The other night Em woke up at around 2:00AM crying. She kept saying the same words over and over. It was a kind of script, about an indoor playground that I used to take both children to when they were toddlers. It is a playground that has been closed for more than six years. “Mommy has to look. Daddy has to find new Sydney playground. The tickets are broken. Mommy has to fix it. Oh. You want to go to new Sydney playground!”
Do not try to translate this. Lean into the emotion, what is she telling you? Forget the actual words, the individual words are less important, it’s the emotion, it’s the intent…
This is what I’ve been taught. I’ve paraphrased the exact words my friend Ibby actually used, but it captures the general idea of what she has reminded me of more than once. It’s an important concept and one that I didn’t readily understand at first. In fact our initial conversation went something like this –
Ibby: Do you speak another language?
Me: What? No. I barely speak English. Do I need to learn another language? If you tell me I need to learn Russian to help me understand, I’m on it.
Ibby: (I imagine Ibby took a deep, calming breath before continuing) No. You do not need to learn Russian. But you need to feel the words instead of trying to do a word for word translation.
Me: Feel the words? Mind began to race, a panicky feeling overtook my body. I don’t know what that means! What does that mean?
And so Ibby patiently tried to explain that by getting lost in the exact meaning of the words I was missing the emotions being expressed.
With this in mind, I went back to Emma’s bedroom with her. Very distressed, she continued to repeat the script and then suddenly veered off to an unrelated, yet another, unattainable, desire. “I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard. Not binyard, v, v, v, vineyard. Mommy I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard. No baby. We can’t go to Martha’s Vineyard, it’s too cold. I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard.”
As I sat with her listening, I tried to be present, neither lying to her nor adding to her anxiety, just being present and as I did this I felt a flood of recognition. I realized I do a version of this too, only I call it “spiraling out”. It happens at odd times, but being tired makes it harder to cope with. When I think about how I spiral out an image of a pin ball machine comes to mind. My thoughts are the little metal ball careening around hitting one side, ricocheting off the little bouncy things that make noise while the lights flicker, before shooting off in another direction. Nothing anyone says helps me. In fact, often well-intentioned people will make it much, much worse, because my mind is literally looking for things to think about that will create more anxiety. The only thing that has ever helped me when I get this way is a calm, loving voice gently nudging me down a different path. It has to be authentic and very, very loving and very, very calm or I become suspicious and even angry. With this thought in mind I gently said to Em, “Is it okay if I tell you something?” She nodded her head.
“I get upset too, Em. Just like you are right now. And when I do I have thoughts that I can’t stop going around around in my head.”
She sat up and looked directly into my eyes. “Sometimes when I feel stressed and tired I can’t make the thoughts go away. Sometimes the same thoughts just keep repeating in my head and I can’t get rid of them. Daddy calls it spiraling out. But you know what? It’s going to be okay. I’m going to stay with you. It’s going to be okay. I promise. Try to breathe. Here breathe with me.” We inhaled together and then exhaled. “Feel the cool air on your face and the warmth of the blanket on your body.” I continued in this way, talking to her softly, trying to guide her, trying to make her aware of the present. These are the things that help me when I’m agitated and feeling overwhelmed and eventually she rested her head on me, leaning her body into me as I spoke to her in a soft voice.
It was during those early morning hours with the two of us sitting together while everyone around us slept that I felt a surge of understanding. When I get lost in the words that fill my head and when the words don’t match up with the emotions it feels confusing and I become perseverative and spiral out. I see this now. In the past I’ve called it anxiety. I’ve said I’m overwhelmed and tired. These are good words to describe what I’m feeling, but a more accurate explanation is that when I become fixated on specific thoughts, in my case they are often in the form of fears, I can become so lost in the specifics I lose sight of the emotions. This has happened my whole life, only it took my daughter to get me to make the connection. We are not so different, my daughter and I.
An image that calms me – The Manhattan Skyline taken while walking to my studio the other morning