This Is Irony…

One week ago, I wrote a list of the good things about my father. In the course of the week that has passed since then, I have decided to take a break from contact with him. Yes, something triggered the decision, but the details don’t matter. I’m writing about it, here, because improving my mental health and becoming a mother have made me extremely protective of the my peace.

I have never felt this good in my entire adult life, in an everyday sense. I can’t remember feeling this good since before elementary school, but that’s another issue. My first psychiatrist once told me that his goal for me was for me to live without daily anxiety. I laughed at him. For years. Yeah, right, buddy! Keep dreaming! I’m not there yet. But I can see it. I can taste it. I will get there. The idea knocks my freaking socks off. I imagine that seeing the finish line must have this effect on people who run races. “Holy crap, I’m not going to die before I make it?! Let’s go!” I don’t expect to wake up tomorrow, free from anxiety. This is hard work. It’s also me. There is something inside me that will not quit. I am proud of who I am.

In order to be the mother that I want to be, and in order to have the energy to do the basic mothering required of me on a daily basis, I need to protect the progress that I have made. New fears, new boogeymen, new threats, have no place in my new life. I cannot afford to believe, as my father does, that evil waits around every corner.

My father does not believe that his mental health will improve, via medication or work on his part. He has said this, in so many words. Last time I spoke to him, he laughed about how starkly my optimism contrasts with his pessimism. For a time, he spent his waking hours studying conspiracy theories that Hitler and Stalin had worked together to kill even more people than the very worst estimates of the Holocaust have calculated. That year, I bought him a book on the subject for Father’s Day. I couldn’t think of anything else that he might enjoy. I mention this, because it’s important to note that, in the world my father occupies, it does not surprise him to find evil, whether on a massive or petty scale. He also finds it fascinating, sometimes. Let me be very clear on something, now: my father is allowed to feel whatever it is that he feels. If he feels afraid all day and all night, and evidently his nightmares are terrifying as well, then that simply makes my heart ache for him. If he wants to talk about “killing fields” and Stalin and conspiracy theories, I really don’t mind listening.

My boundary is very specific, and I have asked for him to respect it. All that I need to know to keep talking to my dad is that he will not ask me to feel afraid, too.

The problem is, I don’t think that he can see that line.

There is a long and exhausting history of my dad demanding that I fear people and even places; he once threatened to never speak to me again if I didn’t “share his history.” I just don’t have the energy to repeat most of that narrative, and I think it would cause me more pain to relive it. It has been years since my father attempted to spread a new narrative with a new evil for all of his loved ones to fear. I didn’t think he could shock me, anymore. But he has a new theory, and there’s a new threat. I find myself shocked. I feel so very angry.

At the moment, my father is asking that his loved ones feel afraid, with him, about a clear and present danger that only he is able to detect. It reminds me of the time he tried to convince his daughters that “many years” of terrible events would happen and that only people who belonged to our religion would “make it,” so we should “prepare” to see our unenlightened loved ones suffer. (I can’t even find what it was that he twisted into this theory–there’s nothing in our religion but love, hope and an emphasis on the individual‘s inner path.) This time, my own mind doesn’t even contain the kind of fear that he is trying to spread.

I don’t think he reads this. I told him that it exists, and I strongly advised that it would trigger his illness to read about parenting and mental health. I warned him that I mention my mother in this space; despite the fifteen years that have passed since they divorced, he believes that she is evil and terrifying. That idea is patently absurd, so it’s best if he doesn’t read any of my loving stories about her. If he does read this, I’m sorry to say that this is how he’ll be finding out that I’m taking a three-month break from communicating with him. But telling someone that you’re not talking to them is sort of absurd in general and, in this case, I don’t see what good could come of it. We don’t talk often enough for a three-month silence to worry him.

I don’t want to punish him. I just want to protect my life from the kind of fear he is spreading, right now. Years ago, I accepted the idea that evil could strike at any moment as a sort of given. Isn’t that sad? And isn’t it exciting that I don’t live that way, anymore? My father is the only person in my life, now, who threatens to introduce a Huge [manufactured] Crisis out of the clear blue sky. I deal very well in an actual crisis. If something bad actually happens to someone I love, I don’t resent feeling a little afraid or anxious about it. That’s part of life. I love my life! I have so many loved ones! Sadness or fear is bound to come up. So, for clarity’s sake, again, let me say that I am protecting myself from my father’s ability to introduce dangers that are somehow very specific and still undefined. The “bad things” he warned us about were going to happen starting in 2005, I think. He was very specific about the year, even if I can’t remember it. But as for what we were supposed to fear, it could be anything from natural disasters to war to a higher crime rate. In general. What in the heck is anyone supposed to do with that kind of information? The only thing you can do is feel afraid, and probably paranoid. Paranoia is a big part of his illness. This is what I cannot allow, anymore. I don’t have the spare energy, and my peace of mind is too important to me to let him threaten it.

I’m writing this all out, in part for me, but in part as a reminder that surrounding ourselves with people who are healthy and kind is a really big help in the healing process. His behavior does not set me back or impede my ability to mother. I am in responsible for my own feelings. But it takes enormous energy to deal with someone who is screaming about danger, even when I know that there is none. I don’t want to give any more of my energy to that, especially when my father’s illness makes it nearly impossible for him to even take much interest in my life. When we talk, we talk about him. Usually about the movies he’s seen. If he has something big to say, he writes email.

My idea, moving forward, is that we communicate only by letters, after my three-month break. I can choose not to open a letter. I can give it to my therapist to read and filter out important information. An email stares at me (I check my email rather obsessively) and the phone is too unpredictable, even for him. We already reserve the phone for holidays. I haven’t seen him in four years, and any visits we do make are limited by him to several hours, maximum.

I miss the dad I described a week ago, but he’s gone. I can’t bring him back. My father, as he is now, is a toxic presence. I’m sad that he lives this way. I can’t convince him that my world is safe, nor can I convince him to stop insisting that it is unsafe.

Summer, 2006. I miss you, Dad. I pray that we find peace in our relationship.

Summer, 2006. I miss you, Dad. I pray that we find peace in our relationship.

The Good in My Dad

Today I examine the good in my dad. I don’t think he reads this, and I don’t think that it would be a great idea for him to read it. The reasons are too wrapped up in his story, which is not my story to tell. I will say that I wish he were healthy and whole.

I still have hope, Dad, that you will feel some peace, soon. I am so proud of you for not working hard, despite all the times the doctors have failed you. I am so proud of you for trusting your amazing wife and the new doctors who seem to have their hearts in a better place.

I don’t like to say that anyone “gave” me traits, because, beyond brown eyes and your mother’s skin, I have worked hard to become the person I am. I do see your stubbornness in myself. We share a passion and focus that allows us to give ourselves over to wonderful “projects” like poetry, music, even movies. We also share an ability to tunnel our vision in a way that can produce amazing results or make us the last to realize that we have been wrong.

I love that you appreciate my optimism and my willingness to open up that tunnel vision if I suspect that I’ve been wrong. I’m so glad that you can love that about me, even though you seem to revel in pessimism.

I love that you watch all of the special features on DVDs you’ve enjoyed.

I love that you have recorded your voice singing your daughters’ favorite songs, and songs for your grandchildren, too. I love that you worked so hard to get those songs just right, and that you sent them off to us, even though you can still point out everything that you don’t like about the arrangements. You may be able to hear every note that required computerized correcting, but I just hear my Daddy singing me a lullabye. [Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel)” – my dad has very particular taste.]

I love that you work so hard to find a point of contact with your very particular taste in music and movies and literature with your daughters’ less <ahem> discerning taste.

I love that you have been so ready to love again, after a lifetime of disappointment–my incredible stepmother, Nathan, the grandson you haven’t met, yet.

Thank you for Uncle Walt [Whitman], Emily Dickinson and Robert Frost. For telling me to write and revise my own poetry, and taking my writing as seriously as I did, even when I was still learning to spell.

Thank you for all those hours around the piano or guitar with The Beatles, Les Mis, Christmas carols, and even Disney songs, Sarah McLaughlin, Ani DiFranco and Liz Phair.

Thank you for explaining what makes a good cup of coffee.

Thank you for sharing the novels you love, by F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edith Wharton, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Victor Hugo, and the novels you never had a chance to read, by Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Ernest Hemingway, the Brontes, Dickens.

Thank you for sharing so many stories from your own life and our time together, even if that happens over the phone, now.

Thank you for encouraging me to explore worlds you knew, before I did, that you would never see. Thank you for waiting until I had grown up to show any sign of regret that you could not follow me.

I wish that you could visit my world, because I live in a safe world, now, surrounded by peace and respect.

I carry you in my heart, always.

My favorite picture of us. You helped me go exploring, even while my steps were still unsteady.

My favorite picture of us. You helped me go exploring, even while my steps were still unsteady.

Proud Welfare Mom: WIC vs SNAP

:::UPDATE – This post was written in 2013. Much has changed in our lives since it was written, but I remain proud of my family, and we do remain both dependent on and grateful for government services provided through the Connecticut Department of Social Services. Please read other Proud Welfare Mom posts. If you comment here only to vent rage or hate, I will delete your comment. If you have something to say that might help someone or further discussion, I will try to reply. The comments I receive on this page make me question humanities, some days. Be human beings. :::

I’m putting on my Proud Welfare Mom hat today to explain the difference between WIC and SNAP (food stamps). It’s really important, and really confusing. I’ll do my best.

**Disclaimer: I am not trained to explain any of this to anyone, or to help anyone apply. My experience is limited to the Connecticut Department of Social Services only.**

First, it’s important to understand that WIC is a special kind of “welfare” program. The acronym is for Women Infants and Children. It’s the most basic of safety nets, in that the purpose of WIC is to make sure that pregnant women, infants and very young children receive very basic nutrition (milk, eggs, bread) for low-income families. You can qualify for WIC if your income is below a certain amount. Other WIC requirements include: living in the area of the office you’re applying through, and a few other things. The most important thing about WIC, though, and what makes it such a basic safety net, is that you don’t need to prove that you’re a US citizen or a documented immigrant to qualify, meaning that the US government realizes that the most very basic nutrition for pregnant women and children under five-years-old is good for society at large. Or, if you are cynical, it is cheaper to provide basic nutritional assistance for the most vulnerable population than to provide health care after they show up in our emergency rooms.

Unlike WIC, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as and still informally referred to as “food stamps,” requires a rather lengthy application and many more eligibility requirements. It is not just for the basics, but for groceries in general. Very unlike WIC, you can’t even receive SNAP benefits unless you’re a US citizen or have lived here legally for at least five years. That’s probably because SNAP is much more expensive–a family of three, like mine, can receive about $500 per month. That’s not what we get, but you can imagine that it adds up.

One of the stranger questions asked on the "adjustment" form I'm currently filling out to continue receiving SNAP benefits.

One of the stranger questions asked on the “adjustment” form I’m currently filling out to continue receiving SNAP benefits.

You’ll notice that I didn’t mention a dollar amount for WIC. This is the second important difference between WIC and SNAP; WIC benefits include a book of “checks,” or vouchers, for specific foods, to be used at specific stores, while SNAP provides money for food in general, at a variety of stores and even, in some states, restaurants. WIC checks are so complicated to use that my husband and I have never managed, between the two of us, to make it through the checkout process at a grocery store without encountering some sort of problem. Right brand, wrong type of bread–“Yes, you did get the 12 grain bread last time, but that was in December. Now, it’s a new year and we only allow the Whole Wheat from that brand.” If we don’t get everything that’s been printed on the check, or if the store is simply out of stock, then we are out of luck. Nothing organic is allowed. Keep in mind that we are over-educated, native English speakers, and we have a really hard time navigating this process. When my therapist asked me why WIC made me feel angry, infantalized and humiliated, I showed her the booklet explaining which foods we are and are not allowed to get. She made several mistakes trying to understand the first two pages. 

Why is WIC so complicated? Because it involves negotiations between the states and food manufacturers. The state asks companies to submit bids and accepts whatever it can get for the least amount of money. Big companies can usually afford to provide the deepest discounts. WIC makes a list of those foods and prints it on our vouchers. The stores must then write down the dollar amount, send in the vouchers and wait to receive compensation. For that reason, if we wanted formula from WIC, we could only get Enfamil. If we chose to use the vouchers they give us for jars of baby food, we could only get certain “flavors” of the Beech Nut brand. Babies who are breastfed can get the jars of meat, but babies who are formula fed can only get the fruit and veggie jars. Why? Because they only allow iron-enriched formula. Breastfed babies need the iron in the jars of meat, presumably. Just for the record, our local WIC office encourages breastfeeding with warmth and enthusiasm, and I love them for it. Every three months, we go to the office and sit down with the booklet and a nutritional counsellor and choose from our options. We are apparently unusual for choosing the tofu option. Everyone receives vouchers for gallons of milk. I don’t know how anyone goes through that much milk. It’s supposed to be on of my main sources of protein, unfortunately.

We're enjoying organic berries this summer, thanks to SNAP.

We’re enjoying organic berries this summer, thanks to SNAP.

WIC is stuck in the distant past in its nutritional suggestions (processed cereals, juice from concentrate, skim milk for protein, etc.) because highly processed foods are cheaper. Organic is more expensive. I wasn’t really that angry about “Big Agra” and corporate food until I saw for myself the way low-income families get stuck with the worst options, simply because they are the cheapest to manufacture and contain foods heavily subsidized in farming (corn and corn products are in absolutely everything). Frosted Flakes (generic, processed corn, sugary) are allowed, while steel-cut oatmeal (high in protein, hardly processed) is not. We can only get the most heavily processed hot cereals, too.

SNAP allows us complete freedom in what we buy; it simply limits the amount of money we are allowed to spend. We fill out mountains of paperwork, and the Department of Social Services determines how much money we should receive. They put it on an “EBT” card that we swipe and use with a PIN, just as through it were attached to our bank account. It took me months of waiting and hours on the phone to get that amount adjusted after Walt was born, because someone, somewhere, had failed to type in his social security number. Now that we have received the money we ought to have been allotted in the first place, I can feed my child organic products. Because we prefer to eat unprocessed foods in general and because, in the store itself (as opposed to in the board room, where WIC is negotiated), vegetables are cheaper than anything else, we eat well on that amount.

In Connecticut, the only restriction we’ve encountered on what we buy using our SNAP money is on prepared foods. Oddly, we can’t use it for the salad bar at Whole Foods, but we can use it for the sushi they package and sell in a cooler right in front of the counter where they prepare the sushi. I don’t really understand the restrictions, but I love SNAP. Whatever it doesn’t cover just comes up as a balance. It’s easy for everyone, as though you were splitting the bill onto two cards.

You can use your SNAP card at any grocery store, whereas WIC vouchers may only be used at stores who have agreed to participate. Cashiers don’t need to understand any rules or call over managers for any signatures when we use our SNAP card, but WIC vouchers require both. We can always use our SNAP card at farmers’ markets and even receive an extra $10 to spend on fruits and vegetables when we “spend” at least $10, there. WIC has just started giving out checks for the market, but they are few and far between.

I’ve surpassed 1200 words and have also reached the limits of my patience. I’m happy to answer any questions, though! Ask away!

One more thing: I am proud of myself for navigating all the paperwork and time on the phone required to get my family the help we need. I am still struggling with feelings of shame in actually using that help. I can’t handle WIC checks at all. Nathan does it all, so that I don’t have anxiety attacks in the aisles of Wal-Mart (a company I hate, but the only place where the cashiers know what they’re doing regarding WIC). My emotional response is complicated. Money is hard for everyone to deal with, even people who have lots, in my experience. I’m hoping that talking about it will help me and anyone else who happens across this space.