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Lately, pandemic parenting has me feeling the tug of old, not-so-healthy patterns.
For instance: I had salt and vinegar chips last night for dinner. I recently bought a Nintendo Switch, and last week, I fell deep into a void of Zelda games.
“What should we do for dinner?” my husband texted me one night.
“I don’t know. I’m stuck in a magical, elfin land of mystery,” I replied. I could actually feel my eyes glazing over, could hear my daughter’s stomach rumbling beside me.
Chips and video games aren’t awful or particularly dangerous vices, but they are warning signs. They’re signals that I’m trying to fill up the holes that exist within me.
I was born with a small hole in my heart. A pediatrician first heard the murmur. A specialist later determined the sound was the result of a cardiac shunt, which is just a fancy name for a small opening. After examining me, a cardiologist reported there was a strong chance of “spontaneous closure,” and that I was in no imminent danger.
He pressed his stethoscope to my chest, but couldn’t hear the whisperings, the murmurs that would later emanate from deep inside: I am not enough. I am broken. I am scattered with holes.
As a child, I’d sneak cans of frosting up to my room and eat them with a spoon in my closet at night when I couldn’t sleep. It was the only way to quell the churning in my mind about the boy I had a crush on not knowing I was alive, or the panic over figuring out whom I would sit with at lunch the next day. Other nights, I’d tiptoe downstairs in the dark and head back up to my room with piles of chips and cheese, blanketed within a squared paper towel.
After I ate, the self-loathing arrived. I could feel the clots of fat from the cheese swimming their way to my thighs, my butt. Food was my secret. The way I unleashed my desire on it. The way it then betrayed me, a bad lover, seeping into my flesh.
I was insatiable; I must learn control. If I could just be thin—if I could have the extra fat vacuumed from my thighs and ass, then I might be worthy of love. I couldn’t see that I’d left no space to be loved—I was already full of food and fantasy and fear.
Then I’d diet, tracking my food intake, excising whole food groups—begone cheese! Banish ye, bread! I’d weigh myself multiple times each day, only happy when the number dipped. Or I’d fantasize endlessly about boys, or later, drink, watch hours of TV, plot a new hairstyle: anything to soothe myself from the loneliness that flashed and flickered, the dark and bottomless cavern inside.
The first time I fell in love, unrequited, I did everything I could to escape the stabbing loneliness of it. One day, thumbing through a dictionary, I came across the word nepenthe—an ancient potion used to cure sorrow, or to help a sufferer un-remember the source of their sadness. I scrawled the word over and over in my journal like a prayer, doodling intricate swirling souls around it, as if I could ignite the word into being and use it to cure my own heartache.
Maybe this is how all addiction starts: we sense the hole in our heart, the dangerous whoosh between beats. It seems gaping and deadly, so we try to fill it. But the more we try to fill it, the wider and thirstier the hole becomes. Our healthy tissue erodes as the hole grows bigger and bigger, until there’s nearly nothing of us left at all, until we are mostly vacuous, mostly dark matter.
When I was 24, my brother died. The longing for him felt incurable, terminal. I’d been blasted by another vast hole with no hope of spontaneous closure. My mind grasped for escape hatches to crawl through, for something to soften the edges of my loss, but I found none. There was no nepenthe, no rescue. I couldn’t self-destruct, couldn’t surrender myself to the void, not as long as my parents were alive. Not with the terrible mantra of the surviving child in my ear: you must live; you must live; you must, at least, outlive.
What I began to learn as I met others who were grieving is that we all have holes in our hearts, whether we were born with them or we collect them along the way. We all hear the thunderous murmurs that hiss inside of us. We are all so busy trying to drown out our own murmurs that mostly, we don’t notice anyone else’s emptiness. In 12-step programs, people speak of having a God-shaped hole. Maybe the closest we ever get to filling these gaps is to sit beside someone else and listen as they whisper about their own pockets of pain, their own empty spaces, their own holy holes.
One of the hardest parts of my brother’s death was the terrible aloneness. It felt like being dropped in the middle of a wild, wide labyrinth. It was verdant, vicious, and lightless. I could hear my parents weeping from other parts of the maze. I knew we were in the labyrinth together, all grieving the absence of my brother, all peppered with holes. But I couldn’t tether myself to them to find my way out; we each faced our own singular, twisted path. We each had to stumble our way toward an exit.
Or maybe there is no exit—there’s only the snail-slow acclimation, palms sliding over cool vines and piercing thorns, until our hands grow calloused and rubbery, and the sharp wilderness becomes a kind of home.
This is too hard. You’re failing. You’re not cut out for being a mom—especially during a pandemic. These are the old murmurings that have me reaching for chips and video games recently.
I’ve been scrambling so hard to find my way out of this crappy pandemic maze that for a spell, I forgot the lessons loss has taught me.
After my brother died, I spent hours sitting on my parents’ porch, alone in the soaking absence. I stared into the sky, into the space next to me where my brother once was. I tried to find him there, to believe that something of him still remained. In the canvas of empty air, I narrowed my eyes and tried to glimpse a future that I couldn’t imagine, one without him, one filled with faces I couldn’t yet imagine. But that hazy maybe-future lay on the far side of the labyrinth, and I didn’t know when—or even if—I’d emerge from it.
When the weight in my chest got dank and heavy enough, I cried. Sometimes I raged. I pounded on the labyrinth floor, grass-streaked and ghosted.
And then, slowly, I’d pull my body up, up, up. Knotted roots shifted beneath my tender feet. They sighed: The secret is to just keep stumbling. I placed my hands on the leafy skin of a wall. It shuddered: The secret is to learn to live with the holes. To build a life alongside them.
You must live, you must live, you must live, I breathed, urging my feet forward.
I’m reminding myself of this on the days when my kids are whiny and my introverted self wants to eject everyone from the house. When I feel lost and overwhelmed and hole-hearted. When it seems easier to live in a mystical elfin world than this beautiful, broken world that I couldn’t have fathomed.
The secret is to learn to live with the holes. And: the secret is to just keep stumbling.