therapist who she sees every-other week. She likes him a lot. His daughter is in high school now, but when she was Katie's age she was also in the gifted program at the same school where Katie goes, and she struggled with many of the same issues Katie does. 

"You know what Jack told me?" Katie said. "He said that his daughter used to feel like her peers didn't understand her and that she didn't fit in and she felt all alone and empty, just like I do sometimes, but he said that just the other day she came home from a party, a high school party, and there were drugs and alcohol there and she said, 'no thanks' and went home and he's so proud of her for not giving into peer pressure. And he thinks I'm the same way. I might struggle now, but I'm learning to be my own person, and that's a good thing."

I remember being a teenager, lying in bed crying, or just staring at the wall, unable to find the inner energy to go to school or to hang out with friends, and my mom would knock on my bedroom door and say, "Hey, Beck! Let's go to Osco and buy you a new tube of lipstick." When I wasn't trapped in my bedroom, I was off with my friends, my tribe, the misfit kids at school with their own ugly struggles. I looked much older than I was, so I was able to buy alcohol when I was seventeen, so I'd buy Boone's Farm for my tribe and me to share. 

It got us by. We survived. I still drink, but not nearly as much as I did when I was in high school and as a young adult. I was lucky enough to have a doctor prescribe me sertraline. I didn't die of liver failure like Pat did at age 49. I self-medicated until I found something that works better for me. It makes me wonder how it might have been if, instead of self-medicating on Boone's Farm, whenever Mom would take me to Osco we'd have picked up some prescription sertraline instead of all those tubes of lipstick.

Katie, age 10

"Mom, did you know that Adrianna wears lipstick?" Katie said the other day as we entered CVS and passed through the lipstick aisle on our way to the pharmacy. 

"Is she in your class?" I asked.

"Yeah, she's only in fifth grade, like me, and she already wears lipstick!"

"Well, some people are into that sort of stuff, but you don't have to be if you don't want to be," I said.

"I'm never going to wear lipstick. In fact, the other day Adrianna asked me what color lipstick I wear and when I said I don't wear lipstick she said she didn't believe me! I had to wipe my mouth with the back of my hand to prove it to her," Katie said.

"Well, you do have your daddy's gorgeous red lips," I said.

"And my mom's allergies and depression," Katie said.

"Oh, that reminds me," I said. "You're nearly out of Children's Zyrtec. We'd better pick some up while we're here."

I kissed the top of my daughter's head, which is getting harder to do each day. She's nearly as tall as I am. Someday I expect her to pass me up.