When my daughters were little, we had a very specific evening routine. After homework, dinner, and baths, we would pile on my bed for story time. Ours was a televisionless household. Not because I’m opposed to TV (heck, I love it), but because the cost of cable didn’t fit in with my tight budget as a divorced mom. Story time was our evening’s entertainment. After my daughters secured the perfect spot on my queen-sized bed, were shrouded in their favorite blanket, and were holding fast to their most prized stuffed animal, the stories began. Sometimes we rhymed our way through Seuss, or climbed the Alps with Spyri’s Heidi. On more adventurous nights we voyaged on the Hispaniola with Jim Hawkins in Robert Louis Stevenson‘s Treasure Island. Some nights we laughed at the hijinks of Astrid Lidgren’s Pippi Longstocking. Other evenings we’d have to pause the story to wipe away tears of joy as the old couple in Melmed’s The Rain Babies was rewarded with a child of their own. No matter what the story, by the end we were all peaceful, contented and sleepy, as I carried, or walked, my girls to their beds for prayers and a kiss.
Six years ago my youngest daughter became seriously ill. She had always been a happy child, and without apparent cause or warning she became paranoid. For several days she said things that didn’t make sense. She accused friends of plotting against her, and admitted to hearing things that clearly weren’t audible. Then, she slipped into a deep depression. For three long months she wasn’t herself, and for three months more she continued to change from my calm, sweet, jubilant girl to an aggressive, violent and unpredictable person that I didn’t recognize. Our home-life changed from peaceful and happy to little more than a zone of survival, as we met crisis after crisis. I went from being an active elementary school teacher to being a full-time caregiver who rarely left my house. It seemed the only contact I had with the outside world was with baffled medical professionals in our rural area who offered little help with our situation. My oldest daughter, who had always been a straight “A” student, left school in the middle of her senior year. She worried so much about what was going on at home that our family doctor advised that she finish school with a home-bound teacher provided by the school system. My husband and I, who had always engaged in deep, interesting conversations, talked of nothing but our family situation. How had we been reduced from what seemed like an ideal family to a group of dysfunctional zombies running on autopilot? Besides the chaos, the worst part of it was the shame. Being a motherless daughter, I had always worried that I wouldn’t be as good of a mom as the mothered crowd. I also worried profusely about the ten years that I raised them alone when I was a divorced mom. These disadvantages had served to make me try harder than my peers in the mothering department. Now it seemed that despite my efforts I had failed my children as I had long ago predicted. I isolated myself from friends, and the little family that I had left. I couldn’t stand to answer their questions, or hear their accusations. “Do you think it’s from the divorce?” “Is it because you remarried?” “So, your oldest isn’t in school either?”
You have no idea how hard it is to find a psychiatrist who isn’t overbooked or burned out in an overpopulated area, in a state where the cost of malpractice insurance is nearly the highest in the country. After droves of doctor visits, beginning with her first odd symptom, I finally found a psychiatrist who listened and asked all of the right questions. After nearly a year of hell, my daughter was diagnosed with type II bipolar disorder. She was placed on a low dose of Lithium, and slowly, but surely, after two medication adjustments my old daughter began to emerge. While I was joyful to have her back, she didn’t return completely unscathed. The psychotic episodes that she experienced before her depressions had damaged her short-term memory and affected her ability to be as organized, and attentive, as she had once been. She started back to school in the fall struggling academically as her brain worked overtime to correct itself. I spent hours each evening re-teaching her and trying my best to keep her caught up.
The stress of the past year and my overwhelming responsibility of caring for my daughter began to take its toll on me. When something is wrong with your child, all other things become insignificant. I ate too much, worried too much, and watched my daughter like a hawk for any sign that her medication had stopped working. My anguished tossing and turning at night made my husband and me both automatons the next day. The lack of sleep exacerbated the worry, and it all became a vicious cycle until one sleepless night, while trying to calm me, my husband asked the pivotal question, “What’s your favorite memory of her from before all of this started?” I started backwards in my mind recounting the pride I felt when she was in a community theatre production of Scrooge. I went back further to academic awards she’d achieved. I thought back to times when we had walked the beach with sandy hands full of shells. All were comforting, but the memory that brought me the most peace was the one of us snuggled in bed with our books and blankets. I hopped out of bed and practically ran to my overflowing bookshelves. That night J.K. Rowling, in so many words, saved my sanity. As Rowling’s brilliant prose, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone catapulted me to Harry’s world of witchcraft and wizardry, my racing heart slowed and my anxiety diminished. Just as the sorting hat was about to determine Harry’s house at Hogwarts my eyelids fluttered to a close. I didn’t stop there. The next night I nearly finished the first book of the Potter series, and the next I made it to the third chapter of the second book before I drifted off. Soon I was getting full nights of sleep and functioning much better during the day.
When I’d read all that Rowling had to offer, I moved on to Lemony Snicket‘s, A Series of Unfortunate Events books. Klaus, Violet, and little Sunny Baudelair’s battle of wits with the wicked Count Olaf validated my need to see the underdog victorious over evil. I finished each short book with zest, and hungered for more. I read old Nancy Drew books that I’d saved from my childhood. I asked for Laura Ingalls Wilder‘s Little House series for my birthday, and devoured each page with more vigor than I had as an eight year old. My daughter’s fostered my new obsession by loaning me their well-worn volumes and offering their suggestions. “You HAVE to read The Giver by Lois Lowry, Mom, but be prepared to cry,” said my now healthy daughter as she presented it to me before bed one night. It was pure poetry, and I did cry all through Chapter 19 and at the end. I went through the Twilight (by Stephenie Meyer) phase with both of my daughters, and even developed a slight crush on Edward Cullen, who I still must admit doesn’t hold a candle to my wonderful husband!
Soon months passed, then years, and while I still indulge in a good children’s book from time to time, I’ve moved on to enjoying both fiction and nonfiction written for adults. (Right now I’m going through a memoire phase!) Throughout this time my daughter has blossomed into a beautiful, and healthy, young woman. Her memory and attentiveness is back to normal, and the bipolar disorder is well controlled by lithium. She has wonderful friends, a loving boyfriend, and is doing well in school. Her future is so hopeful and bright. The rest of our family is in much better shape, as well.
While I know indulging in literature written for children and young adults is absolutely no substitute for professional help when one is severely stressed (and believe me, our entire family sought help), I’ve found that it can be quite calming. It takes me away to simpler worlds of clear-cut good and evil. When life seems to offer uncertain resolutions, I can be sure that Nancy Drew will catch the culprit in the end, and Harry Potter will somehow keep Lord Voldemort at bay. When life sometimes seems unfair I know I can find justice between the pages of a book, and when sleep won’t find me, the comfort of an imaginary world, free of my own worries, lulls me to slumber. How do you deal with stress? What’s your favorite children’s book that you enjoy reading as an adult?
Blogger’s note: All afore mentioned stories and their themes are the property of their respective authors.