return of the mad

When I was little, I screamed a lot. In fairness, life since my conception had been difficult. I was a restless and unhappy baby from the get-go, not only because of intrinsic issues I faced, but also because my home life was a hot mess. My parents were drinking and fighting, splitting up and getting back together, and there was little consistency or structure, the two hallmarks of a safe and healthy home environment.

I fought my way into the world and then I was disenchanted from the moment I got here, even as a newborn. My mother’s pediatrician heard my volatile, disconsolate wailing at my first check-up and remarked that he wouldn’t blame her for wanting to throw me out the window. He also told her to please not throw me out the window, no matter how much she might want to. Then he advised her all parents want to dropkick their babies at one time or another, but it’s how you respond to those feelings that determines what kind of parent you’re going to be. Incidentally, it also determines whether you’ll do your parenting from prison. It is unclear whether my mother had expressed a desire to throw me out the window or dropkick me. It may have just been that my infant cry was so off-putting that he couldn’t help but observe how challenging it must be to live with a baby pterodactyl without bludgeoning or abandoning it.

The screaming evolved but did not subside as I became a toddler and then a full-blown child. Life was tumultuous, I was woefully misunderstood (whattup, sensory issues!), and the only way I knew how to communicate myself was through screaming my displeasure. Well-meaning but misguided family members like to joke that I was such a handful, and isn’t it going to be great karma to see how my own kids turn out, haha. And I love them because they are my family, but then I back slowly out of the room because my emotional energy these days is like scraping the sides of an empty Nutella jar, and I just don’t have it in me to educate anyone on the nuances of childhood development, especially for atypical children in unstable, low-income home environments.

As I got older, I learned to better regulate the world around me, and my response to stimuli and my own emotions. It was a hard road, and often required giving myself a huge buffer of alone time to recharge so that I could function at a passing level. I would have to Be A Person as a kid, and then afterward I would retreat for several hours to read, draw, or play with barbies to get my energy levels back up. I spent a fair amount of time on the floor of the closet of my shared bedroom because it was a private indoor space. If I was especially depleted, I would go to the neighbors’ horse barn, or out to the field by our house with my dog and hide there, praying and talking intermittently to animals until I felt okay again.

This was how I staved off a short-fused response to being totally overwhelmed by simply having to exist.

When I didn’t have that space and I had to face difficult issues or engage in activities that were physically or emotionally uncomfortable for me, I often lost my temper. I was a tiny angry Irishman, punching and kicking and biting even the nicest people in my life when they tried to force me into difficult situations (see: leaving the house).

I outgrew the physical violence by the time I was about six or seven, largely because my circumstances changed so drastically. My mom and sisters had moved away to Georgia, and I stayed behind to live with my dad in a farmhouse he was renting on the county blacktop. I changed schools, got my own space, and existence suddenly got a lot quieter in some ways. My life itself wasn’t necessarily any more stable, but I had a lot more free reign to do whatever I wanted, which meant spending a lot of time by myself without being questioned or hounded. I routinely spent my free time at my dad’s auto mechanic’s shop, where I would hide among the carburetors and oil pumps, or sometimes hunker down into a stack of tires. We had a shop dog and a couple of at-home dogs and a mess of cats, and it was just the right combination of unconditional animal love and solitude.

My dad often left me for a few days at a time with a lady friend of his. She was a single woman who lived with two sheltie dogs in a double-wide trailer at the edge of her parents’ show-horse farm. I had my own room there with my own bathroom and she let me play with her extensive collection of horse figurines, and take long bubble baths in her master bathroom garden tub. She taught me about Kentucky Wildcats basketball and how to swallow pills with giant gulps of regular Pepsi from an over-sized gas station fountain cup. We hunkered down on Halloween and lit candles and watched scary movies all evening.

By many standards, my everyday life in that year with my dad was inappropriate for a seven year old. But at the same time, I wasn’t totally without parenting. My dad’s friend disciplined me just as she was kind to me. She made me eat the food she cooked, and consistently put me to bed at an age-appropriate hour. She took care of me when I was sick, taught me to care for horses, arranged for me to play with other kids once in a while, taught me to clean up after myself.

There were other people who took me in and took care of me, too. And my dad did a fair amount of parenting himself. He got me to school every day, corrected my rudeness, and taught me to talk to people when they directly addressed me. It was a strange paradox.

I could ride my bike all over the city by myself with no helmet and no one to keep track of me. I could buy all the candy and soda I wanted from the gas station with worn 10 dollar bills that my dad fished from the money clip in his jeans pocket, currency that smelled faintly of gasoline and engine oil. But I got spanked and put to bed early when I threw a fit about my godfather’s niece using all the foam from my Bathtime Fun Barbie. I had to eat the breakfast my dad prepared for me no matter what it was. And I was taught how to interact with people without being an asshole.

My dad understood my introversion in a certain way, at least enough to know when to force me and when to give me space. I don’t think he fully grasped my sensory issues because no one really does, not even me to this day. But he acknowledged their existence, although it was probably weird and frustrating, he let me make decisions about clothes to wear and he generally rolled with it even while not fully grasping it.

As adults, we get lost in enforcement with children and we lose sight of the reality that they are humans. We don’t give them the right to experience a range of emotions, especially if their feelings are negative. We expect them to fall in line, and we are perceived as failing in our role as parents if our kids do not exhibit model behavior at all times, especially in shared and public spaces. Really, we hold them to a higher standard than we hold each other and ourselves.

Regulating my emotions has been difficult since I’ve been pregnant. Hormones soar and then crash, and then soar again even higher. They collide with grief and daily frustrations and I lose my mind over tiny infractions.

I wish I was the tearful cliche. There is something about a crying pregnant woman that elicits compassion.

Instead, I am my enraged four-year-old self, sweaty blonde ringlets clinging to my furrowed brow, my hands clenched tightly, my mouth pursed. I am exasperated with everything in a way that I cannot abate no matter how I try.

I’ve lost count of the number of times the mailman has heard me scream at the dog to shut the fuck up.

Decades of learning to manage my feelings, offset the stimuli I naturally have trouble filtering, and temper my responses has melted away and I am so red-faced mad that it makes even me nervous sometimes. The only blessing in all this is that my regular blood pressure is so low that even when I’m about to burst through the roof, it’s still in the safe zone. No Preeclampsia here! So far, anyway… *does sign of the cross*

In observing this primal response over several weeks, I have learned to recognize that it stems from many of the same things that caused it when I was little: fear, anxiety, and perceived lack of control. Back then, I was constantly afraid of being left somewhere, waking up in a different place than where I fell asleep, being forced to wear clothes that would bother me. I was anxious all the time because I had no control over the earth’s constant shifting beneath me.

Nowadays, it is not so different. There is little control when you are pregnant. You try not to eat junk, avoid alcohol, eliminate all the obvious risk factors. But the reality is you can do everything correctly and things may still go very wrong. Simply put, you are not in control.

And the fear. This type of vulnerability is unmatched. I am so fiercely protective of this life that is depending on me to survive that I am ever on guard and apprehensive. My heightened need for Em’s protection would make my 21-year-old feminist self scoff with disdain.

For whatever reason, many of my feelings in pregnancy converge and land squarely on rage. People tell me I am glowing and I have to stop myself from explaining to them that it’s just the reflection of the hot fires of outrage and irritability burning deep inside me.

Plus I am physically uncomfortable, and I’m only halfway through the pregnancy. Many people believe that a woman who is able to conceive and remain pregnant with few issues has no right to feel anything other than gratitude. I have never experienced the desperation of not being able to conceive nor have I lost a baby or suffered a miscarriage. And I am grateful. But, like most everything in life, I think that feelings are not cut-and-dried, even about pregnancy. You can feel frustrated, uncomfortable, grouchy, miserable, and even wish that the pregnancy was over, and that has absolutely no impact on the level of your gratitude.

The reality of my pregnancy is that I have dealt with mind numbing physical pain since early on. This is in part because I cannot receive treatments or take medications that normally offset my neuromuscular symptoms. But I also have new symptoms like diminished function on my left side and inexplicable nerve pain and damage. All that stuff hurts. It clouds my ability to think, hinders my sleep, severely diminishes my ability to participate in and especially to enjoy everyday life. But all the negative feelings I have, my looking forward to no longer being pregnant so that I can have necessary testing and treatment… that has nothing to do with my feelings about my baby.

They are feelings that—like so many others, pregnant or not—bump up against the good stuff, and get all mixed up and intermingled with a range of emotions that are big and small, positive and negative. Turns out, that’s mostly what it is to be human: to have all these supposedly conflicting sentiments all smooshed together and shoved inside you, sometimes bursting out in every direction and sometimes nearly indistinguishable.

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