Light and Dark

As the joy of the holidays subsided, the dark days of winter took hold.  Truly, the last few days of 2016 brought death to a close and disconcerting distance.  It stepped in and stayed until as recently as last week.  And still, it lingers.

I’d pulled my black leather pumps from their shelf high in the closet.  I’d arched my inner soles into their uncomfortable embrace.  I’d released my tired, swollen toes from their pinch at the end of the day.  But I’d yet to return them to their box; death would not let me store them away for the next black dress event.

There was another, and another.

A year of new life was marred by the loss of three precious ones.

Death is always waiting in the wings – but I’m comforted by the thought that their spirits fly in the wind that catches our breath and reminds us we’re alive.

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I’m Baaack

I remember peeling off the cocoon of my bulky winter jacket one of the first times I came here.

Perching nervously on the edge of one of these same chairs.

Feeling completely vulnerable and exposed.

Wanting desperately for someone to mold me back together – yet not touch me.  Not look at me.  Not judge me.

For my weaknesses, my failures, my inability to just be.

It’s been awhile.  But I’m back.  And so are all the same feelings.

Let-down. Easily?

The excitement I felt as a child spying Christmas lights through the trees, the twinkling points brightening the darkness, a magical apparition amidst a black backdrop – to say that’s gone away as I’ve gotten older would be a lie. It may have dimmed, but it hasn’t disappeared altogether.

Long drives to relatives’ houses, country roads turned unfamiliar by nightfall, the conical Christmas trees aglow in the windows we pass become the markers, the golden deer high on a hill the waypoints.

Our family traveled to one relative’s house both Christmas Eve and the following Saturday. The same route, the same sparkling spectacles, but somehow, within the space of a few days, the lights had lost their magic.

What once signaled possibility, now was a sad reminder that it was over; the points of light now a poignant prompt of what was. Looking at those lights depressed me in a way I couldn’t name. Not in the way it may have as a child, if Santa hadn’t brought me the one thing I coveted. Or knowing the time of unlimited treats was over. Perhaps because all the preparation leading up to that one day, all the hours reduced to a mere twenty-four, passed by in a flash. There was nothing now to which to look forward.

The lights would soon go out. The joyous strains of Christmas carols would end. The bleak days of winter would set in.

The end of the season is capped with the celebration of New Years’, but that’s always depressed me nearly as much – if not more.

A time to recount what we’ve done wrong during the past year, our mistakes, opportunities missed, amazing moments gone. Waiting in a suspended state, on edge, for – a kiss? A hangover? A mess of confetti to clean up? To wake up the next morning bleary eyed and cranky. What an auspicious way to herald a new beginning. The fact that, for years, New Years’ also signalled the end of vacation for me and the restart of my teaching schedule certainly didn’t help. That was anxiety-inducing and depressing in and of itself.

The whole of the time period between Christmas and New Years’ is a weird dead zone. There no longer is the excuse or mask of Christmas to impel us to at least fake happiness. There is a winding down, a let-down – with the building stress of creating a killer list of resolutions, ways to make our flawed selves better, to overcome our frail ways, to defeat the demons plaguing us for years in this one year. No pressure.

There is a hollow space in my chest during this time. A sadness somewhere behind my eyes and down in my throat. It is a return to normal. A return to a time with no distractions. While stressful with its added expectations and tasks, the time leading up to the holidays gives lots else to think about – rather than our problems. Or at least a good way to avoid them. Now it’s back to ‘ordinary time’.

And while that may not be the designation on the Church calendar at this time, that’s what it feels like to me. No longer extraordinary.

I know if I remove the decorations, the piles of gifts, the social commitments, there is the ultimate fulfillment of my wildest expectation in the birth of Christ. In the silence that follows all the earthly tumult is His quiet peace. I know I’m missing the point if I mistake the silence for sadness, when it should be taking me truly to the heart of the season, the true meaning. Perhaps that’s what the hollow is – the fact that I am missing it. But it is sometimes hard to cross the bridge between knowing and feeling – not because I do not want to, but because my body, or brain chemicals, or something won’t let me.

There is always the problem of unrealistic expectation. If I go from moment to moment, living it for what it is, sucking the marrow out of this minute, rather than anticipating the next, I will enjoy rather than lament. But I’ve always found it hard to balance preparation and mindfulness.

A couple of things I may try:
gratitude jar

Reading these next New Years’ Eve would put a positive focus on the end of the year, what I’ve gained and experienced rather than what will be lost.

Also, viewing the holidays in the terms put forth in this post from Life at the Circus would help keep my perspective from being skewed negatively and keep the absence out of the space after the holiday.  It may even keep me from feeling less in the pressure to make New Years’ resolutions.

May you all continue to see and feel the light of the season – even in the darkness behind your closed eyes. May you find ways to make that light last throughout the year to come.

Psychosis Sucks

Information on symptoms and treatment of psychosis – Fraser Health Authority.

You may want to spend some time perusing this website.  Its brilliant title is not its only merit.  A pharmacist specializing in mental health brought it to my attention.  Great tool kit.

Solitary Confinement

 

It’s not that I didn’t believe her . . .

My therapist told me that, while I may have had underlying anxiety for years, it hadn’t presented itself until I had one, two, three children because up until that point, it had been manageable. I could handle it. I’d organically and subconsciously found coping mechanisms. The fact that I could no longer manage it didn’t signal failure, but a new tenor to my life that was above and beyond – and that wasn’t going to change anytime soon. I balked at taking medication to control it, but she pointed out that there is nothing I can do to control the level of stress that accompanies three children – while I can assist my bodily systems and psyche with medication.

Intellectually, I understood it. I trusted her and her care. But there was a part of me that didn’t truly want to buy it. The control freak in me raged. I can do this! Even while popping the pills, I thought somehow, someday, I’d overcome this. I’d whip that three-kid schedule and lifestyle into shape and surmount the odds.

Then one day, four years, ten months into the anxious maelstrom that had become my life, I found myself alone. There was movement, noises on the edges of my consciousness, but it was gentle, distant. My husband came to kiss me goodbye before leaving for work and then I was truly alone.

I debated going back to sleep, but figured I’d be in that half-conscious state that would leave me feeling worse than if I’d gotten up early. I did roll around in my head various scenarios of what I might do with my time, but more mind blowing than my options sans kids was the quality of the time sans kids; that is, unfettered. There were things I wanted to do, things I should do, but nothing I absolutely had to do. For several hours, the majority of this fine day, I had to answer to no one.

I could eat when I felt like it. Nap when I felt like it (which I did end up doing to counteract the non-sleeping-in). Pee when I felt like it. I could open that new bag of crispy treats at midday and eat as many as I wished without vultures swooping down upon me. I could concentrate unencumbered on the tutorial for a new software program that’s been languishing on my desktop for lack of time (and be inspired to take said nap before returning to it 😉 )

There’s no such thing as perfection. I did need to intersperse my chosen activities with household duties due to the threat of family members coming to see the house for the first time. But even that may have been a blessing in disguise, as I finally found a home for the mound of summer attire that had taken over a chair in my room – which, again, would never have happened had I not been alone.

It was at some point during all this alone time, however, that I sat on the couch and stared at the gloomy scene out the rain-speckled window. I was still tired, I was still mushy-mush. I wasn’t channeling Gene Kelly in all my solitary resplendence. I was still the non-prioritizing, neurotic perfectionist able to unravel at the drop of a hat if things didn’t go according to plan.

The thing was – the plan was much more likely to stay stuck without three little whirling dervishes to spin it apart from the inside out. And if not, I could adjust accordingly, changing course according to my needs and neurosis. Or just chill out for the day until my thin skin thickened up accordingly.

It’s so much easier when things fall apart for one person than a whole tribe. And much easier to put the pieces back together. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that the whole tribe does not fall apart; in a poignantly fortunate way, I suppose, just its leader. And when it’s up to the leader to keep the tribe together, her own loose pieces rattle together until she has a day alone.

And since those days are few and far between, medication it is. At least I don’t drug alone.

 

No Such Thing as a Coincidence?

 

“There are no mistakes, no coincidences. All events are blessings given to us to learn from.”   ~ Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

For the most part, I believe this.

Yes, we could drive ourselves crazy analyzing every bit of beef for meaning – when, indeed, it simply may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato” (Dickens, A Christmas Carol) – rather than a spectre of our own fate to come.

But I do believe the universe serves us up soul food at precisely the time we are starving. If we take the time to really see the menu.

Over the last four years, there have been moments I’ve really hated the concept behind this platitude. What kind of sadistic universe would send me depression and anxiety to teach me a lesson? Some would say such a struggle is meant to bring me closer to God, to trust in His care since I could not do it alone. Some would say it equips me to communicate with and possibly console others in a similar situation. Maybe it was meant to break me, to distill me down to my most raw entity to make me grateful for all I have despite all I’ve suffered. I don’t know the grand scheme of things and how I fit in. I wouldn’t be able to offer a treatment of it in one blog entry anyway.

Yesterday, though, as I listened to my priest reveal the healing power of an exorcism he’d performed (yeah, mind-blowing), I suddenly felt the pull of the universe on the strings of my soul. In thanking God for the gift of the human being in front of him, the evil harbored inside that being – whether in the form of guilt, regret, or an actual demon – was excised, freeing the person to live in love.

Now, before you sign me up for an exorcism, no, I am not possessed. Not by a demon, anyway. But as I listened to my pastor, I realized the shame and resentment I’ve harbored this long journey since the birth of my third daughter. The blame I’ve laid on myself for ‘succumbing’ to depression. The weakness I felt I exhibited by allowing myself to feel anxiety. The overall failure to be the master of my own body. The alternate guilt and anger at having such a beautiful life – aside from mental illness – and not being able to appreciate it.

So another platitude: acceptance is the first step?

I’m not sure where I’ll go from here or how much I’ve truly learned from this coincidence, but it’s a starting point. The answer, I know, has something to do with mercy – for myself.

The Scar

The title drew me in.

The way the red background swallowed the illustration of the small boy on the cover.

I was in tears by the time I was partway through the book.

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The Scar, by Charlotte Moundlic, is the story of a young boy preparing for, experiencing, and ultimately surviving the death of his mother.

This leaves a metaphorical and literal scar on him.  When he falls and scrapes his knee after his mother’s death, he remembers how she used to soothe him.  When the scrape starts to heal before he does, the boy keeps scraping at it to keep the comfort of his mother alive.

It was around this point that I really started crying.

Death, loss, self-mutilation – what kind of children’s book was this?

For the child who’s lost a parent, exactly the kind that needs to be written.

There’s no shielding those children from the pain, the hurt, the ugly truth.  They live the nightmare.

I was reminded of a man in a writer’s intensive that I took who told the story of student with special needs who found nearly every task throughout his day difficult.  He wanted students like him to read a story about them.  Even though it might be a difficult story to tell, a difficult story to read, there were children who needed a narrative to which they could relate, a way to know they weren’t the only ones to have experienced this.  They were not alone in the universe.  Maybe there were even people who overcame their difficult obstacle.

And while extremely poignant and slightly heartbreaking, The Scar does end on a positive note.  The boy, though always sure to miss his mother, allows the scar to begin to heal.

So what on the surface once seemed revolting, is now something we can look at without cringing – and, for some children, is absolutely essential.

All the Rage

In the months that followed the birth of my third child, and things got increasingly harder rather than easier, I joked that it was a good thing I was nursing since, otherwise, I’d be a raging alcoholic.

It wasn’t until months later that I realized how true that statement was.

Per what seems to be an emerging theme (re: pertinent, but heretofore hidden, family mental health history), I’ve been learning more and more of the role – genetic and otherwise – that alcoholism has played in my family.

Several relatives on both my maternal and paternal sides, going one, two, three generations back, have suffered from alcoholism.  Or mental illness resulting in alcoholism.

There are a few instances, at least, in which I know that relatives ingested alcohol as a means of self-medication (which apparently research has shown men are more likely to do than seek out professional help).  I can’t speak to the exact motivation as it wasn’t mine, but I wonder if it had something to do with an admittance of a problem, a need for help, being seen as a sign of weakness.  Or the oblivion of an alcoholic high allowing one to deny the pain or problem in the first place.

Receiving the various members of a raucous family after a long, exhausting day, sitting down to a dinner made in fits and starts, complained about for not having the right ingredients or all the wrong ones, enduring the wall of noise, the interrupted conversations, the fights, the ignored directions and requests, knowing an hour of wrestling wily alligators into pajamas and bed lies between you and relaxation – that goes down much easier with a side of adult beverage.

But when I found that it wasn’t just easier, but more enjoyable; that I was in a better mood, an altered mood, with alcohol, I began to wonder if there was a problem if I needed a drink to enjoy it, not just endure it.

Then one day, after a heinous day at home – not that the behavior of the children was exceptionally horrible, but my state of mind certainly was – I opened the fridge to get probably the two-hundred-and-fifty-seventh cup of chocolate milk of the day and saw a lone bottle of beer left from the weekend.  It was mid-afternoon, not five o’clock somewhere.  It wasn’t a hot summer day.  I hadn’t just picked up some salty smattering of take-out.  I knew if I drank it then, I’d be drinking it for all the wrong reasons.

Sure, it would be a treat like the bowl of ice cream I’d savor on the couch after the kids went to bed.  But just like I shouldn’t reward myself with food, so I shouldn’t soothe myself with beverage.

When I made that ill-fated joke way back when, my father shot right back at me with a quick retort.

“You know that saying, ‘You kids are driving me to drink’?  There’s a reason for it.”

It’s easy to fall prey to the societal more that a tough day deserves a drink.  It’s also important to know your family history and your own limitations and take those into account.  I’m so paranoid and so self-aware and nursed for so damn long 😉 that I don’t think I’d let alcohol become a problem.  But does anyone with a drinking problem set out with that goal in mind?

Some of the happiest drunks I’ve known were the ones with the deepest hurts inside.  Hopefully someday there’ll be a way to heal all the psychological and physical ailments of alcoholism.

Laugh So You May Not Cry

My grandmother came from a large first-generation Irish-American family.  All blessed with a wicked, but subtle sense of humor and superb poker faces, it was easy for their humor to run under the radar.

But what if the humor itself hid something below the surface?

One of her siblings, a woman I never met due to her premature death and my postponed birth, made dear through family love and lore, apparently had the sharpest wit imaginable.  She brought joy wherever she went and had everyone in stitches.

When I was older, I learned that she had suffered from depression.  My first inclination was to think how ironic that was given her ability to inject laughter into any situation, but I realized that made her the perfect candidate, then, for family comedian.

It made sense that the person with the most pain to hide would be the one who needed the most diversion; both keeping her mind off her own problems and drawing others’ attention away from them.

It’s easier to crack a joke than to admit you’re trying so hard to force a smile your face might crack.  It takes less energy to make a witty remark drawing a laugh than dealing with the awkward silences and looks of pity.  There’s less mental energy and anguish in concocting playful banter than constructing a viable explanation for your moods.

My senior English teacher, who later became a mentor as I prepared for an education career myself, when dealing with a particularly challenging class or situation, would say, ‘Laugh so you may not cry.’  I quoted that line as I waited out the next contraction in my difficult third labor.  My midwife couldn’t believe I still had that attitude at that point in the game.  ‘You have to, right?’ I asked.  ‘Not everyone does, though, Jen,’ she answered.

I had to.

Not finding some bright spot, some positive attitude, was akin to curling up in a ball and dying.  And that was not an option.  So, then, there really was no choice.  By process of elimination, grinning and bearing it was the only way to move forward.

Whether it’s an avoidance tactic or a coping mechanism, humor gets a lot of people through their days.  And from that deep, dark place of truly authentic experience comes some damn good material.

The Perfect Storm

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When my husband and I learned of the imminent arrival of our third child, we were in shock.  Yes, we knew how things worked.  Yes, we’d always considered, even expected, a third child.  No, we were not ready for it right then.  After our second was born, we said we’d definitely want to wait until she was older than our first had been before we welcomed number three, which was just over two and a half.    The best laid plans . . .

Our second was eighteen months old when we found out I was pregnant.  In the weeks that followed, we walked around in a stupor.  As I went about my daily activities caring for the kids, I would find myself staring into space, lost in thoughts of third car seats, reconfiguring furniture in our already small house, finances, schedules.  The phone would ring – my husband calling from work – and we would stare into space together, our shock suspended in the telephone lines.  We knew we wanted this child and loved it already, but were totally caught off-guard by its timing.

It was also a difficult time in my extended family.  My uncle was battling a terminal brain tumor.  My announcement to my mother was made by way of my explanation for not visiting the ICU.  He died a few days later.  Four months later, my cousin was killed in a motorcycle accident.  My grandmother’s devastation was complete.  My mother’s own grief was wrapped up in worry for her mother.

Somehow, the days wound on, the months passing.  Caring for two children while carrying my third was starting to take its physical toll.  The usual aches and pains of pregnancy were amplified.  My left hip and pelvis were giving me more pain than ever.  As my due date approached, I felt extreme pressure, a heaviness, different than impending labor.  Having nothing to compare it to, I just assumed it was my body’s worn-out response to doing this a third time.

In the delivery room, my midwife asked me if there’d be a fourth if we had another girl.  “I hope not,” I’d said.  By the time I was pushing, I was sure there wouldn’t be.  Even after two natural births, I’d never experienced anything like it.  I actually uttered the words that infuriate me when I hear them in television portrayals of labor: “I can’t do this.”  But somehow I did.  And the nurses placed a perfect little girl in my arms.

I’d like to say all the shock and worry evaporated as soon as I saw her face.  She was gorgeous, I loved her, but I almost felt like a stranger observing the scene from afar.  I still hadn’t wrapped my head around the idea of starting over again with a third child.  And I wouldn’t get a chance to right away.  In the hours and days following her birth, a new challenge presented itself: getting out of bed.

When the nurse came to get me the next morning, she asked if it was the first time I’d been out of bed.  “No,” I answered, nonplussed, until I saw her face as she watched me move.  My walk was more of a shuffle, getting in and out of bed was slower than glacial melt.  Finally, after many such episodes throughout the day, she said, “Maybe we should send you for an x-ray to make sure you didn’t break anything.”  Break anything?  You’re not supposed to break anything when you have a baby – except your water.  Now she was making me nervous.

An x-ray confirmed her suspicions – and my pain.  I had a slight case of diastasis symphysis pubis.  Thank God it was slight because it meant the ligaments in my pubic bone had separated.  And as slight as it was, it was excruciating.

Once the adrenaline wore off and the soreness settled in, I couldn’t roll over in bed without crying.  It took me 45 minutes to get out of bed early one morning when I didn’t wake my husband or call the nurse.  My father brought me the old karate belt I’d left at their house to lash my legs together as I rotated them off the bed to come up to sitting.  Hip adduction was simply impossible.

My husband had taken two weeks’ vacation to help with the baby.  He didn’t know that, in addition, he’d be doing everything for the other kids, washing and folding clothes, preparing food, and helping me to and from the car like a little old lady.  The helplessness that can afflict a new mother was magnified ten-fold by my handicap.

I told my mother-in-law, “I’m finding it hard not to feel sorry for myself.”

She said, “I don’t blame you.”

Her answer surprised me.  Were things really that bad that I should be feeling sorry for myself?

Apparently so.  I worked my way into some sort of routine with a newborn who fed at no particular time, a preschooler who had to be in school at a precise time, and a toddler who took off her shoes and socks whenever she felt like it.  Weekly visits to a physical therapist worked me through a regimen that gave me a tenuous, yet workable, physicality.  And yet, four months after the baby’s birth, I still couldn’t cope.

I would reach my breaking point over hair elastics stretched to theirs over the top of a dining room chair.  God help the poor soul who dumped out the basket of toys I just filled.  My two oldest would jump when I started screaming at the top of my lungs out of seemingly nowhere over seemingly nothing.  I felt like a pot about to boil over and I was trying desperately to keep the lid on tight.  It was a particularly grueling drop-off at preschool one morning that crystallized everything.

Sleet was just turning to snow as we pulled into the parking lot.  I strapped the baby into the baby carrier on the front of me and moved around to the other side of the car.  My toddler had already taken off the hat and mittens I’d fought to get on her at the house.  I reached into the back seat where the preschooler was seated to depress the red button on her harness, instructing her to unclip the top part while I redressed the toddler’s extremities.

“I can’t, Mommy,” came the plaintive cry from the back seat as she stared out the window at the passing kids.  I instructed her to focus on what she was doing and try again.  This conversation repeated itself over and over like an audio loop, her despair and my frustration escalating each time.  Finally, I lunged into the car, swearing like a sailor, the baby bobbing in her carrier like a cork on the ocean, undoing the strap and telling her to get out of the car.

Then I stopped.  I scanned the parking lot around us for parents going to and from their cars.  Had anyone heard me?  Had they seen this terrible little episode?  Shouldn’t I have known I was getting out of control before it was too late?  Once my oldest was safely in the classroom and the rest of us safely home, I dissolved into tears recounting the story to my husband on the phone.

“I need help,” I said.

A few weeks later, I started a new kind of therapy.  I met weekly with a licensed social worker to discuss and treat what finally had a name: postpartum depression.

At the end of my first visit, I said to her, “So, do I have postpartum?”  In classic counselor speak, she replied, “Would you like me to say you have postpartum?”  I laughed and she joined me.  “I can go through the indicators if you’d like,” she said.  One by one, she ticked off every single one of my circumstances: unexpected pregnancy, death of a loved one(s), stress, difficult delivery, physical trauma, demands of caring for other children, anxiety.  “Does that make you feel better?” she asked.  Oddly enough, it did.  For the first time in months, I felt light leaving her office.  I wasn’t a failure and I wasn’t crazy.

This perfect storm was not forecast, but at least now I had some sort of outlook for the future.

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