I Will Read My Daughter’s Diary, If I Have To

Last month, I had the honor and privilege of hearing Sue Klebold speak at Mental Health America’s annual conference. (And if that has you now thinking “Wait, who is Sue Klebold?” don’t worry; I’ll help you out.) You see, Sue Klebold is the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the young men who — along with Eric Harris — was responsible for the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. A shooting which took the lives of 15 individuals, including Eric and Dylan. And while many may wonder why I would refer to meeting Ms. Klebold — the mother of a seemingly cold-blooded killer — as a privilege, it is because she is a woman and a mother who has overcome incredible and devastating odds. It is because she is a woman and a mother who is using her voice to make a difference. It is because she is a woman and a mother who has become a great advocate for mental health. And it is because she is a woman and a mother who has suffered a loss few of us can imagine.

Ms. Klebold didn’t just lose her son that day in April, 17 years ago; she lost the image of a boy she thought she knew, and she lost her future.

And as Ms. Klebold spoke that night I saw her — about her son, the many victims, the state of her town and school after Columbine, murder/suicide, and mental illness — hundreds of attendees sat silent and still for 40 minutes. We were all captivated by her story, and pulled into “her world” (at least for a few moments).

But there was one thing she said in particular that struck me. One simple moment she shared that I could not shake.

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Happy Birthday, Peanut: You Are Growing Up Too Fast

Just a few weeks ago, my daughter and I went to the park which — in and of itself — isn’t groundbreaking. In fact, most days of the week when Mommy is off, and the weather is nice, we head to the park just after sunrise and stay there for hours on end. We share secrets and snacks. I drinks my iced coffee while Peanut sips on ice water, and then we run around. We dig in the dirt and collect sticks. We play with bubbles and, well, I play dinosaur. And then my daughter throws a tantrum because we have to leave.

Because, at some point, we have to go home.

But on this day my daughter decided to hide behind a tree, because we couldn’t leave if I couldn’t see her. We couldn’t leave if I couldn’t find her. (Smart, I know.) So I played along, and her antics actually resulted in a short, fun game of hide and seek.

And that is when I snapped this picture. During our game, I captured all of innocence and unadulterated joy childhood brings. And I continued taking photos until my daughter said “no Mommy. Go away. No more pictures.”

Instantly, I felt a pang of sadness.

I wasn’t bothered by the fact that she asked me (well, told me) to stop snapping photos. I wasn’t upset that she told me to leave. I was hurt by the gravity of the moment, by the story I saw unfolding underneath that tree — and before my very eyes.

growing up too fast

Because while looking at her and that tree — that tree which has roots so large they have broken the surface and now grow above the ground — I realized time is fleeting. My baby girl is growing up, and before long she will be climbing that tree. Before long, she will be laughing with her girlfriends beside that tree. Before long, she will be making out with her boyfriend beneath that tree — hidden by the shade or the cover of night. And before long she will stand stoically and tall. She will stand alone. And while I hope she will be as rooted and grounded as this tree, the very thought caught me off guard. The thought of my little girl growing up broke my heart AND caused it to swell because every minute of every day, she is growing.

Change is coming: it is already happening.

In fact, over the last three years, she — and we — have changed so much. And while I want her to grow and thrive, while I want her to be strong and independent, I’m not ready to teach her how to shave. I don’t want to share my shoes or clothes or bathroom products just yet, and I’m not ready for her to ask Daddy for his car keys.

I’m not prepared for the day when she will leave my house as a girl but return as a woman.

I know I have time, trust me I do. But I blinked, and she was born. I blinked, and she was crawling. I blinked, and she was walking. I blinked, and she was running.

She was running away from innocence…and from me.

So today, sweet child, I will let you play a little longer. I will let you laugh a little louder. I will let you run a little faster. I will let you jump a little higher. Because I know you are growing up. I know you are already spreading your wings and taking baby steps toward your first flight. So we will take those steps together — but only after we jump in puddles and dig in the mud.

Only after we share a big bowl of ice cream, topped with M&M’s.

Only after we appreciate the promise and potential of a cardboard box.

Only after we strengthen your core and your roots.

Happy Birthday, PeanutMay your future be beautiful and bright, and filled with sticks, rocks, puddles, and mud.

I’m Not Ashamed Of My Mental Illness, Not Anymore

When I was 18, I moved out of my mother’s house and into my own apartment. It wasn’t much: a small, one bedroom off-campus type place, the type of place where rent is cheap and the fixtures are cheaper. I decorated my new pad with things from the “dorm aisle” in Target. I had a set of three nesting tables, two beanbag chairs, a blue card table with four folding chairs, a futon, and one flimsy but oh-so-essential white bookcase. (What can I say, I was a bookworm. Hell, I still am.)

Sure, it was sparse, but it was mine. This place—this entire space—was mine, and mine alone.

I had started college two weeks before and had been holed up in a Hampton Inn four miles from the campus since that time, so moving in was the most exciting day, and the most exciting moment, of my short adolescent life. But it was also the most terrifying, because in those two weeks I was already spiraling out of control. In just 14 short days prior, I had gone from being an overachiever to a “failure.” I was skipping class—opting to stay in bed in a dark, and unclean, hotel room. I was eating less and sleeping more.

By the time the keys to C16 were in my hand, I was already deep in the throes my first ever depressive episode (my first depressive episode on my own, that is).

When you are young and teetering on the edge of adulthood, when you are young and getting ready to face the world alone, everyone warns you about drinking and drugs. They warn you about school violence, the risks of unprotected sex, and what will happen if you don’t keep your grades up, but no one warns you about the isolation. No one warns you about the panic, the anxiety, the loneliness, and the desperation. No one warns you that this event—this major, life-changing moment—is also a huge stressor. No one talks about the fact that this transition can trigger depression, especially if you have previously been diagnosed with the condition.

And it didn’t take me long to fall into a crippling episode. It didn’t take me long to give up. I withdrew from college in my second semester, through I kept it a secret until the end of my freshman year. I started going out less and drinking more. I hid in my boyfriend’s dorm room most of the week. I would stay in his bed with the covers pulled over my eyes and a pillow lying across my face while he went to class and did what 18-year-olds were supposed to do. While he did what everyone assumed I—a straight-A student—would do. But I couldn’t do it, or anything, for that matter.

I would cry when my boyfriend brought up school and asked me what I planned to do. I would cry when he pointed out my lack of employment and his suggestion that I should go home.

Everyone thought my life was out of control, and the truth is, it was. But it wasn’t the result of partying or drug abuse or plain ol’ laziness. It was the direct result of my mental illness. Instead of talking about my depression and asking for help, I shut down out of shame, fear, guilt and remorse.

I tried self-medicating, cutting, pills, and overpriced, watered-down booze. I tried anything to make the shit stop and to get back to some semblance of my former self, but nothing worked. It wasn’t until I went to therapy that things got better. They weren’t great—hell, there were barely OK—but they were better.

Why? I felt better because I broke the silence, because I took one small but oh-so-significant baby step forward.

It’s taken me 16 years to get comfortable saying I have a mental illness, because let’s be real: Even though I know, and knew then, I should not be ashamed of my illness, I still was. I let shame consume me and taunt me. I let the idea of shame haunt me.

I stayed silent because I was scared. I was terrified I was crazy and ever more afraid I wasn’t. I was petrified that perhaps I was a failure who just wasn’t cut out to cope with adult things and my new “adult” life.

I stayed silent because I was sure no one would understand. How could I possibly explain the sadness, the depth and the breadth of my pain? And, conversely, how I could explain the lack thereof—the sheer loss of love and emotion in my life?

And I stayed silent because I thought nobody cared. Admittedly, there are times when I still believe this. Days and weeks and months when I believe this.

But I was wrong.

You see, it can be embarrassing to talk about a mental illness and the invisible monster lurking under your bed or inside your head. It can be difficult to explain the numbness, the emptiness, and the feelings of worthlessness. It can be difficult to explain how you feel alone—completely and utterly alone—in a crowd full of people, in a room full of your closest friends and family.

But it is just as difficult not to, because staying silent means staying ashamed. Staying ashamed means staying isolated. Staying isolated means staying silent. And staying silent means staying sick. Period.

So I’m done allowing my disease to demean me. I’m no longer letting my disease define me.

Why? Because I deserve better, and so do you. (Yes, you!)

So to the friend who puts on a “good show” but cries behind closed doors, to the colleague who seems to take one too many sick days or who stays silent and keeps to themselves, to the family member always sitting in the corner during Thanksgiving dinner, and to the 15-year-old child who feels like she is going crazy but wants to believe she is OK, I say this: Living with depression or any mental illness is tough. There are days you feel like you can’t make it, but you will.

Because you are tougher. You are stronger. You are resilient. And you are not your disease. Sure, you have a diagnosis, but you are more than a series of symptoms. You are more than DSM-IV-defined illness. You are a person and a fighter, and you should never, ever be ashamed of the fight. Scared? Yes! But ashamed? No.

You deserve better, because you are better. You are worth it.

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© 2016 Kimberly Zapata, as first published on Scary Mommy

The Morning After I Asked For A Divorce

WRITER’S NOTE: This piece is a 2016 VOTY (Voices of the Year) Honoree.

There is a stillness in the air, a hush on our house. If someone peered in our windows they would think nothing of what they saw; it is nothing more than any other dark, well-organized house. Sure the sink is half-full, a basket of toys sits beneath our console table, and the throw pillows are askew, but the house is quiet, what you would expect of a house at 5 A.M. But I’m not sleeping, and it is the silence that is keeping me awake. It is not that quiet pale gray calm before a snowstorm. No; it’s a stillness that is far more insidious, the type of quiet that falls after a tsunami comes ashore and the waves roll back: the calm that can only be felt amidst tragedy and destruction.

How do we come together the morning after? The morning after a fight. The morning after I criticize you, or you me. The morning after insults are hurled and accusations are made. The morning after I tell you I don’t love you. The morning after I ask for a divorce.

I should explain, as there is a part of me that will always love you: the father of Amelia, our only child; the man I lost my virginity to; the 12-year-old boy I brazenly asked to save a dance for “the witch.” (It was the Halloween dance and I was one of a handful of children who showed up in a head-to-toe costume, complete with green face paint and a wiry, black hair wig.) I still love the stolen kisses you used to give me in front of my mother’s house; I still love the handwritten notes you used to pass me in high school, between and during class. Notes that started with “how are you” or “how is your day.” Notes that contained questions which, in reality, were so simple — are so simple — but it is these simple questions we can no longer ask. And that is part of the problem with falling in love so young: the boy becomes a man, the girl becomes a woman, and now I don’t know if I am in love with you or in love with the idea of you.

And so we find ourselves here, the morning after, struggling to make small talk. We dance around each other in a semi-choreographed routine based solely on avoidance—avoidance in the bathroom while brushing our teeth and avoidance in the bedroom as we each slip, separately, into our unironed outfits. We never catch each other’s gaze, we do not hold each other close, or we do not touch. We dare not touch. In fact, on mornings like this I think you are just as afraid to wrap your arms around my waist as you were 19 years ago. There is only one exception, and that is when you leave for work. First you hug and kiss our daughter and then me, but there is no love in it—not for me. Your hug is empty, one-armed and rushed, and your mouth barely grazes mine. It is half-hearted and obligatory; the type of peck you would place on an acquaintance’s cheek but not your lover’s lips.

As the day goes on we text about work, the weather, or the hilarious adventures of our daughter but the substance is gone. We know it, and so we avoid it. We avoid each other. We hope if we don’t talk about it, or anything difficult or otherwise important, we can stay together. We hope space and silence will fix it—will fix us.

We are a pair of wayward sweethearts, two dancers who have fallen out of step, and while days pass in this manner, we slowly regain our footing. One step at a time, our conversations increase as the tension decreases. Words become less strained, meals become less rigid. But the damage is done, and I wonder if there is really a way to come back from this: to pull back from the ledge and back into our marriage.

But then you offer to make me dinner: a grilled cheese sandwich and split pea soup. While the soup only needs to be warmed and grilled cheese may seem like a simple supper, I jump at the chance. I bathe our daughter, put her to bed, and sit back while you finish our sandwiches. The air smells like burnt toast. I know you burnt something, but you don’t tell me—and you don’t let me help. You won’t let me help, and in that moment I see you for who you are, for who you were: the boy who made me a heart-shaped “steak loaf” on our second Valentine’s Day (the grocery store was all out of ground beef), for the man who held me as I cried—many, many times—and told him I wanted to die, for the man who stood beside me whether I was fat, skinny, sentimental or a raging bitch. For the man who cared. For the man who is trying.

i asked for a divorce hands

I keep saying you don’t love me. I keep asking you to tell me you love me, to prove you love me, yet as I sit here watching you cook one of our college day staples, I see the “proof” I was asking for all along. So while some may see burnt bread, I see hope. I see it. I hold it, quite literally, in my hands. And I savor it, one rare yet rich morsel at a time.

This essay originally appeared on Mamalode (2015).

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What Legos Taught Me About Love, Life, And My Marriage

A few months ago my daughter and I were playing with Legos. We were talking and laughing. We were building towers and castles and flying airships when suddenly the mood shifted. Scratch that, my daughter’s mood shifted — because her structure was a bit too top heavy. She had pushed on a purple block a bit too hard and broke her tower. Immediately, she became angry. She threw a handful of pieces. She pushed through her castle’s wall.

“Hey, hey, hey,” I said. “What’s wrong? What’s going on?”

Of course, I knew the answer. I was sitting right beside her. I saw the whole incident unfold, but I waited to hear her words. I wanted her to speak.

“It no working,” she whined. “It broken!” She stomped her little feet in frustration. She went to push the rest of her tower over.

“Sweetie, it’s OK. Don’t get upset.” I grabbed her hand and a block. “Look, we can fix it,” I paused, “or we can make something totally new. It doesn’t have to be the same.”

After a few moments, she settled down and seemingly agreed, as she went to work on a new building — she began a new “project.” But as I looked at the pile of blocks scattered across our kitchen floor, the power of my words struck me, and the power of the moment struck me. You see, in an instant, my daughter was able to move on.

She was able to accept the fact that sometimes things fail, sometimes things break, and sometimes things fall apart. And then she was able to move on. She was able to “pick up the pieces” and embrace the unknown, and if that wasn’t a metaphor for my own life, I don’t know what was.

How so?

Well, the days, months, and weeks leading up to this moment had been unstable — at best. Personally and professionally I was doing great. I was healthy and happy(ish), and my heart was soaring. But my relationship was struggling. My marriage was on the rocks, and my husband and I were contemplating divorce. Heck, we were talking about it. I was making plans. And while we had begun marriage counseling, I was still guarded. I was still on edge.

I was still certain things couldn’t work — we wouldn’t work — because there were too many mistakes. We were too damaged, and we weren’t the same. Our love and relationship wasn’t the same, and I honestly didn’t know if I wanted to fix it anymore. I was so despondent and downtrodden I honestly didn’t care.

But the second I said these words to my daughter — these simple, silly words — something changed. Something clicked. And while playing with Legos with my daughter, I realized things didn’t have to be the same. We didn’t have to be the same. Sure, we could fix us — I mean, there were many, many things we had to fix; there were issues we needed to resolve — but we also had a chance to make something new.

To rebuild our relationship from the ground up.

The thing is, love is hard. Relationships are hard. Marriage is hard. Damn hard. And it isn’t for the faint of heart. Sure, marriages can — and should — be celebrations of life, love, happiness and joy…but with the good comes the bad. (Sorry. Fact of life.) And it is then — in those dark, trying moments — you will be tested. Your relationship will be tested and the strength of your marriage will be tried.

Marriage takes constant work and compromise. It takes humility, sacrifice, and more than a few “I’m sorry’s.” However, even then things aren’t “perfect.” Even then, one of you will “screw up” or mess up, and even with the most open and understanding heart — and the grace of a saint — you will fight.

The pot will boil over and someone will get burned.

But that doesn’t mean your relationship can’t work, and it doesn’t mean your marriage is failing. Even the strongest have to fight for it. Even the strongest couples have to work at it, and sometimes that work simply involves being malleable. Sometimes that work is simply to accept the way things are and not lament the way things used to be.

So thanks, Legos. Thanks for reminding me that while things in my life may falter, fail, and break. . . they are things I can handle. I just have to be open to newness. To change. And to the fact thing will not — and cannot — stay the same.

No matter how much we wish, hope, or will them to be.

This post originally appeared on MomBabble.

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