Love is a verb

Love does what needs to be done even when your mind and body recoil.

Clutching my soggy tissues in a death grip, I couldn’t stop bawling. I was perched on the edge of a soft chair in the dimmed sanctuary of Dr. G’s office. My therapist was helping me deal with an especially dark time. I didn’t know how I could withstand the strain.

This happened 10 years ago. Jack had been suffering through about 6 months of violently harming himself. He barely slept. Each day he would rhythmically slam his head on the ground, screaming like a wounded animal. An inky crown of bruises circled his forehead. His fingers bloodied from the incessant digging of his fingernails at his skin.

Mike and I tried to calm him, but we felt powerless. We held him down for the worst of his self-inflicted violence, attempted to bandage his shredded fingers, and even squirted liquid Motrin into his bawling mouth–a feeble attempt at pain management. We raced over to turn on some soothing Coldplay music, his favorite. And then we’d hunker down and endure the storm. Sometimes lasting an hour or more, sometimes only 20 minutes. Unpredictable. The worst of his self injurious period eventually winding down, like a music box song slowly petering out.

Whether the pain was physical, emotional or both, I couldn’t tell. Nor could our  pediatrician, the child psychiatrists, or the many other specialists I consulted. I just knew he suffered and we couldn’t help him.

Our solutions felt inadequate–a new helmet with visor to protect his head during the outbursts and drugs of questionable efficacy to address his self-harm and sleep. The drugs barely helped. The behaviors remained as he still harmed himself. But now they took on a nightmarish slow motion quality, Jack groggy from the pills.   We had my daughter sleep at my parents’ most nights to spare her, while Mike and I tried to deal with the fallout. We attempted to take care of ourselves, each other and him. I sleep walked through my days, a shell of a human being.

***

At this particular therapy session, a few months into our new normal, I blurted out my guilty secret,

Sometimes I don’t feel the motherly love I’m supposed to feel for my son. Often I feel so much resentment and grief and wonder what my life might have been like if he hadn’t been born.

My therapist looked at me with infinite compassion and simply said,

Love is a verb. We think of it more as a noun, a feeling, but when it comes down to it, true love is helping Jack, over and over again. Even when you don’t feel it. Especially when you don’t feel it. Keeping him fed, safe and warm–every one of these actions shows your love, even during the dark times.

With that, our session ended.

***

We all have been conditioned to expect certain emotions proving the amount of love we have for our children. Many t.v. shows, movies and books frequently show a specific idealized version of parental love. The earth shattering, overpowering, big love found when a parent holds their baby for the first time. There is a purity in this initial parental love, a holiness uncontaminated by lesser, baser emotions. In this moment, you receive a sacrament.

But loving Jack seems more complicated to me. I experience this tender emotion from time to time, yes, but there is more. The twin threads of duty and obligation are woven throughout my feeling of love. 16 years of care-giving darkly embroidered upon my soul.

Loving someone in this way is a gritty, unsettling feeling. The initial joyous wonder grows muddied over time by the enormity of my task. Internally I may feel despair, boredom or even, yes, a mother’s love, while I carefully clip my teenager’s fingernails and toenails, brush his teeth, shave his face, do my best to make him comfortable.

***

There are so many times when I’m totally verbing the love, the feel-good noun hidden behind a fortress of crankiness and fatigue. Exhaustion straining the bonds of my affection. But though I may not be feeling the love in that moment, thanks to Dr. G’s wise words, I know it is there.

At times Jack has to be feeling the same verb love for me. After all, I don’t corner the market on sacrifice. He takes care of me too by demonstrating his love and appreciation through affection and happy sounds. He gives me reassurance that I am enough of a mother for him with hugs and kisses. Sometimes as he sighs and rolls his eyes after my umpteenth request for a kiss, he reminds me I’m not the only one carrying a responsibility.

***

Thankfully Jack’s outbursts diminished with time, never again approaching the duration and intensity of 10 years ago. But I learned from this time how love functions as a verb and not just a noun. During a tough time, this phrase becomes my mantra. It provides me with some comfort and energy to do what needs to be done. I hope it can for you too.

The verb provides structure for my moral obligation. It helps define my purpose.  And yet the noun still remains, if only a memory in the anxious moment. It gives a gentle glow, which comforts me during times of trial. It reminds me that every step of trudging through darkness means we’re closer to the light.

Photo: Thomas Ledermann/Pixabay

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