Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Ezzo Reign of Terror

Before I continue with my story, I need to go ahead and give a more in depth description of what I encountered next. I call it The Ezzo Reign of Terror.

I didn't embark on parenthood with a lot of philosophies or systems under my belt. I didn't want them. All it really took me was a few nights, post c-section, of sitting up trying to nurse a newborn before I realized that it was the pits. So I pulled my baby in the bed next to me. She wanted to nurse. I wanted to sleep. It was a win-win for everybody. I didn't go around pushing co-sleeping and the family bed as a philosophy. It was just what worked for us. I thought that was what parenting was about.

I have never been a rigid parent by any means. It has never been my style. It isn't in my genetic code. Kid after kid blasted on to the scene and we just sort of muddled through. Parenthood was hard and I often felt I was in over my head but, by and large, I figured that's what parenthood was about.

Early in parenthood I read an article in a parenting magazine (a Christian parenting magazine, no less) where older, empty nest parents were asked what they would change about parenting if they were to do it all over again. The answers were things like "I'd say 'yes' more often" and "I would pick my fights" and "I wouldn't major on the minors." These all seems like sensible things to me. Don't sweat the small stuff. Leave room for growth and personal decision making. Don't get caught up in hyper-control. Sounded wise and reasonable enough to me.

Well, a few weeks after the birth of my third child, the entire family went to watch my husband play a softball game with our church's team. The game went long and my then 2.5 year-old, highly emotional toddler started to melt down. She wanted to go to the car and I wanted her to just sit in my lap on the ground until the game was over. She fussed a bit but I didn't give in to her whining. I was actually quite pleased with myself for being so calm so recently post-partum and standing my ground while being gentle with my daughter. James Dobson would have been proud. Then it happened. Another mom spoke.

"Ginny, have you heard about that new parenting class they are teaching at church? I think you should take it. You would find it really helpful."

I. Was. Crushed. The Ezzo Reign of Terror had begun.

For those of you fortunate enough to be totally oblivious to what I am talking about, let me illuminate you. Gary Ezzo was a dude out in California at John MacArthur's church who was a self-proclaimed parenting expert with no training whatsoever in medicine or psychology or child development but had, according to my husband, a PhD in self-righteousness. To be fair, his wife was, or had been, a nurse, striking horror in the hearts of responsible, reasonable RNs across the country.

Ezzo took it upon himself to write up an entire parenting curriculum for churches and named it the most presumptuous of names possible: "Growing Kids God's Way." Because Gary Ezzo apparently had his own hotline to the Almighty, I suppose. It sounds arrogant. It sounds crazy. But people ate. it. up.

Some of his advice was decent. Some of it was insane. But what was so very hideous about it all was the assumption that his way was the right way because it was God's way and he twisted and perverted scripture to back it up.

Back in the very early days of the internet my husband would go online at work and look up info on him. He came across a comment thread hundreds of comments long about high chair etiquette. I exploded. How dare this man shrink the Kingdom of God down to high chair etiquette!

It gained a foothold in our church. People raved about the classes. Others glanced disapprovingly at me nursing my baby when he fussed and they gushed about their sleep training schedules. Formerly free spirited toddlers were corralled and trained and stepped to the orders.

It took over entire churches. I had a friend at another church who was told that they didn't know if they wanted her baby in the nursery if she was not going to put him on the Ezzo schedule.

The overall effect that the Ezzo reign had was what you find in any sort of legalism. Those who could get with the program and do it right and found that it worked for their child grew arrogant and self-righteous and those who tried and failed crumbled in despair.

Being who I am, even with my very strong opinions and knowing in my head that this man's proclamations were bull shit, self-doubt took over. I was swimming upstream against an entire culture of "do this" and "don't do that" and chiding and chastising and I just didn't cope very well with that. Ezzo had reduced the most basic of loving, nurturing relationships into a factory assembly line of Robot Babies.  I hated the very arrogant presumptions of this man and his formula but felt powerless and worthless as a parent because, in the eyes of so many others, I was doing it wrong.

Thankfully, over times, Gary Ezzo and his kingdom met resistance. His infant baby training programs were called out by the American Academy of Pediatrics, among other organizations, for producing failure to thrive in a number of babies. His twisting of scripture was called out by theologians and Christian medical professionals across the country. He was excommunicated by a successive churches. His daughters, who he had supposedly grown God's way, broke off relationship with him.

Yet I still see his books out there. I know many who prefer to use his sleep training methods. He still has some influence. I will never tell people not to use his methods. Some may need the structure. What I will say is that it isn't for everyone and that, no matter what he says, there are no guarantees. Your baby is not a lab rat or Pavlov's dog. Your baby is a beautiful person, created in the image of God. There are no formulas. There are a million different ways to raise children and still be within the framework of a loving, God-honoring family. Gary Ezzo's way is not the magic bullet for the Perfect Christian Child. And do not ever, ever tell me that this way or that way is God's way.

But even though Gary Ezzo doesn't have a corner on the parenting market any more, the damage was done. The idea that there was a right way to raise kids was out there. It still is.

Friday, March 11, 2016

My Story, Part 12

To start at the beginning, click here.
To read Part 11, click here.

It was December 1992 and, with a bit of excitement, but also fear and trepidation, we moved south again. Much of what we were moving back to was incredibly familiar. Back to the south. Back to Asheville, Back to the company that Matt had worked with in the 80s. Back, even, to the church where we had met. But we were different people now. Parents with children. And we had been changed by our experience in Philadelphia.

I cried every day that first year.

We moved into a 2 bedroom apartment on the side of Beaucatcher Mountain overlooking downtown. Only we couldn't cough up the extra $50/month to get the view, so our windows looked out into the 3 story hillside. If you smashed your nose up against the glass and looked up, you might be able to see sky.

Matt started working late the second night on the job. Within the first week he had pulled an all-nighter. I was at home all day with 2 small children, one with chronic ear infections. We had one car to share between us which meant loading the kiddos up at the crack of dawn or late at night to take Matt to and from work or spend the day at home without a car. Isolated and claustrophobic against the steep mountainside. I was lonely. Very, very lonely.

Even though we returned to the church where we had met, we never felt like we belonged. At the time it was a typical southern upper-middle class church and known, informally, as the place where the beautiful people went. I recoiled. These people were tidy. Put together. Suburban. Upwardly mobile. I was a mess. Painstakingly honest. Eager to live in a racially mixed neighborhood and live simply and not give a rip about social conventions and niceties. To a certain extent, it was culture shock, as if I had moved to a foreign country. Even though it was the country I had known first.

Yes. I was lonely. I was angry. I was angry at my husband for taking me away from the community that I loved. So many times I wanted to pack up the kids and just go back. With or without him.

Somewhere in the middle of all this we bought a house. It was an old house built in 1925, chock full of old pipes and bad wiring and cigarette smoke and bacon grease and 3 layers of window treatments held to the wall with gutter nails. And full of charm. And we fixed it up. And moved in. And began a new life for good. Matt had told me that we had to conceive a house before we could conceive another child, so I not-so-patiently waited and the first egg that dropped from my over-eager ovaries after we moved in became Baby #3.

December came. We passed the one year mark in Asheville. I was through the nausea-laden first trimester. I was settling in. Then it snowed. It snowed again the day we left to go for Philadelphia for Christmas. I remember regretting leaving the beautiful snow on the mountains. And as we drove into Philadelphia from the south, past the industrial smokestacks and treeless expanse, I didn't get that twinge of longing I expected. I realized that God had orchestrated things just right. To peel my fingers off our old home and make me long for our new one.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

My Story, Part 11

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 10, click here.

Perhaps it is due to hindsight and all but I do look back at this next period in my life (December 1989 to December 1992) as one of the best in my life.

For one, we lived with Matt's parents for 8 months, which turned out to be a wonderful experience. And even when we moved, we were only about 10 minutes away. It was so nice to be able to establish a strong relationship with them.

Susannah was born in February 1990 in the Hospital From Hell the same week that Matt got a job at a graphic design studio in Center City Philadelphia. We lived with Matt's parents for another 6 months and bought our first home in the Olney, a section in the north part of Philadelphia north of North Philadelphia (a part of the city known for the worst of urban decay, horrific crime, and abject poverty).

Olney was a working class neighborhood, originally settled in the 1920s by Germans and Irish but by 1990 home to 26 languages. It was a wonderful place for me to be. After my upper middle class upbringing, rubbing shoulders with the upper crust of southern aristocracy, I could not have been more thrilled to be living in a place and among people who did not give one iota of a thought to what I looked like or how I was dressed or who my father was or how thin or tan I was or where I went to school or anything like that. For many of these people, survival was the the goal and I found that I thrived when out from under the social pressure of my childhood.

Our church was the center of our life and such a wonderful picture to me of what the Body of Christ should look like. It was located in Olney as well and the vast majority of those who attended lived in the neighborhood. There was a lack of pretense here that I had never experienced anywhere else. And it seemed like half the congregation was in counseling. I went from being considered a freak of nature by most church standards to being considered actually quite normal. The support was incredible. For the first time, I experience community.

Not that all my struggles vanished. They didn't. I had a decent amount of postpartum depression after Susannah was born. Then, a few months later, my anxiety began to rear its ugly head and a phobia was born that would plague me for the next several years, "What if I die and leave my baby crying for me?" At the time, no MD would prescribe Prozac or any other antidepressant for breastfeeding mothers, so I was on my own, with a prescription for Ativan to take in the event of a major panic episode.

But motherhood, oh how I loved motherhood. It was like God created me to mother babies. I could love and snuggle and nurse my baby til the cows came home. And God was gracious and gave me another one to love, and snuggle and nurse. Elizabeth was born in October 1991, an entirely different, and incredibly wonderful birth experience.

Still, life had its challenges. It was during this time that the Culture War began to rear its ugly head in earnest. We were on the Focus on the Family mailing list and so we could get regular letters telling us just how awful things would be should Bill Clinton be elected president. Some of these mailings were downright propaganda and would conjure up images of social workers showing up at your door, whisking away the babies of Christians. Not exactly the thing a high-anxiety mother of little babies needed to be reading.

Also, things were not going well with Matt's work. By the fall of 1992 it became obvious that he needed to be looking elsewhere for employment. The very day he made his decision that he had to find another job he just happened (in that wonderful way that God orchestrates such happenings) to get a call from an old friend in Asheville who was looking for somebody like Matt, or Matt himself, to come work with him.

With much weeping and gnashing of teeth, we loaded up all our earthly possessions and made the trek south again.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

My Story, Part 10

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 9, click here.

Writing this story is getting more and more difficult, not just because this is the literary equivalent of the showing up at school without your clothes (we've all had that dream, haven't we?) but because there is just so much that I could include. There is no compartmentalization in my life. Each area affects the next. And I do love context. And I want to give you context. But that would take a book. And I digress.

So I will remain where I started, giving you a story about my life with times being up close and personal with mental health issues.

Part 9 left off with Matt and I getting married and living happily ever after. Right? Well, about 3 months after we got married I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I had gotten more and more and more depressed and had trouble getting out of bed. The psychiatrist that I saw for diagnosis and meds suspected that my brief stint on oral contraceptives was to blame. As he said to me, "Oral contraceptives will trigger a clinical depression in 30% of women who are biochemically prone to depression." It was obvious to him that I was one of the biochemically prone of which he spoke and suggested that I never touch them again.

This was 1988 and Prozac was fresh out of the gate. It did wonders for my depression, without all of the side effects of the old tricyclics I had been on in the past. It wasn't perfect, however, and did nothing for my anxiety. In fact, my anxiety was actually worse on Prozac. But at least I got out of bed.

And for all you who might be yelling that I can't just expect a drug to fix me, I wasn't. Don't worry. I was working with someone who helped me understand and address some of the other factors in my life. It actually took me a while to find somebody who I worked well with. The first woman I saw told me that because my father's particular sin was adultery, then that would be mine as well. Nothing like being a newlywed and feeling like you are carrying the curse of your ancestors around in your body and a sign around your neck that shouts, "I'm married. Screw me!" . Our friend who pushed Matt off the fence to propose helped me immensely as well and eventually I found a woman who I felt safe with to work through all my past crap.

After 8 months on Prozac I tapered off and within a month I was pregnant. I was thrilled.  And then I puked. And puked and on and on for three solid months while Matt was in design school. And my baby grew and he worked and pulled all nighters and I wrote a letter to my mom and tried to become my own person and it was all kinda crazy and then in December 1989 Matt graduated from design school and we loaded up a Budget Rental Truck and Matt and I and my 7 month pregnant belly drove to Philadelphia and moved in with his parents.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

It Does Take a Village

I am taking a break from writing My Story because, quite frankly, it is exhausting and trying to figure out what to say and how to say it requires more brain power than December is affording. But my gears still turn.

A couple of years ago I first learned about the ACE (Adverse Childhood Events) study. This was a huge study that correlated childhood abuse, neglect and trauma with health and well being later in life. The results were staggering. Not just for mental health but for a host of physical health issues as well.

It would be easy to get really discouraged by all of this.

But connected to the ACE score is a resiliency score. It turns out that certain factors can increase a child's resiliency in the face of these Adverse Childhood Events. And this is what I find so hopeful and inspiring and convicting.

Here is the link to both sets of questions that determine both the ACE score and the Resiliency score.

A horrifying reality of parenthood is that we cannot always control the Adverse Childhood Events experienced by our own children. Some of those just end up being out of our control. And we cannot control the Adverse Childhood Events going on all around us.

But resiliency? There we can have a role. Parents can certainly play a huge part in giving their children what they need to be resilient. But it isn't only parents. Look at the list.

1. I believe that my mother loved me when I was little.
2. I believe that my father loved me when I was little.
3. When I was little, other people helped my mother and father take care of me and they seemed to love me. 4. I’ve heard that when I was an infant someone in my family enjoyed playing with me, and I enjoyed it, too. 5. When I was a child, there were relatives in my family who made me feel better if I was sad or worried.
6. When I was a child, neighbors or my friends’ parents seemed to like me.
7. When I was a child, teachers, coaches, youth leaders or ministers were there to help me.
8. Someone in my family cared about how I was doing in school.
9. My family, neighbors and friends talked often about making our lives better.
10. We had rules in our house and were expected to keep them.
11. When I felt really bad, I could almost always find someone I trusted to talk to.
12. As a youth, people noticed that I was capable and could get things done.
13. I was independent and a go-getter.
14. I believed that life is what you make it.

I see at least five places where people other than family members can play a huge role.

The fact is. Sometimes families struggle. Sometimes events spin out of control. Sometimes there is horrible abuse. Sometimes there is gross neglect. Sometimes there is bizarre dysfunction. Sometimes there are broken relationships and difficult situations. Sometimes family members are so emotionally, mentally, physically and even spiritually exhausted that they have nothing left to give. Sometimes families just come up close and personal with their own limitations.

But God didn't put us on this planet alone. The nuclear family is not the be-all-and-end-all of existence. There is a role for extended family, friends, neighbors, teachers, youth leaders, coaches, mentors, pastors. These people are the safety net. The support system. The village.

It is easy to think that I am so powerless in the pain and suffering I see around me. Yet there are things I can do.

-I can help take care of a child with love.
-I can play with a child and enjoy it.
-I can make a child feel better if they are sad or worried.
-I can like a child.
-I can be there to help a child.
-I can care about how a child is doing in school.
-I can talk to a child about making life better.
-I can be a trusted person to talk to when a child feels bad.
-I can notice a child's skills and encourage him or her in them.

These things aren't rocket science but they can make the difference in how well a child responds to the torrent of life's difficult circumstances.

I know this may be easier said than done. There are many events that are not public knowledge. Family secrets compound the trauma by keeping all the pain in house, so to speak, and depriving the hurting of necessary support. Children, assuming that the trauma is their fault, may be hesitant to share with another person. Some may not even see their circumstances as being necessarily traumatic because that is all they have ever known. Offending parents won't want others invading the family circle. Controlling parents and insecure ones might view another's relationship with their child as a threat.

But sometimes there may be someone out there crying for help and dying to be heard. Sometimes we just need a nudge to get out of our comfort zones and move toward others, especially the little others. But the results are priceless.

Monday, November 23, 2015

My Story, Part 9

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 8, click here.

I will take a brief hiatus from the nitty gritty of pain and suffering and angst and struggle that sometimes seemed to be my life and tell a fun, fun story. I tell this story because this is really what came next. I also tell it because, next to my meeting Jesus, meeting this person was the most significant event of my life. And I tell this because, as God arranges things for fun some times, I met this person 29 years ago today, November 23, 1986.

I moved to Asheville, NC in June 1986, right out of college, to take my first job as a dietitian at the local hospital. It was my first time out on my own and I didn't know a soul in town. Asheville was not then the hopping hipsterville haven of young adults it is now. I was lonely.

I had attended a weekly meeting of Christian singles for a while but found it hard to connect. Perhaps due to my growing up in the private school community of Chattanooga, I was socially and culturally limited in experience. The people I met at the group seemed in awe that I had gone to, and actually finished, college The guys stared at me like I was a bug in a jar, excited for a new specimen to hit the market, and the girls...well...I was the new competition. I actually had a few dates with guys in their mid-30s. One of them invited me to dinner in his singlewide. I had never even known anybody who lived in a singlewide, so sheltered I was in my upper middle class upbringing. It was all a bit disorienting. Nowhere in sight was the handsome Christian Yuppie I hoped to marry.

One Saturday in November I met a neighbor who invited me to visit his church. They had just started a single adults Sunday School class. I had visited there once before and wanted to give it another shot.

So Sunday morning I walked into the room. My attire was part professional and part little old lady with my blue Pendleton wool suit, black pumps, and satin bow in my hair (looking, Matt says, like my mother had dressed me). There was a crowd of people milling around and a nice guy walked up to me and handed me a penny for one of those introduction games.

His name was Matt Barker and he and I had a lot in common. He had attended Covenant College, outside of Chattanooga, and had even spent many years of his childhood there, playing with kids I knew in high school.

After church a large group of us went out to lunch. Matt says I talked too much. I think I was just so thrilled to be around people that I connected with. As they were leaving the restaurant, Matt's roommate, Gregg, asked him what he thought of me. Matt replied that I seemed nice but talked too much. He asked Gregg what he thought of me and Gregg replied, "She's lovely. Marry her."

I cannot say that it was love at first sight, because it wasn't. I was lonely. He was a bit lonely himself. But I had my vision of who I was going to marry and Matt, well, he had a four figure income, drove a 1974 brown VW bus we called the Rolling Turd, and dressed in nothing but cross country race T-shirts and blue jeans. (For the record, I was not the artsy, fartsy girl of his dreams, either.) But we clung together and over the next few months played endless games of Trivial Pursuit while listening to the Weather Channel and soon discovered that we had become fast friends.

He moved to Atlanta for a job and two months later I followed him. Over the next several months we dated and broke up and dated and broke up and the only difference between whether we were dating or not was if we were dating, we kissed. If we weren't, we didn't. He became the only person, and perhaps the first person, that I truly trusted.

It wasn't all fun and games. It was easy at times for him to worry about my insecurities. It was easy for me to fear desertion. But one day a friend and wise counselor pushed him off the fence and he proposed. We were married May 7, 1988.

As I said before, there is nothing outside of my relationship with God that compares to the significance of this relationship. I say this not only as a wife but as a person who has struggled with mental illness all her life.

On so many occasions over the years has has said these most beautiful words to me:

"You might hurt. But at least you do not have to hurt alone."
Those words are worth more than gold.

Friday, November 20, 2015

My Story, Part 8

To start at the beginning, click here.
For Part 7, click here.

For years my story stopped right there. Girl meets Jesus and isn't that grand. It is true that that was the turning point in my life. But just as God rarely brings diabetes or thyroid disease to a halt when somebody comes to know him in a new way, neither does he wave his magic wand and send mental illness out the window.

There are an astonishingly large number of people out there who believe that mental illness is just a spiritual condition. I will refrain from using nasty words right now and just say that I disagree. I believe that humans are way too complex. That answers are rarely so simple.

The psychologists tend to have the nature vs. nurture debate. Is it genetic or is it environmental? Or both? But they often leave out a spiritual dimension. The churches (not all, but many at least within the church) have held that it is a spiritual issue. But they often ignore the contribution of biology and life experience, laying the burden of recovery on the patient "getting right with Jesus."

I believe that it is all of the above. You cannot ignore any dimension. Sure, my wiring, my biology predispose me to a variety of physical and mental health issues. Sure, my life experience affects how I perceive myself and life and respond to situations. Sure, my soul is not at peace unless connected the One who created it.

It can take years and years of work and experience to tease out what is being which part of which struggle in your life. It did for me. And often they were so inextricably linked teasing them out was impossible. They all need to be acknowledged and addressed.

That said, life did pick up for me after I gave my life to God in August 1981. There were still plenty of struggles at home, but God provided the excellent psychiatrist and a wonderful registered dietitian to help with my fear of eating. In fact, I was so impressed I chose to major in nutrition in college in hopes of one day doing the same.

But none of this was the end of my struggles. I had plenty of bouts of anxiety and depression (along with years of learning not to be afraid of food) throughout college. Some years were harder. Some years were good.