I’m over Montana, really. This is my ninth trip. I’m here to visit my daughter at a therapeutic boarding school. A year ago I didn’t even know what a therapeutic boarding school was, never mind such a place existed or that I might find one in Montana. I never imagined I would need to know such things but a year ago I told myself all kinds of lies. I arrive at the school. Montana is beautiful. Once on campus, I look around the first time. I am reminded how being right in nature makes me feel so small and so big all at once. It’s still cold even though it’s May and looks as if it might rain. The ground is muddy from melted snow. There is a grayness in the air. I am instructed to park my rental car and go upstairs with the other mothers. The girl’s dorm is a log cabin style building, rustic and minimal. Entering the mudroom, all of the girl’s rubber boots are lined up on top of cubbies with each of their names on them. The boots are all different, fitting of the girls’ personalities. Some are pink and some are black. Some have polkadots and some shine silver metallic. There is order here. Everything in its place. Once upstairs, I am invited to be seated in a lounge area with a TV and several couches pushed back against the walls. Nothing is new here. The furniture is worn and the carpet is dingy. The room is open to a kitchen that hums with a loud restaurant style refrigerator. If I focus on the hum and stare out the enormous window into the Rocky Mountains, I can almost imagine I’m in a small plane headed straight for a plot of soaring pines. I have these fantasies more than I’d like to admit.
In my darkest places, I imagine crossing over crowded lanes of traffic into oncoming cars or jumping from an overpass splat onto the steaming concrete, most of my deaths begin in cars. I swirl in my head about who I could trust my children to after my death. I wonder, if in fact, it would screw them up forever, which is what my mother likes to tell me when I inadvertently share these thoughts with her. None of these are things I would actually do, really. By birth I’m an optimist, which is a weird place for a depressive to find herself.
I spend a lot of time trying to work myself out of my depression. Every morning I get out of bed, take a shower and put one foot in front of the other. I take pills and go to therapy but try as I might, I haven’t been able to escape my genetics. This particular defect haunts me. My father‘s death left me with only questions and the whispers of suicide that floated around me.
My father was a complicated and tortured man, who still remains a mystery to me. He was a powerful figure who used money to control the people around him all the while turning to drugs and alcohol to quiet his own darkening mind. He saved keys and letters in the most caring and gentle way, in little boxes- lined up in an organized way but he lived mostly in complete chaos. Dishes piled high in the sink. Rotting, god knows what, in the refrigerator. His OCD wasn’t visible to the untrained eye. You had to look hard to see the ways in which he couldn’t get away from his own magical thinking. From the outside he looked positively charismatic with confidence not suited to a short man. I think he used to be handsome, but now he was troll-like. Still, he was always surrounded by beautiful women. Mostly, I didn’t know him at all. Mostly, what I learned about him, I garnered from his surroundings after his death when I was summoned to clean up the confusion that had been his home for 35 years. He was a severe depressive who abandoned me before my first birthday.
The inherited depression I carry with me is a vortex. I know when it comes it will leave and I know when it leaves it will revisit me again. There is a strange comfort in the certainty that it is waiting for me. When the blackness is at its darkest, I am an immovable object. Paralyzed. Sometimes I wish for blackness. Frankly, black is rare. More frequently, I find myself in a foggy gray. Gray is the depression of self-loathing and hatred. Gray is the depression of purposeless and no future. It’s the depression that allows me to function and in the worst way. Gray is where I am the most critical and unpleasant. Gray is where I am on this day in Montana. It’s where I’ve been for a while. It’s mostly where I’ve been since this started. I want to feel something else and I don’t. The gray feels like nothing.
I’m in the lounge with 6 other mothers and their daughters and the girl’s therapist. The therapist is kind and earthy. She has a soft Nordic features with bright, wide-open, blue eyes. She cocks her head, nods, and furrows her brow or smiles depending on what she’s hearing from the girls. She’s young and she doesn’t have any children of her own. She doesn’t have daughters who once were in crisis like all us. She has unlimited empathy and we like her. We want to trust her. We search her face for answers. We think she has the key to unlocking what demons lay in our daughters. We think she can fix us. We think she knows something that we don’t. The truth is, we know something she doesn’t. We know what it feels like to have the child we birthed, nurtured, loved and protected run headlong to destruction. Most of us watched our daughters like train wrecks, like oncoming cars, we couldn’t stop. Now we think she can save us. That’s why we’re here. The therapist and the school ask us to drag our already exhausted and frustrated bodies to Montana for these workshops 3 times a year. We are allowed other times to be with our daughters but it’s always controlled and with a lot of rules. We sign a yellow piece of paper when we remove them from campus that states that we will not have them out of our sight. We promise not to allow them access to cell phones and FaceBook. We no longer make the rules because clearly we were not good at it. Now we follow rules. We drank the Kool-Aid. We surrender and swear to return them at the assigned hour.
This is a group session and I’m the only mother without a daughter here. My daughter has left campus recently for a transition house. She’s making what is deemed “measurable progress”. I’m here with the mothers whose daughters are still on campus. We are attending the designated Mother- Daughter retreat. This name makes me smile inside. We all know this isn’t a retreat. We have been instructed by the therapist to find and bring to this session with us, a photo of ourselves that shows us as our most authentic self. The girls are chattering amongst themselves and a few of the women are discussing their respective jobs outside of this little insulated world. These are powerful, smart and educated women, lawyers, doctors and CEO’s. I’m quiet and thinking about the trees. I’m wondering if when the plane is about to crash if I will see my life pass before my eyes. I wonder if it’s a slide show. I wonder what moments my brain will choose to show me. I wonder if my brain will be gentle or harsh. Objective and fair or blaming and finger pointing. I wonder if it will show me the moments that I am loved or the times when I was cold or unfair. I stare at the other mothers in the room. The mother who sits across from me is quiet too. She looks straight at me with a recognition that I find both judgmental and familiar. Her pain shows in her face. It’s as if she has absorbed her experience deep into her and it’s made permanent scars. I know that she was once a model and she carries herself in a strong and prideful way. Her hair is long and black and even in disarray, its lushness fills me with jealousy. She is tall and sits straight up in her chair. She is stunning and I feel sad looking at her. No matter what we tell ourselves, the sadness may never leave any of our faces.
I know these women in a way that I would not know anyone else. We share the experience of disaster. We share the experience of guilt and shame and inadequacy. We share the feeling of mistakes made with the best intentions. We also share the distance we have traveled. We are all mighty in our ways, if only that we’ve made it this far and we’re still standing. We are all of us optimists.
Sometimes it’s hard not to look at my life as a series of losses. In periods of wallowing, I find that place of victimhood. Despite my immediate desire for a fiery crash in the pine trees, I’m here in the room learning how to be better, do better, feel better, at least this is what I tell myself.
I wanted to write about this moment. The moment in the photograph I’ve carried with me from Texas. This moment where I might have been my most authentic self. The moment that wasn’t black or gray. I wanted you to see the 18-year-old girl in the bubble gum pink bridesmaids dress. She’s smiling shyly at the camera. She’s beautiful and tan. I wanted you to know that this girl in the photo hadn’t made any life-changing mistakes yet. I wanted you to understand that girl didn’t know what was coming or how to spot it or even how to stop it. Blackness hadn’t come to her yet.
The truth is, I can’t tell you about all that. I don’t know my most authentic self. After 26 years in and out of therapy, I only have more questions. I want to unopen the can but I can’t. I’m paralyzed. I’m sitting in this room with these women and their daughters. We range in age from 15 to 56 and we are all cans opened wide. We’ve been cut from top to bottom and our insides are hanging out. Just there. Lying on the dingy carpet. We don’t yet know how to put them back inside and sew ourselves up. We comfort each other in how strange and painful it is. We are close and still so distant. I want to believe that this is the place where we will learn the skills to help our daughters and ourselves move forward but right now I don’t even know what that means. I’m 46 and I wonder if I’m moving forward or just getting sucked down into the whirlpool. I wonder if my insides will ever even fit back within my skin and if they do, will they ever work the same way again.
I’ve tried to make sense of how I got to this place. I write about it, talk through it and sometimes I wish it away. I’m strangely broken and I hope that the break heals and that I that later I don’t limp.
Mostly I feel gray.
Maybe if I started from the beginning we could look at it more objectively? Maybe if I could shed my guilt or even my shame? Maybe I could stop feeling like a terrible mother? Maybe if I could internalize the skills I’m pretending I’ve learned? Maybe if I did all that, then I could tell you why I am here?
The simplest answer is that it’s not simple. Sure, there are events that lead me here. Trips to the emergency room, threats of suicide and a stint in rehab. Those are only some of the gory details of a story that is only partly mine to tell. But, it’s not the why. The why is covered in layers, years and generations of learned behaviors and misunderstandings.
Maybe this is my most authentic self?
The one with only questions.
Looking into the trees, the sky has cleared and its blue and hopeful but I’m tired. I’m tired of thinking. I try again to imagine what the moment of impact might feel like but the thought leaves because even after all of this I am optimist.