Science says: Passionate people are not happy

Z has to practice his cello. But he just wants to talk about how he can’t practice. I’m like, “Just fucking practice, just pick up the cello and practice. You can’t do anything until you practice.”

I’ve been writing about my life with my kids for twenty years, but how can I keep doing it when he tells me he can’t practice because he can’t hear? It’s not interesting to read about someone else’s kids unless it’s about conflict. But this is not a conflict. Because Z thinks his whole life is over. That’s like the conflict of is there a God or is there not? It’s such a big conflict that it’s an absurd thing to write about.

So I don’t just have the problem of dealing with making very large payments on a cello that my kid can’t totally play, or the problem that we have a lawsuit with Uber that is taking so long that I’ll probably be dead before Z sees the settlement. And you never want to have a homeschooled kid who gets a severe brain injury because then you have neurologists asking about your teaching philosophy like you’re some sort of religious nut who is refusing life-saving medicine. I don’t just have these problems. I also have the problem that the only way I know how to cope with my life is to write about it, and I’ve got a kid who is on the edge and it’s very difficult to write about that.

Science tells us it’s predictable that I would have a kid who is a wreck, and science also tells us that I would still find a way to make it all about, but how am I going to write about this? Because I am passionate. Because being passionate is messed up. That’s right. First of all, like all things that are mental disasters, it’s much more common in men. Really. Passion is not a thing women do. Because passion is intrinsically all-consuming and things that are all-consuming screw up everything else in your life. So, let’s see, which gender is most likely to let their passion ruin all their relationships?

Okay. See? Now you get it. Now you can see where I’m going with this, right? It’s an autistic trait to be a woman who is passionate about something to the point that she lets it create imbalance in her life.

So I am a woman who functions more like a man. Which is why most people hate me, but also think I’m interesting as long as they don’t have to spend more than a few hours with me. Maybe no more than one hour if I’m drinking, because who wants to see someone who is already a little too uppity lose their ability to filter? And as a woman/man I have extreme passion and that means I have to write things in order to feel like it happened.

I tell Z, you don’t have to be the world’s best cellist. And it’s fine to play cello because you love it. 

Z says to me, “Mom, you played professional beach volleyball, you write books, you keep doing more startups. How are you talking to me about it’s okay to not be the best?”

I say, “That is so stupid. I failed at everything. I didn’t get to the Olympics. No one cares about my books. And we are not millionaires. Nothing was amazing.”

He says, “You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”

“Fuck it. Shut up.”

I used to say something nicer and more supportive at that point, but we have the conversation so often. I’ve shown him all the data about harmonious (mini)passion vs obsessive (extreme) passion. People who have controlled ambitions spend  reasonable amounts of time on their passion. These people are calm and still when they do something that makes them happy. “Just play music you like and get better at cello at the pace of a normal kid.”

He doesn’t want to be normal. He wanted to be a cello god. I get it. I once harbored a vision of being a god of writing about my life with my kids without having to actually do the normal parenting part.

Now I’m always trying to figure out does he need to sleep, or does he just want to sleep because he wants to sleep for the rest of his life? Is it easier to let him sleep and worry he is sleeping too much or wake him up and worry I am not respecting his need to sleep? Wait. The point is not to make my life easier.

Z keeps asking me what is the point of life. I used to choose words carefully. Now when he asks me what’s the point of life I’m like, fuck it, get out of bed. There is no point. The point is to get up and to keep getting up. I know you are supposed to say something better, with a better tone. But we’re on the second year of this, okay?

When I was dating after my divorce I knew I was in trouble because I wouldn’t date anyone who wouldn’t let me write about them. I realized I love writing so much that I love it more than a relationship. It was so easy for me to connect with Z when he wanted to practice cello eight hours a day so he could attain an extreme level of success.

Now we spend time together finding music that doesn’t have high notes that will hurt his head. And he picks pieces that are definitely not next in line on the pedagogical repertoire. This would be chaos for that level of passion he had. But right now he is trying to function like a normal cello student who is trying to learn to play for fun. And I am trying to function as a normal parent who is trying to learn to do something, anything, for fun.

After a few days we slip back to our old ways. He is playing complex music that needs counting that gives him a migraine. He throws himself on his bed and kicks his feet and pounds his fists into his pillow.

I sit next to him and rub his back while he mumbles things too scary for full sentences.

I say, “I love you so much. Please stay with me, because I only want to write if I can write about people I love.”

He says, “Thanks for finally understanding that I’m only gonna play cello if I can play music I love.”

He closes his eyes and I put my head on his back and he falls asleep on his pillow and I am so careful to stay calm and still. Just like when I held him when he was a baby and if I moved even a little bit he would wake up and I’d have to start all over again.

35 replies
  1. Kitty Kilian
    Kitty Kilian says:

    O, Penelope. I had not realised things were that bad. So sorry. Hope he pulls through.

  2. Cindy
    Cindy says:

    I’m so sorry. I don’t know what to say. Aa mom with sons, I felt this deeply. My heart is in pain for you.

    I had to pray for all of you. I don’t know how you feel about God stuff, but it’s what I had to do after reading this. Peace. Healing. Comfort. Please.

  3. JD
    JD says:

    You’re not alone. It can feel isolating parenting a kid with suicidal ideation. That argument, “Just f-ing get up. You can’t do anything until you get up,” is so very familiar. This is where I say something important and powerful, but that’s not going to happen. It’s good you’re talking with your son. I do think there is no better point than to get up and keep getting up. We keep looking for the fun, and I have hope that we will find it, and that you both will, too.

  4. Chris
    Chris says:

    Check out the new book called Run Towards the Danger by Sarah Polley – she had a serious brain injury (a large fire extinguisher fell on her head as she was bent over, rooting through a lost-and-found box) that left her disabled for years until she encountered a doctor (in the USA) that recommended a different approach than all the rest. Long story short, she was more than 90% recovered within a very few weeks. There’s a chapter in the book devoted to her injury and her recovery. Everyone’s different of course but I hope this helps.

  5. Diana
    Diana says:

    That last part was so tender. It made struggling to read the rest well worth it. Get passionate about the fact that God does indeed exist, Penelope. And all our challenges are not punishments but gifts : opportunities given to us by Satan to help our souls elevate. Then you will be happy. More often anyway. I bet science can prove it. Thanks again for telling me I had no business calling you about business and making me cry when you said I wasn’t willing to do anything hard a year and a half ago. I was listening. I went to every 12-step group I could find on Xoom in L.A. like you said because everybody there thinks they’re story is special too. It’s true. And they all pretty much get on my nerves with they’re petty problems in comparison to mine. Especially the fellow incest survivors. But now I’m studying somatic psychology. And even more basically homeless than I was before, but far less concerned about it. So it worked, evidently. And I really am actually not all that worried about getting married in time to have a baby like you told me I should be. That part I feel fine about leaving up to God. If I remember correctly, there was some woman in the Bible got married when she was like 80 or something, so… anyway. Keep telling that kid the best thing he can do is take it easy. And practice what he Loves. Even if he doesn’t feel like it. Great writing. ❤️

  6. Bettywhitechan
    Bettywhitechan says:

    I am so sorry you are going through this. Please stay strong for your son. Once the settlement money comes through, make sure you put the money in an account that only he can touch and that he won’t start to spend until he becomes an adult. That money will hopefully supplement lost income and help pay for therapy.

    It sounds like playing the cello is making him depressed. Maybe it would be okay for him to stop playing and look for something else that he enjoys.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      It’s so hard to know what to do with the cello. It’s not my decision, of course, what he does with his cello playing. He’s 16. It’s my job to tell him he has to get up and do something. His cello teacher has been incredibly supportive and is one of the most important people in Z’s life right now. The teacher has been just amazing. Also, you could argue that given how little he plays relative to his past, he has already stopped playing and is looking for something else he enjoys. These are all the things I think about. Trying to sort things out and figure out what we’re doing.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah. Still working. And he tells me that work makes him happy. He has an acupuncturist who gave him a thing to do with his hand to stop his head from hurting at work. That helps him a lot. And has made him an inadvertant cross-cultural acupuncture educator.


      • Apple
        Apple says:

        There is so much to grieve in this loss, for both of you.

        Can you explain what if feels like to need to write or else it feels like it didn’t happen? Is this related to the autistic trait of needing / wanting to talk about special interests?

        • Apple
          Apple says:

          I’m sorry, I didn’t mean for this comment to be in response to the above, but rather on its own

  7. Jane Carnell
    Jane Carnell says:

    Hi, Penelope. I have a friend who is even harder to take than you and we have been friends for more than 40 years. I would be your friend, So just know someone would be if needed. But that’s not entirely why I am writing.
    Science is fine but apparently because of science your son feels hopeless. Western medicine is famous for giving diagnoses, which end up being limits set in stone. While eastern medicine is like a weather report, and as we know, the weather is always changing. I say start over with stuff like acupuncture etc, and something called ONE BRAIN and a book called MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl. No one likes a big baby. Passion is not a burden and yes women have it too. It always amuses me when you sometimes parrot the patriarchy despite being too smart to do that. Don’t do it. Humans are passionate. Both men and women. But wanting to be ‘the best’ is ego excess. A dose of Buddhism might come in handy. not as religion but as brain training. I always wanted to write about the people i was surrounded by. They were ‘my material’ and I didn’t care if they hated me for doing that. Now I am not sure about that one. Storytelling is universal and everyone has stories. Even other people. oxoxox Jane

  8. Rachel
    Rachel says:

    Sending you and Z thoughts of support. I’m sorry this is happening. It sounds truly awful. You and your family are so strong and resilient – it makes me think you both will get through this and come out the other side with more abundance somehow. I hope you both have lot’s of support. It can help to be able to talk about dark thoughts with supportive people who have had similar experiences. You guys aren’t alone.

  9. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    We’re all just trying to get by. And giving your kids love and honesty is the core of parenting.

    This post also inspired me to start thinking more about the nuance between passion and enthusiasm. The key is that enthusiasm is a choice, passion seems involuntary.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s a great way to think about it – choice vs. involuntary.

      For people who want to start something really difficult you should ask yourself if it’s in the category of things people choose to star or if it’s not something sane people choose.


  10. Grace
    Grace says:

    Penelope, have you thought about writing a book about raising a cello prodigy? You write a lot about making sure your son focuses on the process, and giving him every chance to be great (even when it was illogical to do so). You always acknowledged that encouraging your kid to be great at what he/she wants to be great at is the heart of schooling/parenting. You did that to the nth degree with Z. Maybe Z will be a successful professional cellist, maybe he won’t. TBD. But the result was never the point. We would love to read a book about your reflections about raising a child prodigy (and the many insane sacrifices you made) once Z is grown.

  11. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    When Z just wants to talk about how he can’t practice, listen and let him talk until he doesn’t have anything else to say. I know you’re doing your best and everything you can do to help him, but he has to work through his severe brain injury himself at his own pace. He’s learning patience and how to adapt to his injury out of necessity. You’re learning how to be available to him at the moment he needs it whenever that may be. It’s difficult for both of you but I have faith both of you will get through it together. The point of life is to be your true self and do your best in the process. The point of life is not to compare our lives with other people but to be grateful for the blessings we do have. We all need to be thankful for each new day regardless of the challenges that may come our way.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Aww. That’s so caring, Mark. I always need reminding to listen. I always want to problem solve. Even tonight Z was upset that people get paid more at work to do much easier jobs. And I went all career coach on him. I need to listen and hug. I need to just listen. So hard for me.


  12. JennG
    JennG says:

    TBIs are really hard. The emotional stuff can also be related to the TBI. It takes a long time. My dad had two brain injuries and both resulted in personality changes.

    I struggled with some health issues that did take my ambitions down in my late teens and early 20s, including arthritis that stopped me from continuing to compete in organ and piano competitions and eventually stop playing at a higher level. I think probably Z. will have to go at his own pace but in hindsight, if I had been able to slow down a bit – slow everything down – practicing, competing, deciding whether to keep going, accept a lighter course load – I might have been able to hold onto more. So that’s a tiny bit of thinking from someone in a similar position.

    I will admit that there is still a whole area of music that I have trouble listening to though, pretty much most of the repertoire I loved to play. I’ll experience it in concert when it’s fully immersive but I can’t listen to recordings of it, not even what were my favourites before.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I appreciate you saying that slowing down would have let you hold on to more. I’ve pushed back so hard on everyone asking me how he spends his time – with undertones of you can do more. And I’ve encouraged him to slow way down. But some days I worry that I feel negligent. It’s so hard to know.


      • Brenda
        Brenda says:

        My heart breaks for you and Z. It is definitely a hard knock life for both of you. Let me remind you that you are a great mom! None of us is perfect; we are crawling through life doing the best we can.

        I remember vividly my son waking me up and telling me that life has no meaning. I just let him talk through it (I was literally shaking thinking he was suicidal). Like you, I was rubbing his back. And let him just talk. Along the way, I learned that he was taking existential philosophy. It scared him.

        Don’t let the Monday Morning Quarterbacks question your parenting. You know him best.

        We do the best we can.

  13. Juliana
    Juliana says:

    These posts about Z are breaking my heart. I don’t know what else to say, but it’s so hard and you will both get through it.

  14. Tiffany
    Tiffany says:

    Life comes in waves. Some waves just last longer than others. I wish you the best. I admire how you are. I know it’s hard to keep patience, but he needs you. It’s exhausting, I know. I do not have a brain injury, but I have severe depression so I can relate to an extent just with some of the feelings he seems to be going through.

  15. Aurora
    Aurora says:

    Your life is turning out like the perfect 21st century fable and maybe now they will make a documentary about your family but now it’ll be a docudrama about the pointlessness of striving for success and trying to hack one’s life to perfection. It’s ironic because you still sell the concepts.

    It’s all really poetic and zen even in its tragedy. Brains are amazing and I hope Z’s heals. And I look forward to your third act, a chance I hope we all get to have.

  16. celestial
    celestial says:

    Today is the one year anniversary of my brilliant niece’s horrific concussion, results of an inexperienced driver crashing into her. B had graduated with a triple major and was set to start law school in the fall of 2021l, focusing on survivors of sexual abuse and rape. Instead, she has had to defer school, give up her beloved job, move, and try to focus on working a remote job 5 hours/day while suffering debilitating migraines. It has been excruciating to see her (she looks great on the outside) because she is functioning at such a different level. She, too, feels like her life is over/useless/not worth living.

    I think of the people in the Ukraine who were one day living a perfectly normal life; working, eating, spending time with family and then the next, in the middle of a war they had no part in. Women and children there are facing lives in transit with little money, not knowing where their husbands might be. They will have to go back to destroyed homes and livelihoods, maybe never able to go on to school or put together their businesses again.

    These are all examples of how life is just not linear, not predictable, not fair. It just is. I grew up with a priest telling me “There is always room on top” and I worked my tuckus off trying to get to that top, whether in math, science, sewing, writing, whatever. In my 20’s I realized that what he said was a lie, a flat out lie. There will always be someone better. There will always be those who are not as good. Part of maturity is realizing that and accepting it.

    Your son is unfortunately learning this at a very young age, at an age where life is challenging enough already. He will get through this, and so will you. There is room for all of us, just where we are.

  17. Doug
    Doug says:

    Penelope, I’ve been reading your column for years, and I love your voice and your honesty. My heart goes out to you for what you and Z are going through. I know that love can’t always save people, but it can help us heal, and I do believe your unconditional, constant love is helping Z to heal and to live. Sending love to both of you, and may you find peace.

  18. abctfamily
    abctfamily says:

    I’m sure you’ve explored a lot of options but we worked with Bette Lamont of NeuroDevelopment Movement:
    She helps people recover after concussions and other brain trauma, including NFL players etc. Her work is fascinating. The program is challenging but gets remarkable results. You might consider reading about it for Z.
    Good luck to you both.

  19. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Sometimes a kiss, a hug, and an understanding nod is all that we can really give that will help.
    Says the father of six who rarely listen to him:)

  20. Scotti
    Scotti says:

    Hi, you coaches me once about 8 years ago. I live in Billings, Mt. There is a chiropractor here that helped (healed it seems right now) my dad immensely with his head injury that was causing early onset dementia. It’s been a year and all symptoms have reversed and he’s back to normal at age 69. He uses an activator and his name is Dr. Fike.

  21. PJ
    PJ says:

    Dear Penelope,

    I’m coming to your blog after not reading it for a while and looking through your old posts.

    My boyfriend was very serious about music until college; he considered going to conservatory but decided against. It is not the same because your son had it taken away from him, but ten years after deciding to quit music, my boyfriend has found another passion and very gainful employment, and he says this year is the happiest of his life.

    I wish a similar path for your son. I know how hard it is to give up on a dream of being the best. I feel for him so much.


  22. Dd
    Dd says:

    You do realize if you’ve a good case with Uber sell the settlement and you don’t wait forever. I did this in lawsuit with city when I fell. It is feasible. But you do need a good case. There are people you can google who’ll buy your settlement and pay you now. Sorry for the accident. You have wonderful successful kids. Be Proud

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