This is an essay I wrote several years ago that is yet to be published, but it is one I think lots of couples can relate to. It has a lot to do with the difference in male/female communication styles and needs.
The Marriage Counselor
Lots of marriages sometimes need a little help, a professional to listen to both husband and wife talk about their relationship and provide some insights into improving it. Kevin and I have gone to a marriage counselor several times every few years to clear the air. I think a counselor provides that third party perspective and problems can be channeled through the counselor, rather than talking about them one-on-one with a spouse, which sometimes can turn into an argument when one or both parties can get defensive or upset (hypothetically speaking of course).
Living in a household of males makes me very vulnerable to miscommunications in disagreements. Men and women do indeed communicate differently, and when I’m surrounded by guys who don’t understand my communication style or my questions, it’s tough. I sometimes feel like I’m alone in the universe. This, or course, is worse with my husband than with any of the boys, and we’ve had our share of really stupid fights over silly things that seemed extremely important at the time of the argument.
Kevin has told me during many of our arguments that “You just can’t let it go”, meaning that I want to keep talking about the topic of the argument past the time he would like to talk about it. I think guys have a two minute limit on discussing conflicts, and when that time is up, regardless of whether the argument is resolved or not, then they stop talking about it and don’t want to listen to anymore about it either. Sweeping things all under the carpet is fine with a lot of guys; their approach is “time’s up, we’ll deal with it later”. So the same problem – and argument — will pop again and again. I call this the ‘cumulative effect’. (Okay, so maybe all this isn’t so hypothetical.)
We first went to a marriage counselor sometime in 2001; we only went four times and then stopped because things seemed to be getting better and it was becoming tough to fit in appointments in our busy schedules. In 2006, we felt the need to go to a marriage counselor again, but this time we decided to go to a different counselor. We made the first appointment, and as the time approached, we were discussing it one day, and I told Kevin, “I think I should tell you that I’m making a list.”
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“I’m making a list of things to tell the counselor – specific examples of things.”
Kevin furrowed his brow and looked a bit concerned, like our dirty laundry would be on the front page of newspaper soon ( or more likely in a book like this one). “Why do you need to do that?
“Because I don’t want to go in there and have him say, ‘What seems to be the problem?’ and I sit there and can’t think of a damn thing to say except something lame like ‘We just can’t communicate.’ “
“What’s wrong with that?”
“I don’t want my mind to go blank and not be able to recall our arguments. Saying we can’t communicate is way too general for him to help any,” I said. “Examples would give the details about our lives that would really help him to see our problems.”
“Well,” I began, bracing for the reaction from my Eagle Scout husband, “like how you sometimes put your Scouting duties above things you’ve promised me.”
“Whoa, what do you mean by that?” he yelled. At least I knew he was listening.
“Remember that time you refused to change the time of a program meeting you were leading even though it conflicted with Jason’s pre-school graduation?”
“I would have had to call everybody and change the time.”
“Kevin, only three people were able to come that night, and two of them already said they’d be late, so it would have been very easy to delay the start time so you could go to Jason’s thing, but oh no – you had told the Grand Puba or whatever you’d start at a certain time. Even though that meant you’d miss Jason’s graduation.”
“Pre-school graduation,” he replied. “It wasn’t like he was going off to college.”
“Still, it was important to Jason.” Then I turned to him and said, “You can make a list too, you know.” Of course I knew full well that he wouldn’t because he probably wouldn’t be able to recall an argument we’d had yesterday so making a list would be challenging. I, on the other hand, had a memory like an elephant, which was good when it came to coordinating everyone’s schedules but a curse when it came to trying to keep my sanity amongst guys.
On the day of the appointment, I took the list with me in my purse. The list included several things about how I wanted to be understood, while he called that not letting it go. It included the idea that I wanted to be able to talk with him and have him actually respond and maybe even remember the conversation the next day. It also included multiple examples from our lives to help the counselor see why and how we needed his help.
I knew the number one point that illustrated some of our issues would be the dedication he showed to Scouting and how sometimes I wished he would show that kind of devotion to me. Scouting is a terrific organization, but he was so active in it as a leader with our two oldest sons that I felt he sometimes went overboard with it. There were so many meetings and activities for each boy and so many leader meetings, that I began to resent the time it took up. Kevin had always loved to camp, and he took every opportunity to go tent camping with the Scouts, which made me a little resentful that I didn’t have that same kind of ‘get-away’ that Scouting gave him. He also wanted our boys to be Eagle Scouts like he was (excuse me, I mean is – once you are an Eagle Scout it’s for a lifetime), and both of them were pursuing that, but this meant they were all busy with Scout-related activities. I’ve supported Scouting over the years and even bought a Norman Rockwell print for our home – a painting of three boys, the middle one standing proudly in a Scout uniform while the oldest helps his brother tie the neckerchief and the youngest looks on in admiration. I even agreed to Kevin’s request to have Jason’s baptism on Scout Sunday with Billy and Kevin dressed in their uniforms (David was too young for Scouts then). Yes, I know I should have my head examined for that one. But Kevin took it one step too far by asking me to see if I could find a baby Scout uniform for five-month-old Jason to wear instead of the traditional christening gown. I said, “Ah, no.” To most people this would seem, shall we say, a little over the top, but these were the kinds of things that happen in our house quite frequently.
All these things were fresh in my mind, and I was ready to explain it all to the counselor. We walked into the building, where he met us with a kind smile, and I immediately liked him. He welcomed us warmly and ushered us into his office where Kevin and I sat down on a couch across from him.
That’s when I saw them: framed pictures of eagles all over his office walls and even on his desk. Eagles in flight with their wings spread. Eagles on tree limbs. Eagles on mountain tops. Eagles everywhere. I knew what that must mean. And there in the midst of the eagles, I saw it — a photo of our marriage counselor dressed head to toe in a Scout uniform – and the real kicker – with his son, also dressed in a Scout uniform, receiving his Eagle Scout badge. As my eyes darted around the room looking in horror at all the eagles, the screeching music from the movie “Psycho” started playing in my head.
Kevin had seen the photos, too, and he looked over at me and gave me a little sly smile. I could have kicked myself for dropping out of Brownies. The photos provided a nice conversation starter for the two of them. “I see your son’s a Scout,” Kevin remarked, settling back in his chair, relaxed.
“Yes,” the counselor said, “he just became an Eagle Scout last year. What a proud moment that was for me.” He picked up the photo of him and his son in the Scout uniforms from his desk and held it up for Kevin to see.
“My boys and I are in Scouts, too,” Kevin told him.
“That’s wonderful, wonderful” he replied, sounding like Lawrence Welk. “Scouting is great.” Such strong male bonding. I thought at any minute they would break into the chorus from “Home on the Range” and try to build a campfire by rubbing two pencils together. Then the counselor turned to me. “So, what seems to be the issues you want to discuss?” he asked.
“Uhm,” I stammered. “Ah . . . we just can’t communicate.”
This is a personal essay I wrote about my middle son’s experience (and our family’s experience) with anxiety.
by Sharon O’Donnell
“I’m never going to be normal again,” my strapping 17-year-old son said, as he lay in a fetal position on our living room floor. He held his head between his hands, his fingers on his temples, totally perplexed as to what was going on inside his mind. My heart ached, as I looked at him and imagined him as a toddler gazing up at me with his big blue eyes, trusting I’d take care of him. Now, I had no idea how to take care of him anymore. My son, David, had suffered from severe anxiety for six months, triggered by taking an Attention Deficit medicine for the first time. It changed our lives drastically.
When I picked up David, a 16 year-old high school junior, from basketball practice that October day in 2010, he looked awful. His face was pale, and he looked thin, but I assumed those were side effects of the ADD med he’d started taking that week. But I wasn’t prepared for what he said when he got in the car. “I’m feeling really depressed, Mom. I don’t know what’s the matter with me.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing; David had never been depressed and had so much going for him: he was smart, handsome, athletic, had tons of friends, and a sweet girlfriend of almost a year. My disbelief quickly turned to panic, but I tried not to let it show on my face or in my voice.
We drove home, and since it was almost 5:00, I set up an appointment for the next day with our pediatrician who’d treated David and his two brothers — Billy, 19, and Jason, 10, — their whole lives. I told David he needed to go to sleep early. “But I have a chemistry mid-term tomorrow,” he told me, his eyes empty and sunken. He studied some but soon went to bed because we knew his sleep was more important than grades or exams at this point. I couldn’t sleep at all and kept hearing his words from the car in my mind, and when I awoke that next morning there was a split second of peace before I remembered. My husband, Kevin, took David to school on his way out of town on business. I was hoping David’s feelings were just from the stress of exams and the physical exertion of basketball. He’d be fine, I tried to reassure myself. An hour later, David texted us a message: “Get me.” I felt the urgency of David’s words: it wasn’t ‘Can u pick me up?’ or “Need to come home”– it was simply ‘get me’ like he needed us to catch him as he was falling.
I drove to the school with a burning sensation in my stomach, a feeling that would become all too familiar. On the way home, David said he kept having repetitive thoughts he couldn’t get out of his head. He’d had mild anxiety before but nothing like this. The doctor’s appointment was scheduled for after lunch, and David slept until then.
That afternoon, while waiting for the doctor to come into the exam room, David revealed something else. “Mom, I’m not just depressed,” he explained in a weary voice that was almost inaudible. “I heard one of the school counselors say she was teaching a suicide prevention class, and since then I can’t get the thought of suicide out of my head.” I heard his words, but once again I couldn’t believe them. This couldn’t be my healthy, happy son saying this. But it was.
I assured David we’d get help, that things would be okay, but I felt completely devastated because I didn’t know what to do and because I was hurting so much myself. When the doctor heard the gravity of David’s thoughts, he discontinued the ADD drug and put David on an anti-anxiety medication, although it would take two weeks to begin working. He prescribed a tranquilizer for David in the meantime and told me to monitor him day and night. Kevin was still out of town on business, a five hour drive away, but I wanted him with me, needed him with me. I called him and said, “I don’t know what client you’re meeting with, but I need you here.” Then I told him what David had said in the doctor’s office. He started for home right away. Our youngest son, Jason, knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t bring myself to tell him about his brother other than to say David was depressed. Somehow Jason knew when I needed a hug the most, and even though he didn’t totally understand what was going on, his hugs got me through some rough times.
Luckily, school was out the next day, so David had a three-day weekend. On Saturday, things hadn’t improved, so Kevin and I took him to the Duke Medical Center emergency room. After a five-hour evaluation, the psychiatrists determined that David had a type of anxiety called Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, which manifested itself by intrusive thoughts that ran continuously in David’s mind. The doctors said they considered David’s thoughts just that – thoughts – and even though the topic of suicide bothered him, they didn’t think he would ever act on those thoughts. This still didn’t alleviate our concern; our son had gone from a happy, active teenager to one who was sad and tired and who slept a lot to avoid dealing with ‘the thoughts.’
Although doctors said that David had underlying tendencies for anxiety, I felt overwhelming guilt that we’d started him on an ADD med to help him focus, which evidently exacerbated the anxiety. Sometimes ADD and anxiety symptoms overlap, making it difficult to prescribe the proper treatment; David’s inability to focus, which we thought was ADD-derived, had probably been anxiety all along. I even recalled a time when David was in middle school and couldn’t sleep for several nights after some coal miners died in a mine in West Virginia; the initial report had been that the men were alive, but it proved to be false. David had followed the story on TV and told me after the awful news came out that he felt like he was ‘down there with the miners.” At the time, I thought David was just a very compassionate boy, but looking back, I know that had been anxiety.
When we got home from Duke that night, our oldest son, Billy, came home from his college dorm and stayed at the house that night because he felt, as I did, that we should be together. We attempted to go out to eat to get David out of the house, but after ordering our food, David said he had to get out of the restaurant, so we got take-out boxes instead. Sunday was Halloween, and I walked with Jason through the neighborhood trick or treating; yet, in my mind, I remembered all those years of going trick or treating with David and Billy. David had been so carefree, so happy as he ran around from one house to the next, delighting in gathering as much candy as he could, especially Reese Cups. My heart ached thinking about his smile. Down the street was a group of teenage boys who were out trick-or-treating, but they were cutting up a bit, singing Christmas carols at each house. Their songs and laughter rang out, the voices of 15 and 16 year-olds, still struggling to adjust from higher pitched boys’ voices to the deep voices of men. Tears began to flow down my cheeks as I wondered if I would ever hear David laugh again.
The doctors at Duke said that the worst thing David could do was to give into the anxiety and that it was vital to keep him in his routine — which meant he needed to go to school. My husband and I dreaded Monday morning and having to enforce this. I was emotionally exhausted and doubted my ability to be firm enough to go through with this monumental task. The shrill blaring of the alarm clock on Monday morning jolted us out of a restless sleep. While I lay in bed praying and wondering how to face the day, Kevin somehow had the strength to get David up, ready, and out the door to school. As I said good-bye to David that morning, I wanted to hold onto him and not make him go, but I knew he needed to go. I sent emails to his teachers, coaches, and counselors, alerting them to the situation. Later, I met Kevin at the school, and we actually sat in our car in the school parking lot for the entire school day; in case David needed us, we wanted to be right there. One of our friends from church was a counselor at the school, and she – bless her heart – got reports from David’s teachers about how he was doing and texted me. “Very weak and pale but chemistry teacher says he made it through” said one text.
The Pursuit of Normal
After a week and a half, the anti-anxiety med kicked in. Amazingly, December through February went relatively smoothly. In March, a student at David’s high school committed suicide, and even though David didn’t know the boy, he was of course affected by his death. It was during this time that I discovered that three of the novels David’s English class was reading that semester involved characters committing or attempting suicide. I truly believe that English classes would make a positive difference if more of the assigned books were uplifting rather than so depressing. David’s meds still kept the thoughts at bay most of the time.
In mid-April, our family went to Washington, D.C. on spring break and did some sight-seeing. We stayed for a few days and then went home so David could play in a spring break baseball tournament. He had a good game, but afterwards as we walked to the car, he told me it’d been hard to focus at the plate because he was having repetitive thoughts again. I felt sick on my stomach. The anxiety was back. This time it was about Arlington Cemetery, which we’d just visited in D.C. “All those graves, Mom. Life just seems so random.” Despite the thoughts continuing for the next two games, David made the all-tournament team, a testament to his trying to battle through it.
However, over the next two weeks, the thoughts got so disruptive that David took himself out of two games because he couldn’t focus and was afraid he’d hurt the team. His compassionate coach knew this was a much bigger issue than baseball. David also skipped an SAT exam he was scheduled to take for college admission. Doing well on the SAT used to seem so important, but anxiety certainly put everything in perspective. I just wanted my son to be happy and healthy; I didn’t care what his score was on the stupid SAT.
Since the anxiety began, I’d spent countless hours on the Internet, searching for possible solutions. David’s words after the tournament about life being random sent me back to the Internet, where I found that much of what David was experiencing was existential anxiety. Everyone thinks about their existence and the meaning of life from time to time, but with OCD, the thoughts are never-ending. Luckily, we found wonderful local doctors to work with David — a psychiatrist and a psychologist who worked in tandem. David also talked with one of our ministers, which helped tremendously.
The psychiatrist increased David’s anti-anxiety med in mid-May because the thoughts had not decreased. But two days afterwards, David hit rock bottom. He wanted to sleep all day, and he missed school on Monday, saying the thoughts were worse. Tuesday was the day he curled up in a fetal position, telling me he was never going to be normal again. His psychiatrist feared that David was suffering from serotonin syndrome, which is too much serotonin in the brain. He took David off the medicine immediately since the situation was dire. We opted to keep him off of any meds and continue with the psychologist’s therapy and also tried a natural supplement. Within a few days, David was much better. I began once again to do research on the Internet; during the months since David’s first flare-up of severe anxiety, he had been my complete priority. Of course, I kept up with my 10-year-old’s school work, checked in with my oldest son, and sometimes cooked dinner, but it was like I was in a fog. David’s world became my world as I read, took notes, & contacted doctors and teachers. There were a few times I tried to write a blog or work on a book – to try to return to my life – but then something would happen to David and bam! – I’d be right back in his world, aching for him, praying for him, on the Internet. I couldn’t focus on anything else because nothing else mattered. I was consumed by his anxiety.
Two weeks after David went off the meds, he seemed to be his old self. American Legion baseball season was beginning, and he was feeling good. I felt extremely blessed – even though I realized the anxiety could come back. There is a sporting goods store in our city with a women’s spa located above it. Over the years when I’d go to buy athletic items for my sons, I’d gaze at the stairs to the spa and dream of the day I’d go up those stairs for a massage rather than downstairs to buy sports stuff for the guys. That week David needed a new batting helmet, and I drove to the sporting goods store to buy one. I saw that spiral staircase leading up to the spa, but this time I didn’t yearn to go upstairs. Passing by the stairs to the spa, I walked toward the sporting goods store instead, smiling because my boy felt like playing baseball again.
But our respite was short-lived. In early July, repetitive thoughts were bothering David again. He went to play basketball at the park with friends to try to alleviate the thoughts. While he was gone, I went back on the Internet, looking for solutions that didn’t exist. A few hours later, I heard David come inside. I got up and went around the corner. David stood in the foyer staring at me, a basketball under his arm. “Mom, there’s just no hope,” he said, shaking his head slowly. I slumped against the doorframe in despair, meeting his eyes. “Things just aren’t any better,” he added. I was so damn tired of this roller coaster. When was this blasted anxiety going to leave my son alone? When would it leave us all alone? It had taken the whole family hostage, turning our lives into a dark, foreboding place.
“Okay, David,” I replied, my voice quavering. “I’ll call the doctor. He’ll know what to do.” His psychiatrist told me to take David to the UNC-Chapel Hill adolescent psychology unit for an evaluation. On the way, I reached over and put my hand on top of David’s and prayed out loud. I thought he might flinch or pull his hand away, uncomfortable with praying out loud like this, but he didn’t. At UNC, they put him through a week of extensive tests and got him back on an anti-anxiety drug – a different one than before. Miraculously, David was feeling much better in a short time.
The following week, David was able to play with his American Legion baseball team in the state tournament. His team fell short of the championship, which was disappointing. But they still came in third, and David played well, including a fantastic sliding catch at first base. There were many games being played at this tournament, and we watched some other games even though our team wasn’t playing. In one of those games between two other teams, a player in the outfield suddenly crumpled to the ground. Since it was a hot summer day, most of us immediately assumed it was due to heat exhaustion. The coaches gathered around the player, and medical personnel attended to him. A few minutes passed, and they carried him off the field. As the game began again, people in the stands were concerned and wondering aloud what had happened to the player. Then a man walked over and delivered the news with a smile on his face: it was “just anxiety.” Everyone seemed relieved. A chill ran down my spine as I heard people relay those words throughout the stands — ‘just’ anxiety.
At the beginning of David’s senior year in high school, he got involved in Young Life, a Christian-based organization that helped him and his peers examine some of his questions about life’s meaning. He still had some ups and downs during the year — particularly during a promising senior basketball season that quickly took a nosedive due to unexpected lack of playing time in that first game, which led to a spiraling loss of confidence. During that trying basketball season, David began taking a pre-metabalized folic acid tablet to help the anxiety med absorb into his system better; that seemed to be a God-send for him. That spring, in a tournament championship baseball game, David hit the winning double and was carried off the field by some of his teammates. It was so fitting that David got an opportunity to have that moment.
David did well in his freshman year of college two hours away from home, taking on responsibilities and doing well academically. It was tough for Kevin and me to have David go to a school that wasn’t within quick access in case he needed us, but we knew it might also be a step he needed to take. He suffered no anxiety flare-ups, and the time he used to spend practicing and playing two sports in high school was instead used to focus on studying. I will never regret David’s pursuit of sports because athletics gave him a sense of self-esteem that he needed while growing up; however, they did impact time-management issues, and I’m sure David’s high school years would have been less stressful without athletics. David’s freshman year GPA was high enough that he was able to transfer for his sophomore year to his dream school that is only 15 minutes from home. He is doing well there and still is dating his girlfriend of four years; he also exercises (usually running, basketball, or weightlifting), and that has helped combat his anxiety tremendously. I can tell in his eyes and in his voice that he is happy and excited about life.
But the burning feeling in my stomach never totally goes away, and every time the phone rings and David’s name shows up as the incoming caller, my heart stops. I have a new understanding of mental health struggles, particularly how easily and quickly such a problem can arise. Anxiety is an epidemic among teenagers, and society has to somehow offer them hope amidst all the bad news they hear 24/7 and all the pressures.
Our family feels extremely blessed that David’s OCD has responded positively to medication and therapy. Still, the roller coaster nature of anxiety means the threat of it always hangs in the air, like a predator out for its prey. It’s bittersweet to think of David as that little boy with the big blue eyes and tousled hair, how protected he was in those innocent times before anxiety came and changed our lives so suddenly.
EARLY SIGNS OF ANXIETY IN KIDS:
taking too long to complete tests
having indigestion or other stomach problems
feeling the need to study too much – “Mom, call that question out to me again.”
sleeplessness or withdrawal after sad events in the world or with family or friends
repetitive actions like rubbing one’s thighs when studying or rechecking to see if doors are closed or locked or if the stove is off
doing actions because they feel if they don’t then something ‘bad’ will happen, such as touching an object a certain number of times before leaving the house, going to bed, etc.
My oldest son has graduated from college with a degree in accounting in December. He is starting an internship this week and will start grad school in August. Very proud of him, but can’t believe how insanely quickly the years passed. It doesn’t seem like there is enough transition in-between — sure, he gradually spent less time at home as he started college, got an apartment, had summer jobs, etc., but basically, he was here and now he’s gone. He still has a room upstairs but rarely uses it since he has an nice apartment with some friends, but I want him to still feel as if — for a while longer anyway — that this is ‘home’.
In going through some photos tonight, I came across one of our long-haired dachshund, Fenway, taken a few years ago. Fenway has always had a tendency to guard my husband’s belongings if my husband is not at home; he sleeps on his gym bag sometimes or watches over his shoes, for instance. I can go near him and pick him up when he is doing this, but he growls at anyone else who dares to get too close to any item of my husband’s. He truly is man’s best friend — sometimes to a detriment. Usually, my sons can finally pick him up, too, but not without first having to play a sort of game with Fenway, in which they get closer, and he’ll growl, closer still and he growls again, and several more times until Fenway gets tired and lets his guard down for a moment, allowing one of the boys to pick him — or the item up. It’s a joke in our family about how protective Fenway is of my husband’s belongings. Dachshunds are known to be loyal, but it really does get ridiculous at times.
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED on www.motherhoodlater.com
Last week, my ‘baby’ turned 13. For so long, he has played the role of my ‘little boy’, younger brother to Billy and David who are 9 and 6 years older than he is, respectively. As the older ones grew up, started shaving, driving, dating, and going to college — I could always think to myself, “But I’ve still got my little guy at home.” Alas, he is not little any longer. Not in attitude and not in stature. He is almost as tall as I am, and I’m 5 feet 10 inches tall. And that teen mentality of eye rolling and ‘okay Mom’ comments just to appease me have set in to stay for a while. He used to keep his room pretty clean and organized, but lately, his room has become a mess. As an older mom who has been through this twice before quite a few years ago, I sometimes question my stamina to go through it again. It is tiring, emotionally and physically. I hate that he — and I — have to get up at 6:15 to make it to middle school in time. And 7th grade math is indeed quite challenging for a math-deficient mom like myself to try to help with homework. I think this is about the time my middle son got a math tutor. Something to think about to save my sanity.