An unexpected benefit of commuting so much is that sometimes Free and I have great talks while my eyes are on the road instead of her. The other day, she started babbling, mostly to herself, and after a few minutes, I interrupted to ask her what in the world she was talking about.
“Mom, sometimes the things in my brain just stay in there for a long time, so I have to do something with them. This is what I do. I put everything in different boxes. The things that I don’t like go in the ‘delete forever’ box. It goes down like this from here to here.”
As she spoke, she traced her finger gently and slowly from the top of her head down her forehead to her nose.
“Then there’s stuff that I don’t want to delete forever so I put it in the ‘remember for save for later’ box. That goes over here.”
She continued to trace and describe elaborate paths for the input/output processes of her mind.
“Do you do this a lot, honey?” I asked.
“Yes,” she responded, leading me to wonder if there was a compulsive aspect to this. I understood that she saw it as a useful strategy, but its ritualistic aspect bothered me.
Frankly, it was too familiar. It is exactly the sort of thing I would do.
I was probably about Free’s age when I developed a mental game that involved counting the letters in words. The game had no application value in the real world, and it had no genius Rainman appeal. I don’t remember how the rules evolved or why they felt right, but I knew them and followed them closely. I don’t remember how the game even originated, but I suspect it had something in common with what Free does.
She’s told me before about some of the thoughts she would like to ‘delete forever’. Some are perfectly appropriate fear responses. (See https://makingitdaily.wordpress.com/2013/01/01/claire-112013/ for the recent example of our talk about the Sandy Hook tragedy.) Some are exaggerated, however, like Free’s complete avoidance of our basement because she knows that somewhere in a plastic bin in our storage is a skeleton Halloween costume that terrifies her. I have promised to purge the offending item, but I will not always be able to so easily dispose of the things that haunt her.
Free’s anxieties are very familiar to me. Over the course of my childhood and adolescence, I frequently used ritual to cope. After reading Franny and Zooey, for example, I recited the Jesus prayer (“Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me”) over and over in my head for months, maybe years. There were physical manifestations too: I remember needing to touch things to my nose and developing little repetitive tics with my hands.
I remember how my own mother handled these quirks. When she caught me bringing my nose to the floor, she made me explain it, and when I couldn’t, she simply encouraged me to resist nonsensical physical urges. It wasn’t a big deal, but I should try not to do it. When I described my mental games to her, she dismissed them by explaining that it was just my brain keeping itself busy and not to worry about it, but not to let myself focus too much on it either.
Her response has guided my handling of mental and physical tics ever since: if you don’t overstate them or try to deny them, then they aren’t a big deal. The game I played when I was Free’s age? The rules evolved over the years, but that game has never left me. It has become a sort of background noise in my brain, one that never threatens to become a distraction or obsession, but one that I cannot turn off, either. When do I play it? All the time—more frequently in times of stress, no doubt, but often I don’t even notice I’m playing until my mind turns to something else and I take a break. The physical tics still emerge when I’m really tired, under stress, or when I go into a zone like when I’m running. I am not always aware of these responses right away, but I usually notice them before others do, and I don’t worry too much about them. I acknowledge them and the busy brain behind them, and by redirecting it, I move on.
While I was analyzing Free’s patterns, comparing them to my own, and trying to figure out how to help her, she was busy in her own world. She interrupted my musings to tell me that she wanted to apologize to her friend for being mean, and that was what she was filing in the ‘save for later’ box. She’d been fixated on it for a while and wanted to think about something else. I listened, realizing that she wasn’t asking me for any opinion or help. She was handling everything just fine, and she was sharing it with me simply because I had asked what was on her mind.
“Baby?” I said.
“I love you so much.”
“I love you too, mama.”
“And you know where you can put that? In the ‘keep forever’ box.”
“I don’t have one of those yet, mom, but I’ll make one just for you.”
That’s my little girl.