Book Review of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood

I read a lot of articles online, but when I read an excerpt from Lisa Damour’s Untangled, I knew I wanted to read the rest of the book. I approached it cautiously. I’ve picked up so many parenting / therapy / self-help books and been disappointed in them. Sometimes these books irritate me by assuming things about me or my child that do not apply. Other times they accurately describe my problem, but then try to prescribe fixes for me that simply would not work in my house. Most often they simply have little new information to offer. I end up skimming through pages and pages to find a single idea that I can apply in my life. So I checked Damour’s book out of the library expecting to skim and glean some useful information. By the end of chapter two, I’d ordered a copy for myself because I want to be able to re-read it and write notes in the margins.

Right in the introduction Damour stated that she did not seek to be prescriptive, she just wanted to describe the natural emotional / intellectual development of teenage girls and let readers come to their own conclusions or solutions. (The same development happens in boys, but it manifests a bit differently and Damour chose to focus on teen girls.) She does offer suggestions here and there, but they’re almost always a list of “some have found this works” or “you might want to try this.” I can tell you the exact paragraph where I fell in love with Damour as a writer / psychologist / mother. She was describing a study that has been done about the correlation between teens doing well socially and academically and them eating dinner with their parents more than three times per week. I already knew about that study. I’ve read it. I’ve felt guilty about it and resolved to do better at making family dinner happen. Then I’ve watched the efforts fade away so I felt guilty again. After describing the study, Damour says this in a parenthetical:

Here are some questions I’m hoping further research will address. Must the meal be hot? Must it last more than ten minutes to achieve its magical benefits? And how often can I freak out about table manners and still have a positive influence on my daughters? Obviously, important work waits to be done.

At that moment I knew that Damour gets it. She understands that every thing we do for our kids, for our work, for or ourselves comes at the expense of some other good thing we could be doing. Time, energy, and willpower are limited resources and we all have to make choices about how to spend them. After that parenthetical I was very willing to read more of what she had to say. She didn’t disappoint.

The other reason I was afraid to read the book was because of where I was emotionally. I was in the middle of a grief I wasn’t sure I’d ever be able to get rid of. I was actively grieving the normal teenagerhoods that it seemed my kids would never be able to have because of their combinations of mental health and developmental issues. I was very afraid that this book would just make me cry because it would describe a teenage experience that was out of reach for my family. It did the opposite. This book shifted the way I think about my teens (the boys as well as the girl) and healed much of the grief I had been feeling.

Damour’s book describes specific developmental drives that happen in teenage brains. She talks about how those drives can manifest differently in different teens and different parent child relationships. Then at the end of each chapter she outlines some things to watch for which might indicate that your child has a problem which isn’t covered by “normal teenage development.” Reading Damour’s descriptions, I was finally able to see how much of my teen’s behaviors are actually normal rather than driven by their issues. It can be really hard to tell with teens because normal teenage behavior would be disordered behavior if done by an adult. Damour’s descriptions have finally provided me with the tool to sift through the things my teens do and say. Knowing which behaviors are normal means I am better able to sit back and let them learn through struggling instead of jumping to their rescue. I’m also able to look at which developmental drives are being interrupted or hampered by the mental health issues. I can see ways to help that I hadn’t seen before. All of this is subtle, but very significant.

I think Damour’s Untangled is going to be like Gift of Fear by Gavin DeBecker, a book that I recommend over and over again to people who are struggling. It certainly feels like a personal paradigm shift, like when I first read the article about The Power and Peril of Praising Your Kids. That article changed how I parented forever. I’m still absorbing information from Damour’s book and letting it settle into my brain. Yet, I’ve already been less stressed and anxious. I’ve changed small decisions every single day based on what I’ve learned. Instead of jumping in with concern (thus communicating that the experience is not normal and is an emergency) I’ve been able to stay back and express confidence that my kid can handle it. And they have. And everyone was happier and more confident for it.

So if you have a teenager, are going to have a teenager, or know teenagers you want to understand better, I recommend Lisa Damour’s Untangled.

Thoughts About Movies

Our family watches a lot of movies and TV shows. Howard sees them in the theater and reviews on his website. It is one of the ways he gets outside of his box and refreshes his brain to work again. The rest of us go to the theater far less often. Frequently we don’t see things until they hit DVD or Netflix. There are many things I don’t bother to see at all for various reasons, the main one of which is that I don’t have all the time in the world. Today I find myself thinking of some movies I’ve seen in the past few weeks.

Howard and I went to see it in the theater on the Friday it opened. We came out happy and glad we had gone. The internet is rife with reviews of this movie. Many people found triumph and identity in it. Others saw the whole thing as a travesty. I liked it. It made me laugh. In comparing my reaction walking out of this movie to they way I felt when I first saw the original, I can’t say which I enjoyed more. But my enjoyment of the original has dampened through the decades. I still love it, but it isn’t paced for the modern audience. And the love sub-plot in it makes me actively uncomfortable. So right now Ghostbusters 2016 is my favorite of the Ghostbusters movies. I do love that the female heroes get to just do stuff without having to look sexy while they do it. I also loved Hemsworth’s parody of every ditzy secretary and rom com heroine ever. As a story and a movie, it is normal/entertaining. As a deliberate upturning of tropes and challenging the norms of film roles, it is brilliant.

Schindler’s List
Before this week I had deliberately avoided seeing Schindler’s List. I knew that it was heart wrenching. I knew it was a movie composed of grief, death, and disregard for human life. All the more painful because all of it was based in historical fact. I also knew that it is an important movie to have. And it had to be made when it was, when there were still living people who had gone through the experience. Most of the Holocaust survivors are gone now. It is good that we’re that much further away from this terrible historical event. It also means that society is in danger of forgetting, of sliding into some configuration which will allow people to be dehumanized again.

Now felt like the right time for me to watch the film. I think I wanted a clear picture of where the world needs to not go again. After watching I understood why Spielberg would never allow it to be shown edited. There are times when we shouldn’t sanitize history to make it more palatable. The movie was beautifully shot and hauntingly written. I loved how human everyone was, particularly Schindler himself who never set out to be a hero. He just wanted to make a fortune and live lavishly. Only over time his heart opened more and more. He began to see the suffering and to love the people. That is the piece I want to hold tight and remember. Even when the world is at it’s worst. Even when people are being drawn en-masse into evil behaviors. There will always be a chance to transform, to open closed hearts, and to do the right thing if we are brave enough to do it.

Batman Vs Superman

After watching deep dark history, I needed to turn to lighter things. The fact that Batman Vs. Superman came off as lighter tells you much about history. I haven’t seen Man of Steel and probably won’t bother to. This meant that in the opening scenes I was just as confused and dismayed by the battle in the sky as Bruce Wayne was. I was really able to see and feel the powerlessness in the face of demi gods. It helped a lot that I went into the film with the firm idea that I wasn’t actually watching Superman, it was more Steelheart (by Brandon Sanderson). This meant that instead of being disappointed in Superman being not all that likable, I was pleasantly surprised by the moments when I liked him. I found myself thinking about the psychology of Superman as a person. People who have never been hurt are often unable to empathize with the hurts of others. This Superman is young and the consequences of his actions are just beginning to be real to him. He is beginning to see that, even with his powers, he has to make choices about who to save. That he is responsible for the outcomes of those choices.

This is definitely more of a Batman movie than a Superman movie. I liked Affleck’s Batman. I loved the pivotal moment where they stop fighting against each other and instead teamed up. I also loved the fact that each of them was so able to see the negative consequences of the other’s actions and less able to see the consequences of their own. That is so human. I loved Wonder Woman every time she was on the screen. I hope that she can keep that up in her solo movie. I’ve rarely like the extended use of dream sequences in films and that was used here. I felt like those could have been greatly shortened. The one thing that kept throwing me out of the story was the voice of that one senator. Her voice is so distinctive that every time she spoke I started seeing the mother character from Incredibles.

Pride and Prejudice (the BBC mini series with Colin Firth)
I know so many people who love this, but I’d never taken the time. However I had some manual tasks to do (related to book shipping) that didn’t really need my brain. So This kept me company while I did them. At the end of the first episode I wondered why people love it so much. It was fine, but not really drawing me in. By the end of the third episode I was truly enjoying it. By the end of the last episode, I’ll admit to wishing for a little more modernizing of the ending. I really wanted Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth to hold hands, kiss, and be less formal. Even though I know that what was portrayed is far more accurate to the book. I don’t know if I’ll be a person who watches it multiple times, but I really enjoyed seeing a romance story full off complex characters where the obstacles flowed from their personalities rather than being imposed from outside. Most conflicts with other people have more to do with misunderstanding than with villainy.

Watched Daredevil

A person as amazing and wonderful as Karen deserves to be someone’s first choice and first priority. I mean, sure go save the world and save lives, but she should come before the other stuff. Just saying.

Also, secrets and lies are never good for relationships.

Powerful show to evoke such strong reactions and discussion. Beautifully filmed. Far more blood and death than I was comfortable with, yet the show was all about the consequences of choices, what makes a hero, and where the line is between hero and villain.

Triforce Heroes

One of the games which made an appearance on Christmas was three copies of Triforce Heroes. This is a Zelda game for 3DS which is best enjoyed with three players who are sitting in the same room with their three devices. At first it was Kiki, Link, and Patch, but over time Patch lost interest and went off to play other games. This left Kiki and Link in need of a third player. They drafted me.

I’m not a particularly experienced player of video games. I played Nintendo 64 quite a bit when the kids were young because they liked to watch. Recently I picked up the new version of Majora’s Mask and have been playing through that. But I don’t have the practice or twitch speed that my two kids have. This is fine. My job is to follow along, not get hit by the bad guys and to assist in the solving of puzzles. I like not being in charge. I like moving through a world where the kids are the experts and they look out for me. “Mom you just stay up there until I kill all the skeletons.” “If you run close to the middle when it shoots, you won’t get hit by the laser.” Occasionally I show unexpected expertise and then I get a “Way to go Mom!”

Of course the game sometimes gets frustrating. There are times where I lose track of which little person I’m piloting on the screen and I accidentally run off the edge. Or none of us know how to beat a monster and it kills us over and over again. I may have said things like “Agh! I’m no good at this!” and it is possible that I stomped my feet on the floor in frustration. Then I looked up to see my kids looking at me with wide eyes. “Mom, do we need to take a break?” No. I was fine. The frustration was momentary. It comes and goes in the intensity of the moment. They just aren’t used to seeing me distressed in that particular way. So we all took a deep breath and agreed we’d give the frustrating monster one more try. We made a plan for who would take which role in the attack. And then we beat the thing. Together.

Triforce Heroes is a brilliant game for getting three people to practice team work. We try things and they don’t work, so we try different things. We talk about what we’re seeing, because it is impossible to complete the game unless we cooperate. I’m having a great time playing with my kids. I needed the challenge, the cathartic frustration, and the uproarious laughter. I kind of hope that Patch stays uninterested so I can finish the story with the others.

Thinking on Crimson Peak

Perhaps it is because this is the month of October. Maybe the rain and falling leaves have affected my mood. Or it could be that I soon expect a phone call which will tell me that I need to fly out for my Grandma’s funeral, thus I needed a distraction. For whatever reason, the movie Crimson Peak drew my attention and I found myself wanting to go see it even though I generally don’t like horror films. Or rather, I don’t enjoy gore-fest, jump-scare movies that are about murder and death. I do enjoy spooky thriller movies with mysteries to solve. Crimson Peak does have blood, death, and other dark things, but it is more a gothic love story than a horror movie. Gothic heroines do not get happy endings, but they do have beautiful scenery and mysteries to unravel. Crimson Peak has all the dark mystery of Wuthering Heights and matches it for mood. The opening lines say that it is not a ghost story, but rather a story with ghosts in it. I found that to be true and I liked that about it. I liked that the supernatural world entwined with the material and affected it, but the plot did not revolve around the existence of ghosts. The movie was beautiful and dark. I enjoyed it for what it was though it is not a happy story.

Far away my Grandma lays in a hospital bed, tiny and weak. The latest report is that she is eighty four pounds and has forgotten how to swallow or speak intelligibly. There are not many days left. Her room is antiseptic and hallowed, a place where she is getting ready to leave the body she’s inhabited for ninety five years. That room is about love and letting go.

I suppose it makes sense that I’m attracted to a story about loss just now. I’m able to follow the emotion, but all the images are romanticized, beautiful, and clearly fiction. So I sit here in the evening and think of the movie I just saw. I imagine the hospital room where my parents are sitting lovingly nearby so Grandma won’t be alone. And I am glad to live in my world that is more prosaic and less vivid than the one on the screen. I’ll take death as a granter of peace and passage over howling ghosts and crumbling mansions. I’ll take my warm bright home full of video games and laughing. My life is a good place and sometimes I can best see that when I have something for contrast.


SPOILER ALERT: The following blog post will contain spoilers of major plot points for the movie Tomorrowland. In order to say what I want to say, I have to discuss these plot points. If you don’t want the movie spoiled for you, go see it before reading this blog post.

tomorrowland It was the movie that Howard and I picked for a date. We left the kids to put themselves to bed and ran out for a ten o’clock showing. There is something incredibly freeing in abandoning responsible weeknight behavior to just to see a film that intrigued me. I’m so very glad I did. I loved this movie. I don’t know if everyone will love it as much as I do. It might seem too simplistic to some, too optimistic to others. It is often silly and there is a climactic rant that really doesn’t work the way it needs to. Pulling all the dreamers, inventors, and creators from general society and putting them in a separate place is not likely to result in the futuristic world that is shown on the screen. There are large swathes of realism missing. It is fantasy. For most people I think it will just be a fun adventure movie. For me, it drilled into the very core of issues I have been struggling with. The movie becomes a metaphor for my struggles and left me feeling hope. Hope has been in short supply for me lately. I never expected a movie to gift it to me.

I will freely admit that lots of media things have been hitting me in oddly emotional ways lately. I’ll be listening to a song and suddenly find myself crying because the theme of the song opens up a pocket of emotion. The most memorable was in December when I found myself sobbing during the movie trailer for Annie, because in that moment I did not believe that the sun would come out tomorrow. I couldn’t see how anything would ever get better, yet I remembered when that song was uplifting and joyful. I cried because there were people in the world for which waiting a day would make things better. And I wasn’t one of them. All the tomorrows felt bleak.

Tomorrowland begins by showing a bright and beautiful future. The characters see it and are thrilled by it. I saw it and was filled with a sense of wonder. Then we are told that somehow modern life went awry. We are not aimed at a future with jetpacks, flying trains, and floating swimming pools. Instead the modern world is falling apart and aimed toward destruction. The big plot reveal is that the huge tower that was created to analyze and predict the future has instead been broadcasting a miasma of hopelessness. The tower has been self-fulfilling its own prophecy of destruction. This is only discovered because the protagonist, Casey, is determined and refuses to give up. She works with others to destroy the tower and the bright future becomes possible again. Not easy, but possible.

I envisioned a bright future. I think most parents do when they have young kids. It is hard to be on duty 24-7, cleaning up messes, teaching, and loving. You must to have hope to keep going. Those years when my kids were small I watched them become smarter and more capable. All my experience as a parent led me to expect that would continue. Yes there would be bumps and struggles, but they would grow and in the end my job would be to let go so they could fly on their own. That was the future I expected: watching my children fly and build lives based on their own dreams. My oldest did, but my second child has grown smaller, less able to manage, as he is buried under depression. My third is growing and strong, but she wasn’t two years ago, and I’m very afraid she will struggle again. My youngest is developing a panic disorder while I watch. I can’t see the bright future anymore. It feels as if we are doomed to struggle forever.

So when I see Casey touch a pin and her gray world vanishes, I want to take that trip with her. I would dearly love to find the hidden tower that is sending out the fog of depression and anxiety. Then I would blow that thing up into tiny, tiny pieces. The movie shows me that when all seems lost, determination and a moment of inspiration can transform loss into victory. I long to believe it is true. I’m willing to try because the movie had clever story elements. It delighted me and made me laugh, so when the hard parts came I was willing to mourn. The story and characters led me through despair and out to a place where people have power over their future. I was able to believe in it because the victory was not free. There was a cost, and for once Disney did not remove that cost once audience tears had been produced. This movie reached inside my heart with its story and unlocked a hidden reservoir of hope that I didn’t even know I had. Tears rolled down my face for half of the credits. They’re rolling now as I write.

This is the power the right story has in a life. Before the movie, I couldn’t see any bright future, after I could believe that one is out there, I just can’t see it from where I’m standing. I need to find the right tool to let me get glimpses of it while I navigate the real world around me. We’ll keep wending our way forward and trusting that the process will help.

It was after midnight when we walked out of the theater. The theater itself is new and full of the most advanced technology currently available. It was just shiny new enough to make me feel as if I were walking through a hallway of Tomorrowland. No one else was there, just Howard and I walking down the empty hall to the exit. I loved that moment too. At home, I got online and ordered a movie replica Tomorrowland pin. I felt a little silly doing so, but I really want to hold one. I want to have a talisman to remind me that bright futures are possible even when it seems that they are not. It is not rational to think a pin can make a difference in my life, but then the things I am struggling against are not rational. Depression and anxiety defy logic, so maybe I need some irrational tools to fend them off.

Tomorrowland is not a perfect movie, but it is exactly the movie I needed right now. It gave me back the belief in bright tomorrows. I will wear my pin and remember that on the days when things are hard.

Book Recommendation: Everything’s Fine by Janci Patterson

I’ve spoken about my friend Janci on my blog before. She’s been a support to me many times serving as an auxiliary brain for everything from massive shipping events to reorganizing my office. Janci has written a book and I want to recommend it to you, not just because she is my friend and I want to support her, but also because it is a really excellent read. If you enjoy contemporary stories about teenagers, then you’ll love this book. Janci has this writing superpower where she takes really complicated human emotions and fills her characters with them. These teenagers are like real teenagers because they don’t always have clear goals. They have conflicting internal motivations which pull them in many directions at once. Ultimately they make hard decisions and drive through to a satisfying emotional resolution.

I read Everything’s Fine on my vacation in June. It kept me up late because I wanted to see how the story ended. I wanted to know what happened to Hailey. I found the blend between current circumstances and memories of Hailey to be deftly handled and often poignant. You can pick up Everything’s Fine on Amazon by clicking that link or on the picture above. While you’re there check out Chasing the Skip which is another excellent book by Janci.

Kira thought she knew everything about her best friend, Haylee. But when Haylee commits suicide immediately after her first date with her longtime crush, Bradley Johansen, Kira is left with nothing but questions, and a gaping hole in her life where Haylee used to be. Kira is sure that the answers to her questions must be written in Haylee’s journal, but she’s not the only one searching for it. The more Kira learns about Haylee’s past, the more certain she is that other people grieving for Haylee are keeping secrets—especially Bradley, and Haylee’s attractive older cousin Nick. Kira is desperate to get to Haylee’s journal before anyone else finds it—to discover the truth about what happened to Haylee— And to hide the things that Haylee wrote down about her.

In Which an 11 Year Old Boy Discovers that a “Girl Book” Can Be Really Good

Me: “Hey Patch, for your reading assignment you need to read a Newbery award book. I think you should read this one.”

Patch: “What’s it called?” he asked turning it over. Then he saw the title, The Princess Academy and paused.

Me: “I know has princess in the title, but I really think you’ll like it.”

Patch: “Okay” sounding doubtful.

Later that evening.

Patch: “I think this should be a read at home book, because I don’t want it to get lost at school.”

Me: “Are you a little embarrassed to take a princess book to school?”

Patch: Long explanation of why he needs to leave the book at home, uses supporting evidence, even though he intends to take a different book to school.

Me: “Also, you’re a little embarrassed to take a princess book to school.”

Patch: Sheepish half-smile. “Yeah.”

Me: “I understand. I don’t really think there are girl books and boy books, just stories. But some people do think that way and I understand if you are worried about getting teased.”

Patch: Nods and begins reading.

The first day, he stuck to his plan. The other book went to school. On the second day, Patch went to his back pack and pulled out the other book.

Patch: Holding up The Princess Academy, “I’m taking this one. It’s really good.”

When I picked him up from school that day he walked slowly to the car because he was reading as he walked. In the car he spun theories about what would happen next and how the mountain folk really should be rich because of all the Linder.

Thus do I begin to teach my son that good stories reside in all sorts of covers. I also begin to teach him that he can identify with a female protagonist and be just as enthralled by her story as by stories which feature boys. And if my son can identify with fictional girls then he can empathize with real life ones. Book by book the world can become a better place.

Altered Perceptions

When I wrote Married to Depression I mentioned Robison Wells whose experiences with mental illness were pivotal in convincing Howard to seek help. The severity of Rob’s struggles far outstrip what Howard and I deal with, yet Rob continues to turn his struggles to good purpose. Thanks to the Affordable Care Act, Rob is now insured for the first time in years, unfortunately he spent most of his diagnosis and treatment cycles with no insurance at all. His mental health related medical debt is large and the weight of that debt increases his struggles with panic disorder. As a person whose anxiety is heavily linked to finances, my heart goes out to him.

This is why I’m supporting the Altered Perceptions anthology. The book will contain my essay Married to Depression. It also has a very personal piece from Howard which illustrates his depression from inside his head. Howard was a little afraid to let me read his piece, because he worried it would make me cry. It did, because it so accurately portrays moments that we’ve had. Most of the anthology will be filled with alternate endings and deleted chapters from many popular book series. The list of authors involved is impressive. I invite you to go take a look and please consider supporting this fundraiser. It can change lives.

FanX This Week

There it is, the thing which has consumed all of my thinking hours since Monday morning. Okay, that’s a bit of hyperbole. The kids got some of my thinking too, but not as much as they usually have. When the thinking runs out, I’ve been diving into watching the episodes of House that I previously skipped. Because unless I bury my brain in some diversion, it will continue to attempt to think about show or booth, only it will do it badly. I will be able to tell that I’m thinking badly and then I will be stressed because what if all of my booth thinking was bad? What if the whole thing is a terrible idea? What if I messed everything up? It goes on from there, not particularly helpful.

So…House, this is a show that I both like and dislike. Many of the characters are pretty terrible people and yet the writers manage to make them sympathetic. Over and over they build the most amazing character arcs, but then in order to build a new arc, they completely dismantle everything done by the old one. I’ve started just pretending the show is a multiverse and what I’m watching are alternative realities that are possible for this set of characters. That way I can imagine the married couple stays married and are happy even though in an alternate reality things are different. I can watch the addict tear all his relationships apart in irreparable ways and then jump to an alternative where those people are still able to be friends. It is working for me, because they really do manage to make unsympathetic characters likeable. Each episode is pretty formulaic, but the characters are compelling to me. Even when I don’t like them.

See? Watching House gives my brain non-fretting thoughts, and that is really valuable this week. Tomorrow FanX begins. It is going to be a long and tiring day, but hopefully a good one. I won’t have brain for blogging, so I scheduled some posts in advance. In hindsight, I should have done that for all of this week instead of just for the three convention days. I can’t think of everything I guess.