Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"The Desperate Plain": What to Do When You're Feeling Crazy

"A friend once called this sense of being too alone "the desperate plain," the looming desolate stretch of ground, no trees to shelter you, no water, no way to escape, nowhere to hide or find comfort, strewn with rocks and a few random snake holes. You are stripped down existentially, you are naked, you are nuts."
~Anne Lamott, from Small Victories: Spotting Improbably Moments of Grace

We've all been there, haven't we?  What Lamott's friend calls "the desperate plain". It's terrifying. We can't remember having ever felt safe. We can't imagine ever feeling safe again. Everywhere we look, we see threats. There is nowhere to retreat. There we are: naked, nuts.
I'm there right now. My youngest child is struggling with obsessive-compulsive disorder and I feel as though I'm in enemy territory. She becomes someone I don't recognize when she's having an episode. She screams that I'm "dirty". She won't touch certain items because they're "contaminated". She rails at me for "not helping" her and won't let me hug her because I'm "filthy and "something bad will happen."
And then, when the episode is over – 10 minutes if we're lucky, an hour if we're not – she's contrite. She sobs with regret, begs my forgiveness, says she wishes she could kill herself so that she didn't have to deal with this. She's 11 years old. A baby. My baby.
It's breaking my heart.
And though it has been a long time since I was in that barren wasteland – that desperate plain – I know that so many of you are still there. I'm back.
I'm reminded just how terrifying it is. How alone you all feel.
But I know that it is then, when we look over our shoulder and beside us and – oh no, did something move over there? – all around and see nothing NOTHING that can save us, that we need to say, in a squeak or a roar:
We need to say "help". We need to say "help" to anyone in our lives who can offer it. We need to say "help" to someone who can take your kids for an hour so you can close your eyes or go for a walk or see your therapist. We need to say "help" to that therapist – who can give us a place where, for an hour a week (or more!), we can lay our heart bare to someone with compassion and experience who can help us mend it back together, stitch by stitch.
We need to say "help" to the women on this site, who've been where we are and can join us in solidarity or gently remind us that we won't always be in this place. That despite everything we feel right now, there is a place to move into that does offer safety and respite. That we'll get there if we can just hold on. If we can just trust that this desperate plain isn't a destination but a phase. A place we need to endure. A place where are not, in fact, alone.
Enduring can feel like surrender when it's actually a sign of incredible strength. And asking for help can be the most courageous thing you do today.
Right now my daughter needs my help. She needs me to remind her that she can endure. That this desperate plain isn't where she will always be. That she is brave and loved and suffering. But that she isn't alone.


  1. Elle I too have an 11 year old daughter who displays symptoms of OCD. I have watched her cry for hours because her project wasn't perfect, her art work wasn't perfect and even last night her eye brows weren't perfect. It hurts my to see her pain. It's really like looking in the mirror at a young version of me that makes me the most upset. I've always been a huge germaphobe and put really harsh standards on myself to the point that I couldn't see any kind of beauty in me at all. Who cares that everybody said I was kind, loving, caring and beautiful inside and out. I had made myself believe all the opposite. All deriving from watching my father and his struggles with infidelity and my mother's pain as she struggled to deal with his disapproval and actions. Then I had an epiphany last night. My pain all this time has always derived from the fear of being unlovable, unacceptable and uncontrollable. If I could control everything and plan it out nothing bad would happen. I learned almost two years ago this was not true. You see I tried to make everything perfect so my husband, family, friends and work would all love me and want me around. It was always a pursuit of perfection. Then when I found out that my husband had affairs it all blew up in my face. He told me, "Imagine being me married to you. As soon as people just heard your name (insert singing Angels because he actually did the aahhhh when he spoke mocking me) there was no way I felt like I could live up to your standards. I don't know what I was thinking or why I did it. I JUST WANTED TO BE A DIFFERENT PERSON."
    This was a crushing blow to me. All my life striving to be this exceptional person so he would be proud of me. I'm completely heart broken for my daughter but I'm the pinnacle of hope also. God put me here on this Earth to slowly show her how to ease her standards she is setting on herself. The controlling everything is just a symptom. It's what's inside her that she must learn to love appreciate and move forward in. So I told her last night thst she needed to see just how perfect she could allow herself to be inside if she took the time to truly see the beauty of who she is in others. Her true self that learns to live with love and understanding. A true contentment because she is a spectacular her. The only one in existence.
    So goodbye to my perfect made up expectation of reality. Hello me! With my little mini me's to teach how to just accept what is inside them and love what The Lord graced us with ;) yes my 14 month sabbatical rethinking life is seriously setting me up for self awareness in a totally different way. One that helps me be stronger after almost two years of hell. Still healing but not "steal healing" where I'm grabbing and grasping at any happiness I can take, but finding true healing and contentment through all the pain.
    I'm looking for a new job now that we relocated back to be near family at the "scene of the crime". That's what a friend of mine dubbed locations our husbands ruined in the past. So I told her "Paint a new scene and cover over all the past with all the colors and hope you have inside."
    Love all you girls I've come to know on this site. You guys have a wonderful day, and keep moving forward, because there is hope! Don't lose it.

    Hope deferred makes the heart sick.
    Prov. 13:12

    1. What a beautiful post. Thank-you.
      Like you, I spent much of my life thinking that if I could be perfect, I could inoculate myself from rejection. We all know how THAT turned out.
      And yes, both my girls tend toward perfectionism (as does my husband). The OCD she's struggling with is of the clinical textbook kind and is different than our culture's shorthand of OCD (perfectionist, clean-freak, etc.). She tends toward hoarding, for instance. Her room makes me weep.
      However, given her perfectionist tendencies (and my constant reminders that life is about making mistakes...learning...and then making new mistakes), she took it upon herself (have I mentioned that this kid is amazing?) a year ago to write affirmations and post them around her room. Completely on her own -- no idea where she got the idea. She even wrote backwards so that when she held the signs in the mirror it would appear that the "her" in the mirror was "saying" these things to her: "You are talented. You are kind. You are smart. You are beautiful." Elsewhere she posted, "You just made a mistake. It's okay."
      But I think, as you so eloquently noted, we need to model that sort of behaviour. We need to stop doing things to dazzle the world and start doing things to dazzle ourselves. No more knocking ourselves out to make the best cookies for the bake sale, no more struggling to get 10,000 things done before company comes so that our home looks perfect, the meal looks perfect, WE look perfect. Ah, the peace that comes from "good enough."

    2. Elle

      I especially loved the last part in your post about letting go of perfection which is really a cover up for shame, isn't it? Good enough is great phrase to master for a perfectionist. And is perfectionism just another form of control? The other day I talked to my therapist who said basically at this point in my life I need to let go of the humongous load of shame I've carried for years about my husband's affairs, having a mentally ill father, and a few other things. Pretty sure my steps in recovering from the embarrassment of the affairs is thanks to this site. You have been a blessing to so many. thank you!!!

  2. Love these posts. Thanks ladies.

  3. Yes Elle that's it! By the way I'm Ann from Texas ;)
    Just haven't figured out how to add a name to my posts so for now listed as anonymous ;) you have truly been a blessing to me when I had confined myself in self imposed aloneness. I felt like I let everybody I knew down when I fell apart in pain. It turns out o didn't, by working through the pain slowly I learned to bloom like a flower. I needed proper care too. The compassion and love I wanted so badly to have everyone feel is what I needed. So I'm certain God helped me find your site, that day I quit drowning and started swming out of the sea of yuck I felt inside. Thank you Elle, Steam, the pilots wife and all the other women willing to open up and in turn help others they never met.

    1. Ann from Texas,
      Thank-you for your note. And yes, the silver lining in this is so often that we learn to finally take care of ourselves. We learn to value ourselves and cherish just how amazing we really are. Sad I suppose that we need to be brought to our knees to learn how to soar.

  4. Elle,

    I know you read it all the time, but you've written exactly what I have felt the last 4 days. My heart also breaks for your sweet daughter - I will pray she continues to heal and find strength in her strong, passionate mother she has to emulate.

    These last few days for me have been grueling to say the least -- I've read a lot PTSD in your posts and I think that is exactly what I am suffering from. Because my husband has retreated and has gone back to saying things he said on or near D-day, my mind has taken me right back there and I feel ... quite literally ... crazy.

    Calming, deep breaths have been the only thing that helps. And my two, beautiful babies.

    Thank you for sharing, Elle ... it's beautiful to read.


    1. Abi,
      We've all been there in that crazy zone -- where we feel frantic and desperate and like we're drowning in pain. Just please know that it doesn't last. That thought alone might be enough to allow you to just sit with the pain. It will pass. It always, always will.

  5. Elle, just wanted to say I'll be thinking of you and your daughter as you make your way through this. I know how deeply it hurts to have to see one of your children in emotional pain.

    1. Jennifer,
      Thank-you for this. We've got great support in our city and I'm becoming something of an "expert" on childhood OCD. Maybe that will be my next blog. :)



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