I suppose that, if you somehow slipped out of my life for a while, or if you focused more on my failings than my strengths, it might seem somewhat surprising to discover the “domestic” version of me being all domestic.

Shazam! Responsible adult here! LIKE MAGIC!

My ADD, diagnosed but (now) un-medicated, is reigned in by my fear of letting my kids down. I do not want them to be that kid with the unsigned permission slip on field trip day, the only kid who misses pizza day, or the one left out because of something I failed to do. (My room is a disaster, the house is messy, but I know exactly what my kids are up to and where and why and how.)

My occasional flighty behaviour is controlled by my need to be reliably stable for my kids. Whereas I once would have stayed on the phone with you ’til 3 a.m., consoling you or cajoling you, I now try to get a reasonable amount of sleep so I can function for the boys. If one of the kids is “off” emotionally, I stay home from even the shortest errands even if I’m feeling desperate to get out.

My desire to go out drinking with friends is thwarted by the knowledge that 8am comes really quick and the kids don’t hesitate to be.. well, KIDS. The cost/benefit calculation doesn’t take me much time these days.

I used to think nothing of so many things that now seem crucial. And the inverse is true, too, that I’ve let go of so many things that once concerned me.

On one hand, my view of the world – and children, in particular – has shifted significantly to the “it takes a village” perspective. I don’t always take the advice, but I like to hear it. I don’t always change my perceptions, but I like to hear what works for other people.

The flip side, too, is that I want my kids to experience the world. I want other adults to give them advice, or tips, and to challenge them when they’re not behaving properly.

On the other hand, I’ve got a few of the village’s children in my home and I’m calling them mine and I have to keep my mind on them. I am more than willing to interact with your kids, really, but I can’t parent them for you.

I don’t think I really processed this change in myself until (many) months ago when a friend was in crisis. I wanted to help but, perhaps for the first time ever, I found that I had personal boundaries and limitations that I couldn’t cross. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to help or wasn’t qualified to help (though that’s certainly true on both counts) but I couldn’t throw myself head-long into her problems, any of them, because I had to maintain my own life’s calmness.

So I did what I could to help. She felt it wasn’t enough. I felt that giving more – doing more – would jeopardize my kids who were still (as they continue to be) adjusting to their new lives. I made a promise to these children that I didn’t and haven’t made to anyone else beyond my husband.

And so, unsurprisingly, that friendship ended. Or, at least, the contact ended. Perhaps she’s waiting for an apology (that won’t come from me), but there’s been full radio-silence for months.

Surprisingly, though, I feel okay with it. Not great, not wonderful, but okay.

For a while, I felt shattering guilt that I couldn’t fix all of the problems she had – on any level – and when she told me that what I was giving wasn’t enough, I felt terrible. The urge to toss aside my own life to heal hers was almost overwhelming.

I couldn’t do it. And I know, now, that (despite her feelings to the contrary) I did the best I could and I stepped back when it was time. One person can only do so much, even when someone needs more.

When I was about 20 years old, give or take, I worked for a psychiatrist whose specialty was abused children. I often came home in tears, despairing at the general cruelty of the world, and on more than one occasion I asked him how he could possibly handle doing his job day in, and day out, with these broken children (and adults who struggled with their past, childhood abuse).

He told me that he did it because he could see the progress. He could see the difference. Because, at the end of the day, he knew he had made a difference. That even a drop of healing is better than none at all.

I couldn’t get it. I absolutely admired him for his work but I didn’t get it. It was then that I decided I couldn’t be a therapist because, holy crap, how could anyone deal with that much sadness all the time? All those horrible stories? All the broken lives?

Looking back, with the wisdom of a passed decade, I know that I couldn’t see the validity of his statement because I was still half-broken from the circumstances of my own mother’s death. I couldn’t see a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel, for myself or anyone else, because every drop of my life was muted by my own sadness and my own feeling that the world was a cold, cruel, unfair place.

There was no one holding my hand through the grief and the turmoil – I had friends who didn’t understand and I had a father who was, himself, grieving. Although I felt crazily grown-up, I look back and realize that I was a lost kid wandering on her own.

I had no experience with the idea of “healing” or “getting beyond the sadness” so I couldn’t imagine anyone else getting beyond it, either, and some of the patients (most, I’d imagine) had been through experiences far beyond what I had experienced.

I had no structured support so I couldn’t fathom the idea of being the support to someone else.

And now I know: we cannot give – to anyone – what we don’t have for ourselves. I understand, now, the common statements about “therapists go into it because they’ve been through it” and “psychiatrists are all crazy”. There’s truth in that, I suspect, for many professionals.

There is nothing I could go back and tell my younger self – the one in so much pain that suicide seemed a valid option. I could have given her practical hints, I suppose, but I couldn’t change the path she was on because she would never have listened.

My life now, while far from perfect, is one of balance. I have a good understanding of my own requirements for sanity – sleep and good food and laughter and time spent with my family and time spent alone. I have support systems and structures that work for me.

And I know when to step back. I know when something is more than I can handle and when it’s time for someone else to step in (whether formally or not).

Getting here? Well, some of it was pure luck. Some of it was hard work.

I know my limits and I’m learning to recognize the lines that I cannot cross while still maintaining my own happiness and that balance I mentioned. There are specific courses in my college program devoted to this self-discovery that will help me along that path.

The younger me would be shocked that I’m going to go back to school and utterly stunned to learn that it’s for social service work. The familiar refrain of, “too hard! too emotional! too much!” are still in the back of my head quite clearly.

But I know, now, that it is possible to get through things you didn’t think you could ever get through. That hope, even the tiniest glimmer, can grow. That the worst thing you’ve ever lived through will someday fade a bit. That you are more than the things that happen to you, or around you. That with the right support systems in place, you can be fully alive to the world around you again.

I am really looking forward to September and, eventually, helping someone else find even the tiniest glimmer of hope too.


  1. Minerva says:

    Seriously, you’re already helping others

    find even the tiniest glimmer of hope


  2. michelle says:

    i am constantly wowed by how honest you are, online and in person. there are things i’d like to say/need to say, but just can’t bring myself to put it out there. maybe someday.

    and i think you made the right decision to step back. if your “friend” can’t appreciate that, then oh well. family always, always comes first. you can lose yourself in other people’s problems and then have no energy left for those you love the most.

  3. carrie says:

    Thanks for this. I have been in similar situations with people in crisis much of my life and have always felt like there was something wrong with me for not being able to fix them. Now I am nearing 30, healing myself and finally realizing that my boundaries are not only necessary, but firm as well.

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