By Christine Ritenis
It begins, as usual, with a frozen waffle. It isn’t toasted properly; it is too crisp, too soggy, not hot enough, or burned, according to my high school sophomore (let’s call her Nicole). Today, a Friday, the waffle is insufficiently warm.
My face reddens and I sense the upward surge of a normally low blood pressure when the complaint registers. I always prepare it the same way: first toasting it on “light,” and then, when I hear Nicole padding down the upstairs hall to the bathroom, heating it a second time, carefully spinning the gauge to the machine’s “perfect” mark. The toaster lies. There is no such thing as perfect.
“I did what I do every day,” I snap at the disgruntled teen, whose blue eyes have barely opened enough at 6:00 a.m. to see the thing.
“It’s not hot at all,” she responds, fidgeting with sleep-mussed hair.
My voice pitches high. “Eat your waffle.”
“Stop! Just sto-o-o-o-o-p,” Nicole then says, stretching the “o” sound to infinity.
On cue, I start to cry. “I love it when you tell me to ‘stop!’ every morning,” I retort, whining like a two-year old. “It’s a great way to begin the day.” I think, but don’t say, that I’ve raised a spoiled brat. The sobbing comes next (mine, not hers). “Just because you stay up too late doesn’t mean you have to take it out on me.”
“Overreacting,” the only child mutters, lowering her eyes.
I blubber something argumentative, but unintelligible.
“Overreacting,” she repeats, as she cuts the crusts off the waffle and nibbles calmly on the lukewarm center.
She’s right. I am overreacting, but months of near constant physical pain in the neck, head, and foot have taken their toll, and having a fit is my normal response to stress these days. The word “stop” from Nicole has become a trigger that sets off rampages I can’t control. Embarrassing tantrums from a middle-aged mother who remained unruffled through all of her daughter’s previous crises—injuries to the dog, squabbles with friends, failed acting auditions— even undercooked waffles.
“You’ll make your own breakfast starting next week!” I scream, unaware that a hurricane will ravage the area on Monday, that there will be bigger worries than waffles. I’d likely have forgotten by then anyway. In fact, the entire incident will be relegated to the past by noon, except for the self-reproach. That will remain, strapped to my back like a too-heavy pack, further aggravating the already sensitive spine.
My psychiatrist told me that unwarranted violent outbursts are signs of a deep depressive disorder. We were talking about my 86-year-old father—he’s been raging without end at the staff of his senior citizen residence—but I recognized the symptom in myself as well. My father has been overly needy since he left his house several months ago, forced to relocate by my mother and me out of concern for his safety. He calls daily, often before dawn, and generally in a state of frenzy. He demands numerous visits, including weekly rides to have his nails cut, multiple trips to the bank (he’s unaccustomed to using the telephone for business matters), and endless grocery runs, especially for chocolate, cookies, and Diet 7-Up. He claims that the cleaning staff interrupts him on the toilet and accuses the aides of stealing his blankets. He is exhausting, his life a perpetual string of crises, emergencies, and absurdity, a tragicomedy starring a hunched-over old man with his crazed daughter in a critical supporting role.
When hysteria washes over me, tsunami-like, and cannot be contained, I worry that I’ve inherited his predilection for drama. A family member (it might have been Nicole) recently pointed out a sliver of spinach that had caught between my teeth at dinner. Ordinarily I would have plucked the offending strand from my mouth. Done. On this evening, I spun into a childlike frenzy. That casual comment felt as hurtful to me as hearing “no” can be to a youngster, and I morphed into that bawling stomping toddler in the mall, the one that insists on ice cream—the parents apologizing with horrified looks—that drives other patrons away. When the vocal tempest ended, I stormed upstairs, slipped into bed, and wept great pools of salty tears. About spinach.
Nicole knows that I’m seeing a doctor for feelings of sadness. We haven’t dis- cussed depression, but she witnesses the constant crying and fits of temper. The observant 15-year-old has undoubtedly reduced it all to one easy-to-understand word: overreaction. Our quarrels, however, are normal. “I’m a teenager. This is the time we’re supposed to be fighting,” she insists. She often rewards me with hugs and declarations of love after- wards, but they don’t compensate for my humiliation. I wish that depression were a life stage, a sort of midlife crisis, and could be ended by simply climbing a mountain or buying a shiny red convertible. I wish I didn’t feel responsibility for symptoms I can’t rein in.
Sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish between the bizarre blow-ups and typical parent-teen bickering. Would a non-depressed mother erupt when a daughter rolls her eyes or refuses to start her homework or help around the house? In calm moments, I recognize that it’s a matter of degree. Every parent must be tempted to yell, maybe shout at a youngster on occasion, but my tirades are grossly out of proportion with Nicole’s offenses. Think waffle.
Parents avoid certain actions in front of their children: cursing, drinking to excess, speaking ill of others, and losing control. We’re supposed to be adults, after all. I’ve been successful at refraining from swearing, unless you count calling the occasional bad driver an idiot, and Nicole hasn’t seen me abuse alcohol. I try not to gripe about my father, even when he’s acting foolish, which happens often. It’s the sniveling and wailing, the roaring, the storming about, and the general instability, much like Monday’s hurricane that felled hundred-year-old trees, pulling them out at the roots, some lifting the ground on which they stood, that’s scary.
I despise it, this illness. I want to rid myself of a disease I don’t discuss openly, the disorder that threatens to crack the foundation of our family life. I wasn’t always an unbalanced terror. Until recently, I could restrain unnatural emotional responses. The culprit is obvious. The unrelenting pain started the witch-like behavior, pain that first aggravated and annoyed and eventually became unbearable. Pain that continues, despite foot surgery each of the last three years, and a cervical spine fusion in January.
Pre-pain, I relieved stress through marathon running and an entire identity was tied to the sport. The vanity license plate on my car says IRUNALOT, but I refuse to replace it, a small act of defiance that will never recover what is lost. Now I can barely walk three miles and I shriek at my teen and become overly frustrated with my father and rely on my husband to keep it all together. Not one of us is happy.
It would require a simple keyboard click to unsubscribe, but I still receive Runner’s World magazine online Quotes of the Day, inspirational sayings that once motivated, but now irritate me, like this morning’s from Ben Logsdon: “There is no time to think about how much I hurt; there is only time to run.” I’m sure he’s talking about pain that a marathoner experiences, the type I was accustomed to, like racing 26.2 miles in freezing rain with a sprained ankle. He’s right. It’s possible to ignore almost any discomfort if the end is in sight, even 20 miles away. But when—despite the efforts of a medical team that recommends new sneakers, more supportive orthotics, a variety of pain meds, multiple steroid injections to the foot and spine, anti-inflammatories, physical therapy, surgery, and more physical therapy—there is no visible conclusion, and each day and week and month is a dizzying migraine of pounding, stabbing, and throbbing agony, whether of the foot or neck or head, there is little time to think about anything else. It is all consuming. Work, household chores, and errands play a distant secondary role and parenting the way I’d like has become impossible. That is the pain that causes insanity.
To most people, I look normal, and behave as I always did. Doing my job. Getting by with minimum effort and an abundance of take-out. My family suffers the misery, mostly in the evening when we’re all grumpy, and the affliction is at its worst. By day’s end I bawl if that rare home-cooked dinner is a failure or Nicole casts me a disapproving glance. When I imagine myself in full tantrum, I see a 52-year-old graying-blond toddler, face scrunched and crimson, as if I’m looking into a fun- house mirror where mother inexplicably becomes child.
Medication regulates my mood. Usually I function in neutral, not unduly joyful, but not particularly sad either. (It’s a good place to be, the physician assured me.) The pills haven’t been effective at reducing the number or force of the outbursts and I fear the impact of such volatility on my teen. Will she, too, flare up for no rea- son, like her mother and grandfather before her? She’s remarked that we’re alike, and that’s why we argue. I’ve also noted a new testiness and wonder if, inadvertently, she’s mimicking my behavior. Instead of sympathizing if I complain that a headache is particularly bad, she’ll mouth off, “NOW you’ll be cranky.” The temptation to lash out is overwhelming, until I realize that she’s probably acting like a typical teenager. Or maybe not. In my delicate state, it’s challenging to differentiate regular teen sass from bad behavior.
At the coffee shop where I write after the recent hurricane, the patrons share tables, power cords, and conversation, and the manager puts me in charge of answering the phone during an early rush. “May I help you? Yes, we’re open,” I repeat to each caller. “Yes, we have WiFi.” When an affable young man in a costume walks in, I remember that it’s Halloween, a holiday I’d nearly forgotten. Suddenly I notice the calm community that has developed in this customarily frenetic place. With schools closed, Nicole is asleep in our dark and unheated home. I wish she could wit- ness the friendliness of people pulling together under duress. She should see me as relaxed as I am now, telephone receiver and decaf coffee in hand. I want her to experience the old me, an energetic and spontaneous mom who doesn’t fall apart for random reasons. The mom who takes her and three friends to an amusement park and rides with them on Down Time, where we scream happily through the entire 185-foot drop. The mom who drives into a blizzard to visit the Crayola Factory so that we can avoid crowds. Not the mom who is angry, unmotivated, and requires afternoon naps. Does she remember that better person?
Earlier this week, when the misery became intolerable, a specialist again injected my spine with steroids. The doctor said that if this treatment worked, there could be residual discomfort for up to two weeks. I’ve done this all before and wasn’t optimistic, but the neck and head torment have begun to diminish. Naturally I’m now more conscious of how much my foot still hurts. It’s unclear whether this partial fix will lessen the depression, but there are positive signs.
Nicole complained about her waffle this morning, the one she would have toasted herself, had I recalled my pre- storm threat.
“Sorry,” I replied evenly.
She continued to eat. “There must be something wrong with the toaster.”
There isn’t, but I didn’t argue, and the meal remained peaceful. It was that easy. A normal mother and her teenager survive the morning routine without incident. (Some days from now I will learn how to toast the waffle to my daughter’s satisfaction, a skill that, unfortunately, will not last.)
By 7:00 a.m. Nicole is on the bus, and I decide to try a short jog. My father calls as I’m getting ready, leaving a message on my cell phone, but I disregard the interruption, lace my sneakers, and set off. It’s my kind of running weather, an early bright sky with a chill in the air. Without thinking, I begin what used to be a regular route. I start slowly, measuring my body’s response, observing the surroundings. Despite the massive pines that were felled by the storm, it didn’t tear all the leaves off the deciduous trees, as if to remind me that fall hasn’t yet ended. My toes cramp a bit, but not badly, so I speed up in the second mile, avoiding downed wires and tree limbs at the sides of suburban streets. Even with workday noise, it’s peaceful. The rhythm, the pounding. I smile as I break into a sweat, remembering other miles when layers were shed and turtlenecks felt too snug. Breathing rapidly, I take a quarter mile walk break and then run again, walking and running at intervals until I complete the loop, 4.2 miles. A feeling I had missed returns, barely recognizable. This, I believe, is contentment.
Still glowing, I listen to my father’s pre-sunup message. He called to say “hello,” nothing more.
After school, Nicole and I share news over a snack. She says that her day was fine; I tell her about my run. Nicole looks hopeful and asks if I’m feeling better, perhaps pitching for a trip to buy jeans at the mall. Although the question is simple, I sense its importance and think before answering. “Yes,” I finally respond, “I am feeling better.” Later I inform my husband that Nicole was in a good mood. “For a change,” he replies with a grin, having tolerated the months of drama with steadfast grace. On the edge of sleep that night it comes to me. I had a good day too, not quite, but almost perfect.
Author’s Note: When I began to craft this essay, I feared revealing weakness, worried that I’d be expelled from carpool duties. Yet as I chatted with friends, I learned that some of them too suffer from depression. “I’ve been taking Prozac for years,” one said, laughing. That alone freed me to write openly. In recent weeks, while storm cleanup continues, my doctor and I have cobbled together a more effective mix of medication. At the same time, Nicole has decided that difficult-to-botch breakfast sausages are vastly preferable to waffles.
When not shuttling her teenager or father around the suburbs, CHRISTINE RITENIS writes, runs, and knits recycled plastic totes. She also serves as New York Arts Correspondent for Connoisseur magazine. In 2010, she was a finalist for the Hunger Mountain Creative Nonfiction Prize and her essays have appeared in Still Crazy, The Fiddleback, and The Writing Disorder. Christine earned an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College.
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