Many years ago, on a rainy morning in February, my 27-year-old self called my mother to let her know I had been diagnosed with depression. It was long enough ago, that most people’s reaction to this news was still based on the misinformation and stigma swirling around mental health. But I wasn’t worried about telling my mom, she was a psych nurse. Solid. Still, it was a hard conversation and, in an effort to protect her or maybe myself, I left out the part about suicidal ideation.
I was lucky. I took a really safe pill once a day and after a few (hard) months, I felt normal again. So, her insistence that I at least try to see if I can live medication free led to many jaw-clenching, frustrating conversations. But she spent her days seeing the results of a lifetime of mental illness and she wanted me cured, not treated.
Last year, after some crisis or another, my son’s doctor stared me straight in the eye and said, “We can’t cure him, but we can treat him.” At that moment, I remembered those fraught conversations with my mother. It was one of those moments when her past behavior made sense to me in a way I had been too young or too inexperienced to understand at the time it was happening. It was probably due to those conversations that I didn’t feel like I was slapped in the face by the doctor’s words. Instead, they crept into me and I felt them rather than heard them. Not to be too mystical, but I pondered them in my heart. And this was new for me. Over the course of my son’s disease and treatment, I have at different times over-reacted,under-reacted, intellectualized, dismissed, laughed, and cried at whatever news the person in the white coat threw at me. But I rarely possessed enough energy or context to really figure out what it all meant. This time, for some reason, I did. And the results were powerful.
Once I accepted that crisis was just part of the disease, I feared it less and began dealing with it better. Kind of like how you get used to being puked on by your infant so you just plan for that eventuality and are ecstatic every time it doesn’t happen when your late for a meeting. Acceptance has made me calmer. I feel less frantic when I recognize this is a long-term struggle and we are all doing the best we can. I still don’t know how to answer the question, “how is your son” but I am less frustrated by it. The answer -that mental illness and addiction are hard and we are taking it one day at a time- no longer feels awkward. I can even say it with a smile.
I have also found time and energy that I didn’t have before. When I’m not constantly searching for a cure that doesn’t exist, my effort dealing with this illness is more focused and gives me more down time. I have even started gathering up the threads of my life that were lost to the storm of emotion surrounding his illness. Coffee with friends and no tears, finally! All this because of a few honest words from a physician that I took the time to absorb instead of react to.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not happy about it—this illness. Sometimes I still get angry about it. I mean teeth grinding, fist clenching, plate throwing angry. Other times I’m just despondent. But, once I accepted it as the reality, I felt a lightness and freedom that hasn’t been mine for over 5 years.
Coming to terms with a no-cure scenario isn’t unique to mental health conditions, but it has been a huge stumbling block for me. I wonder why it took me so long to accept this? Maybe because this all started when he was only 15, and I felt like giving up on a total cure was giving up on his future. It wasn’t. It just meant re-imagining it, and watching it unfold in ways I would have never expected. Maybe it was because I wanted my life to get back to normal and, when you’re in crisis, it takes awhile to realize normal isn’t a thing. My life is just my life, my reaction to it is what transforms the situation. Most likely, though, it was simple denial. Like my mom, I wanted a cure. I can’t get what I want, but I’m strong enough to accept treatment, and happy to reap the unexpected benefits of acceptance.
I recently read a friend’s post about a parenting struggle she was navigating with her 1st grade daughter. Comments of empathy, support, and humor filled her feed. As posts and comments go, it was run of the mill, but something bugged me. Tucked in between the “hugs”, “same”, and “hang-in-there” comments were numerous comments that ended with some form of “I am in trouble when the teenage years hit.” A vision of my 17-year-old daughter popped into my head and, seriously, can we knock off saying we dread the teenage years?
I mean, I understand how we get there. My daughter screamed for the first 6 months of her life. Impossible to soothe, determined on her discomfort, she made sure we all partook with her. It was hard to imagine this girl 17 years on, too big for me to plop her into her crib for a short break.
But, it misses the point of parenting. My child didn’t go from zero to seventeen in a vacuum. Parenting is a cumulative task. Every stage builds on the one before it. It’s all valuable, precious, and fucking hard. Dreading any of it is a wasted opportunity.
I made a point to never utter, or even think, the words, “I can’t wait for this to be over.” Yes, of course, I was interested in the constant crying to be done with. But, I would never trade the cuddling and the nursing (the only time she was quiet) and the 4-month infant smile for a first 6 months without colic.
No, I used that time to try to figure out little by little who she was and what she needed from me. And, what she didn’t need. It turns out mostly she needed about 3 hours of rocking in a dark room between 5pm and 8pm. What she didn’t need from me was any other stimulus, especially singing. 17 years later, she’s more polite when she tells me she doesn’t need singing. When we figured this out together, life became manageable.
And this process -this practice- helped me figure out why she was hiding under tables in preschool, and why she couldn’t sit still in first grade, and couldn’t stop talking to her friends in 7th grade, and why she had a panic attack in 9th. It just continued to add up.
I wish all parents of young children knew it is likely to be the same with their own teenager, or at least some version of the same. The physical, cognitive, and emotional challenges of the transition from adolescence into adulthood are no less dramatic than a child’s first years of life. They are going to be hard, but they are also going to be good. So Good. I wish I had been told, at least once, how fantastic it is to have a teenager (or two) in the house.
The fact is, our kids are already pretty apprehensive about these years. Even if they are only in 1st or 2nd grade, they have already absorbed society’s impatience with teenagers and their supposed drama. By the time they are 12 they will already face huge social pressures, made worse by the intricate social media landscape they inhabit. They don’t need parents showing fear as well.
My daughter needs to know what we, her parents, already know. What we know because we have spent all these years parenting her, helping her learn to harness her own emotions, and guiding her through elementary friend issues so she has some reliable skills to practice in her current world of almost adult problems. She needs to know, really internalize, that she’s strong enough for this. That she’s going to make mistakes but they won’t be the end of the world. That who she is will always be enough for us.
I try to remember this building block nature of parenting while recognizing what I say to my daughter is never as meaningful as what I show her. And instead of spending my time contemplating the teenage years with fear, I tried to focus on the things I could show. The things that might empower her to face her world and her challenges with confidence and anticipation. I have a year and change before my girl heads off to test the wings I have tried to help her strengthen. While I’ve tried to show her these things throughout our life together, these are the check boxes I’m trying desperately to tick off before she flies:
Has she seen me make a mistake, do my best to fix it, and live with the consequences?
Has she seen me work hard to get something that I don’t achieve, yet still feel pride in the work I did?
Has she seen me take credit for my own hard work?
Has she seen me choose between priorities?
Has she seen me when good enough is good enough?
Has she seen me forgive someone?
Has she seen me set personal boundaries?
Has she seen me stand up for myself?
Has she seen me stand up for others?
I have no control over what she embraces or dreads in her own life, but I have total control over what she sees me embrace or dread in mine. We don’t need to dread the teenage years, we need to embrace them with the same eagerness we did for every first-year milestone we scrawled in the baby book. Because, while the baby book achievements are fun to look back on, the teenage years are going to frame their future and options. We owe it to them to parent through it, from the beginning, not to dread it.
As a society, we don’t understand suicide. Everything in our DNA works to optimize our chances for survival so, when someone appears to have chosen to die, we struggle to make sense of it.
When Kate Spade died by suicide a few days ago, I faced it with the same dread as I have faced all suicide reports since April 2017. That was when my child didn’t complete his own suicide attempt. I don’t know why he was lucky, why we were lucky, and he survived. I don’t know the difference between Kate and my son. Just like I don’t know the difference between breast cancer patients who die and those who survive.
But I do know suicide is a brutal, tragic way to die. And, it is not a choice. Depression, only one of the many conditions that can lead to suicide, is a disease. Sometimes it’s treatable and sometimes it’s treatment resistant, just like cancer. Imagine if Kate Spade had died from breast cancer and someone felt obligated to post the following online:
“Kate Spade is incredibly selfish and Horrid! To die of cancer and leave behind a vulnerable child that needs her mother.. (sic) such disgusting assholish decision! No amount of “cancer” should surpass the love of your child. She’s ruined her life! What a selfish bitch.” –random twitter expert
KateSpade is incredibly selfish and horrid! To murder your oneself and leave behind a vulnerable child that needs her mother.. such a disgusting assholish decision! No amount of “depression” should surpass the love of your child. She’s ruined her life! What a selfish bitch! pic.twitter.com/UjTT4tyGLy
I find it hard to imagine anyone writing and posting such a sentiment, yet armchair mental health experts have taken to the twittersphere to shame a woman who died by suicide. There are more tweets, of course, but they are all subtle or not so subtle variations on ‘she was selfish, weak, didn’t really love her child, and depression isn’t a thing’ theme. And then, of course there was the amazingly tone deaf pronouncement from Bethenny Frankel:
“Poor @katespadeny to be in so much pain. Success doesn’t make you happy. True love & peace does.”
As if sacrificing her love and peace to success was the cause of Kate Spade’s death instead of it being a result of a serious disease. Once again, we would never say such a thing to someone who had just died from a heart attack. When families beg for privacy after a tragedy like this one, these are the kind of things they want to avoid.
Along with PTSD kind of feelings for those who have had similar experiences, these tragedies illuminate the ignorance and stigma surrounding mental health disorders. On the rare occasions I have shared information about my son’s suicidality, I have been met with every reply from, “but he doesn’t have anything to be sad about” to “doesn’t he know suicide isn’t the answer.” What people don’t understand is most victims of suicide are not asking a question or looking for an answer. They are looking to end overwhelming anguish. Whether it’s real or not to you, it is excruciatingly real to them. And imagine how much pain someone must be in to be driven to attempt suicide in order to stop it? Marsha Ainsworth put it most succinctly when she observed, “Suicide is not chosen; it happens
when pain exceeds resources for coping with pain.”
Although many people seem to agree we need to end the stigma surrounding mental health conditions and suicide, there are very few tangible suggestions provided. For me, the first step is empathy and listening without judgement. Every completed suicide is different, every suicide attempt has its own unique history. To treat them all the same is to place another unneeded burden on the family members who are already reeling from the death or critical illness of a loved one.
So, before we go online and start passing judgement on victims of disease, before we start throwing around #selfcare, and telling people to reach out to a friend; maybe we should have a fact-based discussion about why suicide results from a disease, not a choice.
There are some great resources available for people willing to do even the barest due diligence. Dr. John Grohol, Psy.D. has an excellent blog post about it at PsychCentral. NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) has a great stigma test at curestigma.org, with info on how to support people who suffer from suicidality. And there are countless local resources as well like this one from StopStigma in Sacramento.
I understand suicide and depression. But, I only understand it as it has manifested in my own life and the life of those I love. We need to listen to other perspectives and try to see with different eyes to come to a place where there is compassion instead of stigma. And this is hard. It’s hard because it is work, and it is awkward, and the topic is so charged.
But, suicide is the 2ndlargest cause of death for people between ages 10 and 34, and it’s a leading cause in older age cohorts as well. On average, 123 Americans complete suicide each day. Those are numbers worth taking seriously. We need to have substantive conversations, because stigma is one of the greatest barriers to treatment.
My understanding of suicide and depression is deeply personal. In addition to parenting a son who suffers from suicidality, I have experienced suicidal ideations off and on since 1992. For me it runs the gamut from actually envisioning myself taking my own life to just a random thought that running my car into that train would be a good idea. I have a very OCD element to my disease. Figuring this out with my doctor helped find the right treatment for me. I’m lucky that my depression has not been treatment resistant.
But, it’s a long-term illness and medication’s effectiveness can wax and wane with natural life changes (i.e., The Change), ordinary life stressors (lack of sleep, lack of exercise), and extraordinary stressors (serious illness, death in the family). Depression is insidious. It sneaks up on you and silently overpowers you, until you don’t even realize it’s not normal to think getting out of bed takes just as much effort as running the Boston Marathon.
This is what it is like. For me. For my son it is different, for Kate Spade it was different, as it was for Anthony Bourdain, Delores O’Riordan, Robin Williams, my friend Wade, and on and on for so many others. We need to quit typing, and start listening.
Celebrity suicide brings its own special considerations. The O’Riordan death was very concerning to me. My son is a fan of the Cranberries, and it happened in close time proximity to his own attempt. I was worried that the reporting on it would trigger a setback in his recovery, or even lead to suicide contagion. The CDC has found increased rates of suicide centered populationally around isolated incidents (such as a suicide on a high school campus) and temporally in the months immediately following a widely reported incident (such as a celebrity suicide). Irresponsible reporting has been so closely linked to this contagion that the CDC developed responsible reporting guidelines in the mid-1990s.
In the aftermath of the Kate Spade tragedy, CBS wasn’t the only outlet to have ignored CDC recommendations for responsible reporting by describing details and mechanics of the Kate Spade tragedy (and I am not linking here because I have no interest in their irresponsible coverage receiving more clicks). TMZ used click bait headlines warned against by the CDC, and US Weekly, NBC, St. Louis Post Dispatch and myriad other media outlets chose to ignore the guidelines in their reporting. Some even felt it necessary to note the place and color of the item that was used in the tragedy, I’m assuming to pique some sort of prurient interest and to increase the chance of a click through.
It is worth noting both the Washington Post and the New York Times’ first reporting followed the CDC guidelines. Revisiting CDC recommendations in our new algorithm and click driven media environment sounds like a good idea. Although Anthony Bourdain’s death cannot be definitively linked to suicide contagion, his suicide following so closely on the heels of Spade’s brings a new sense of urgency to the problem of suicide reporting.
The internet has given us new and infinite ways to be horrible to each other. But it has also given us a powerful tool to help end stigma surrounding mental health conditions and suicide. If we can use it responsibly, maybe we can help save a life.
“Hey mom, guess what I found out at school today?”
My hands tighten around the steering wheel. My 17-year-old doesn’t hey mom me much anymore. I glanced at her, raised my eyebrows listening for more.
“We have a new active shooter protocol”
I feel my heart cracking and my stomach sinking. If she can manage to go to school every morning wondering if this is the day she will be shot, I can manage to hear about it. I asked her what changed.
“Now, instead of sheltering in place, we are supposed to run as fast as we can away from the gunfire.”
I asked if they meet any place specific after they run.
“No, we just run.”
They are on their own, they just run. The adults in this country failed to take the simplest, most obvious measures to protect them, so when it happens, all they can do is run.
“Oh, and we are not allowed to leave if a fire alarm goes off unless it’s announced on the intercom it is a real fire or drill.”
There have been over 80 school shootings since my daughter entered kindergarten. She was 11 and still in elementary school when a shooter killed 20 first graders and 6 teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary.
Columbine happened 2 years before she was born.
She has always gone to school under the shadow of school shootings. After Sandy Hook, I thought things would change. We wouldn’t, as a country, sit back and do nothing in the wake of the slaughter of first graders. We couldn’t. And yet we did.
Darrell Issa, my congressman, admits to taking almost 30,000 dollars from the NRA.* He has consistently voted against any restrictions on gun sales, and has even co-sponsored bills to loosen restrictions, which the majority of Californians oppose,** even those in his district.
I signed petitions, I wrote letters, I voted at the machine and with my wallet. A lot of us did. But the NRA’s wallet is bigger. Much, much bigger. We failed. I gave up.
And in giving up, I have failed my daughter. And I have failed all the students who go to school with the daily fear of “will it be me today.” I gave up, when I could have done so much more. My friends gave up when they could have done so much more. Most adults gave up when they could have done so much more. We failed the most basic task of parenting, at the most basic task of being moral human beings. We failed to protect them, when it was in our power to do so.
But it’s not too late. Because in walked the Parkland survivors who stood up and said “enough is enough!” Who used their 21st century electronic platforms to remind us of things that we already knew but refused to act on. They reminded us that it’s immoral to protect guns over children, that throwing our hands up and saying “but, the 2nd amendment” is bullshit. They inspired us to look into the issue and find out, according to federal court decisions, assault weapon bans are not unconstitutional. To search further and discover even Scalia, in the Heller decision, said, “like most rights, the right secured by the Second Amendment is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose.”***
They reminded us it’s not a zero-sum game. It is not a game at all.
But, even more than that, the Parkland survivors encouraged my daughter to take a stand, to advocate on behalf of herself and others. They reminded her and her generation of their power. They inspired her to follow a better example than mine, and to call bullshit on adults who are not living up to their responsibility to protect children.
She was the one who got up early on a Saturday to march in our local March for Our Lives, she bought the supplies and made the signs. She took the time to register people to vote, even though she won’t have that privilege until next year. She walked out of school to hear the names of 17 dead teenagers. She spent 6 minutes and 20 seconds to take on a burden that the Parkland community will bear always.
So, I’m on board, again. And, this time, I will do whatever is required of me to prevent this from happening again. But I’m going to follow the lead of the Parkland survivors, and my daughter, and her generation. Because they have proven we won’t live up to our responsibilities, and shown how, with our help, they can save lives.
Lead on. I have never been so hopeful. Or thankful.
I’ve lived in southern California for almost 10 years, so I suppose it was inevitable that I would end up in a plastic surgeon’s office. What’s a nice southern girl like me doing in this plastic surgeon’s office, you ask?
Being mildly rattled by the huge official sign declaring that this practice has been licensed by the California Board of Barbers and Cosmetologists. I searched quickly to find my doctor’s name to make sure I was in the right office. You know, there was a time when barbers and surgeons were the same things. Reassured that I was in the right place, I relaxed a little.
Then I saw the lips. All the plump lips on the staff. All the pink, glossed sausage lips that looked like they might belong somewhere else besides the face.
Flashback to 2012. Just another stroll around our little beach town when someone with Donatella Versace grade lips walks by. The boy looks at me and says, “Wow, that’s the worst case of trout pout I’ve seen this week!” THIS WEEK! Thanks, California.
I know it’s a strong temptation to buy the merchandise wherever you work. I mean, I had a large collection of DKNY when I worked retail—some of it didn’t even make me look like a poseur. But when everyone on staff has the same lips, doesn’t it make your potential customers question, just a little bit, if their new lips will really be custom fit to their face?
Flashback to 2008. Newly transplanted to California, I was eating lunch with the family in Orange County beside two women who were holding ice on their just injected lips. One would take the ice off and ask the other if she looked ok. Reassured, the ice would go back on then the other woman would remove her ice and ask the same. Over and over and over again. My girl asked me what happened to them. I explained cosmetic surgery to my seven-year-old.
Thanks again, California. I thought I would have a few more years before I had to muster a full-on fight against the appearance culture.
I gave my insurance card to the receptionist, who in her defense, looked like she kept her natural lips when her face was pulled back taught, trimmed, then stitched back in place.
Actually, she looked good, really good. Natural. Of course, she was only about 30 so maybe there was no stitching required just yet. I have to admit her skin was flawless. Just for a second, I pondered the facial menu.
Able to resist the Obagi Blue Peel, I filled out the medical forms that were very concerned about previous medical conditions and family history. I felt a little more comfortable. It seemed more doctorish and less barberish.
Puffy lips and invisible pores aside, it was such an odd experience hearing staff talk to women about which hospitals have the best rate, where they can go to get a discount, the newest injection methods, and how things would be easier now that they had decided on surgery. Because, who has surgery on purpose?
I was there for a hematoma on my ass.
Yes, it was my Ireland hematoma, and over the last six months it had only shrunk from papaya size to apple size. As much as I loved having 3 butts, at this point it was futile to wait for it to disappear on its own. I could live with it, cosmetically, I guess. But it hurts. A lot.
Just because I was there for medically necessary reasons, doesn’t mean I have a problem with elective surgical enhancement. Although I hate to call it enhancement. It implies what was there before wasn’t quite good enough, and I don’t buy that. I have lines and scars that others in my neighborhood would probably get “fixed.” But I see them as a map of my life and a measure of my strength.
It’s disheartening to witness our culture view the natural results of a life well lived as a flaw instead of the beauty and strength it reveals. But, I digress.
The surgery is going to be icky. Afterward, there will be a drain, and compression shorts, and butterfly sutures on the inside. No activity that engages the glutes for at least a month.
My doctor told me I was lucky because the scar will be below my bikini line so it won’t be visible. She seemed so happy about it, I didn’t have the heart to tell her the last time I wore a bikini I was 16. Appearance culture gave me almost 10 years longer than it did my daughter.
There are as many valid reasons for elective cosmetic surgery as there are people. But, the appearance culture is so entrenched here, it makes me ponder what it takes to resist it. To not be the 80-year-old lady who is spending her money on liposuction and instead be the one playing in the sand with her grandkids. What do we need to hear as women to truly believe we are good enough? To internalize the fact a surgical procedure is not necessary for love, or acceptance, or self-esteem.
What does it take to choose our well-being over our appearance?
But, maybe I should wonder if the two are mutually exclusive. It doesn’t have to be a dichotomy just because Hollywood makes it seem that way. It makes me wonder what kind of strength it takes to go under the knife to take control of your appearance, and the rebellion it takes to resist and say “hell yes” to the flabby cheeks and turkey neck. Both decisions take strength and purpose. Both come with their own type of pain. I look in a mirror and I speculate about how far down my eyelids have to droop before I seriously consider a surgical “fix”.
In the meantime, I will have the medically necessary kind of surgery and suffer the same post-surgical shit without any noticeable improvement in my appearance. Except I will get rid of my third butt.
On the bright side, I get to skip exercise for at least 4 weeks—under doctor’s orders. And when I go back to have the half-moon of stitches below my bikini line removed, I will have another chance to give into the Blue Peel, Botox, or laser treatments.
Fully certified by the Board of Barbers, of course.
My late father-in-law had a pedantic penchant for Latin. If he were alive today, he would describe 2017 as annus horribilis. And, I would agree with him. That’s not to say there wasn’t a bit of mirabilis in it, there was loads of that too, but it seemed that the hard stuff in life had its thumb on the scale in 2017.
As a consequence, I wasn’t feeling very reflective or hopeful when I woke up on the first day of 2018. There is nothing magical about the turning of a new year. There is nothing new or blank about it. There is only the magic, and the new, and the blank we decide to bring to it.
So, around 3 pm when I went to meet friends at the tides-willing annual New Year’s Day transitioning labyrinth on the beach, I wasn’t expecting to do anything except recharge a little by watching and walking with my fellow Encinitas weirdos. To be honest, there were some perfectly un-weird folk there as well, but I’m a sucker for weirdos. They are the light-bringers in my life.
The energy I was looking for was generated by a bunch of people massed around a labyrinth cut into the beach at low tide by a local artist.
The artist, Kirkos, used his special tools to scrape the sacred geometry into the sand and the community came to decorate it with rocks and seaweed and sticks, Buddha statues and crystals and flowers, along with shells and rusted keys and random objects like the tiny gingerbread house with sliced banana for roof tiles.
Not unfamiliar with walking meditation, I finished exchanging New Year’s greetings with random and not random people and entered the labyrinth path intent on a peaceful walk to the center.
There are people in the labyrinth community who say the labyrinth is an ancient symbol that relates to wholeness. I’m not so sure, but this one felt mystical. One of my favorite words to describe it is unicursal. There is one way in and one way out. Just like life. And, just like life, this labyrinth was filled with a lot of people—some who made it harder to walk and some who made it easier.
I’ve been struggling to give up judging, but it’s hard to not judge when people bring their dogs to a crowded labyrinth on a no-dogs-allowed beach. It makes it hard to stay on the path when a puppy is rampaging around it and disturbing the lines so carefully carved into the sand by the quirky old artist. I breathed through my initial discomfort with the irresponsible dog owner (the puppy, of course, was innocent of any wrongdoing) and refused to consider it good or bad. I was somewhat successful. I was more successful not judging the children running through the labyrinth. They made it hard to walk as well, but they were just so fully being themselves, it was hard to be irritated with them. When a parent apologized for one of them bumping me, I just smiled and said Happy New Year, then tried soaking up some of their enthusiasm for life.
As I walked, I tried to focus on the year just past. My plan was to think about 2017 on the way in and think about my intentions for 2018 on the way out. I’m a little obsessive, and like things tied up in neat metaphorical packages. But early on, I wasn’t able to focus on anything other than the people talking, and children playing, and the dog charging to the center with no regard for the path or the decorations placed at the line ends. And, I couldn’t stop watching the ten-year old girl in the black hoody with cat ears on the hood and the words “I am a cat” emblazoned on the front. I really wanted to be that girl for a moment.
I was also concerned the doggo would eat the gingerbread house, in which I had already invested a fair amount of emotional energy trying to figure out. The banana slice roof tiles were odd, was it supposed to be a bird feeder? Or was it purposely built to be healthy, and if so why does it have to be healthy if nobody is ever going to eat it? If you are a health food extremist (we have a few in California) does that mean you can’t even use candy for decoration? Or was it just a spur of the moment gingerbread house and the only thing handy to decorate it was yogurt covered pretzels and bananas?
This last one seemed most plausible to me, as it described my life when my children were still interested in building gingerbread houses. There may be only one way in and one way out of a labyrinth, but there are endless paths that my mind can take while my feet are walking it.
Frustrated that my mind wasn’t cooperating with my plans, much like my life doesn’t cooperate with my plans, I gave up when I saw my husband walk onto the beach with the camera. Like that adorably annoying dog, I ignored the path and lines and headed straight toward him. He gave me the camera and told me he was headed to work to get some writing done. As he was leaving, my son walked up with his friends. We (and by we, I mean I) talked a little about leaving the hard part of the year on the labyrinth. Quickly tiring of my hippy mumbo jumbo, they left to pursue New Year’s tacos somewhere with less weirdos and less mom.
In the course of this one-sided conversation, I became fascinated by the idea of leaving the hard shit of the year on the labyrinth and letting the ocean take it away as the tide erased the carvings from the beach. I knew I couldn’t actually get rid of the hard stuff, but maybe I could put it in a more productive place.
So, I quit thinking about the hard stuff and started listing it. My son’s suicide attempt, the hours in the hospital listening to the monitor go off whenever he stopped breathing, my uncle’s death which brought peace to him and anguish to so many others, the long wait at LAX when I was unsure if they would let my son on the plane and if so whether he was safe to be on the plane, the hurt and anger in my daughter’s eyes when her trip to visit colleges back east was canceled due to yet another mental health crisis, another trip to the emergency room listening to the fucking monitor stop and start again echoing my son’s erratic blood oxygen level, my father’s emergency surgery, the lies, the fear, the careless words, the carefully constructed words used as weapons.
Everything I could remember. Every feeling and action that caused pain or suffering or even mild discomfort, I named it. I looked at the year from my husband’s perspective and named all the shit. I did the same from my daughter’s point of view, then my son’s. Everything I could think of.
I listed it, acknowledged it, and willed it deep into the sand path I was walking. I kept doing this as other walkers scooted past my slow walking pace, as children bumped me, as strangers said inane, belittling things about disruptions on the path misaligning chakras. I felt the muck of 2017 crack like a hardening mud mask and begin to fall away.
By the time I reached the center, I felt relieved of a burden. I felt lighter and almost content. I began to notice the careful placement of shells and flowers. The happy juxtaposition of the gaudy, natural bird of paradise flowers with the gaudy, unnatural plastic pin wheels. My lips curved into a smile without even trying. And I began to recall some of the good as well. I remembered the healing suicide prevention walk I did with my son, our time at The British Museum, our fairytale cottage in Meath, the inspiring women and charmed time that was my writers retreat, and the random happy accident of watching Loving Vincent together at La Paloma.
On the way out, I kept passing an older man with a few missing teeth and the unruffled demeanor of an Encinitas native. We smiled at each other each time we crossed paths in the labyrinth. He commented on how long the walk was. I smiled, for me the walk was just long enough. Once I made it out of the labyrinth, I looked up and noticed him walk to where the artist’s tools were sitting and begin to gather them up. I realized the man I had been smiling at was the artist himself.
I walked up to thank him for his effort and, as I shook his hand, he told me he usually doesn’t walk the labyrinth himself. But for some reason he did this year and was surprised by how long the walk actually was. I thought a moment about creating this space, this transient sacred geometry without even the intent to walk it yourself. And when I looked back at his creation I saw his generosity multiply and bubble over in the faces of those participating in this private act of public art.
I told him I liked the addition of the two smaller labyrinths he added this year. He nodded, thoughtful, and mumbled, “yes, each year it just keeps evolving.” Which reminded me again, that labyrinths are very much like life.
Did you sit through Thanksgiving a little bit grateful but also a little bit sad? What if you are entering the holiday season in the midst of a crisis relating to your child’s chronic illness? Or a loved one’s catastrophic diagnosis, PTSD or something else that makes you totally unfit to enter into the spirit of the season?
That’s me at the moment. Thanksgiving has come and gone—even Nordy’s finally put up it’s Christmas decorations. But here I am not feeling at all Christmassy.
What to do?
Well first, if you’re me, you check to see if Christmassy is really a word and if you have spelled it correctly. Then you come up with rules to survive this season of joy, even though you feel like you haven’t been capable of joy in quite some time.
#1 Fake it
I was talking to my sister around Thanksgiving. She was asking about my son who spent a few weeks in the hospital before being transferred to an inpatient treatment program. When she asked how I was doing, I was too tired to be anything but honest.
Tired and sad. Empty. That’s what I told her.
Shocked, she claimed I sounded so good. She thought I was doing really well.
I told her I was faking it.
Sometimes when you act like you’re fine, happy even, you can trick your brain into believing it. If it works, you can scrabble together some of the energy you need. Even the simple act of smiling can trick your brain into thinking you’re happy.
This fake it ‘til you make it strategy is based, in some respects, on science (see, for instance, here or here), and I have found that it works pretty well to get through short term social engagements. Especially those I want to go to, but don’t feel like I have the emotional stores to make it through dry-eyed.
This was the strategy I used for Thanksgiving. Sad and tired notwithstanding, I wanted to go, I wanted it to be an occasion filled with love and laughter. So, I faked it. I forced smiles and laughs until I was really smiling and laughing. As I faked my own joy, I was able to openly connect with my friends and family. I was able to feel true delight at our friends’ engagement, real enjoyment in food lovingly prepared. I left feeling genuinely thankful for so much.
One caveat, you have to make sure it’s the happiness you are faking. It doesn’t work if you are just burying the sad you feel. You have to honor the sad and then make a point to enjoy your time with family and friends.
#2 Lower the bar
I’ve been working on lowing my bar for a while. I remember a few years ago I was asked how I was doing and instead of throwing out a reflexive, I’m fine, I thought for a second. I realized both of my children spoke to me and that makes a great day.
Not good. Great.
My expectations frame how I perceive my life. So, I pare it down to the barest essentials. Now, I don’t even need the kids to talk to me for it to be a great day. Today, it’s just that the kids are alive. And, given the fragility of life, I know it’s possible I may have to lower it even further.
“But, Gigi,” you say, “my bar is already on the ground, how can it get even lower?” And to that I say, “get a shovel.” It can always be lower.
#3 Re-evaluate your priorities
Just because you have always had a Christmas/Solstice/Hanukkah party at your house, doesn’t mean you have to have one this year. Just because your family loves your version of holiday feast, doesn’t mean you can’t just go to Red Tracton’s and let them do the cooking, serving and cleaning up. Take a look at your holiday traditions. Decide which ones have real meaning to you.
For me, it’s always been the tree.
I have a tree decorating ritual, complete with cookies and champagne.
It’s a little obsessive, I admit. After the tree is up, I string the lights, then wind the ribbon around it. Next, the angel goes on the top.
After that, the kids get their new ornament. We give them one each year, even now that they are 16 and 19. My mom did this as I grew up. When she finally sent them to me after I got married, I relished putting them onto my adult tree. It acknowledged my old traditions at the same time I began creating new ones with my husband.
She continued this tradition giving each grandchild an ornament every year. Now, we each have our own large collection. We take turns placing them on the tree until it’s full and my husband says we have too many and need to scale back. After that, I try to balance the aesthetic and fill in the holes with the red blown glass balls which my husband claims don’t fit. Then we stand back and admire our work.
That’s it. A perfect holiday for me. We have done this exactly the same for 18 years or so. I thought it was required to make our holiday perfect.
Until last year.
Last December I was barely functional. I was dealing with migraines, and vertigo and my own mental health issue. School carpool and my doctor’s appointments were almost the only reasons I would leave the house.
It was our first half-assed Christmas. The tree went up just a few days before Christmas, we didn’t even decorate it until Christmas Eve. No cookies, no champagne, no pictures. No ribbon, just lights. We picked out a few ornaments and didn’t bother with the rest. And even though there was plenty of room, the blown glass balls stayed in their box.
And I still had a perfect holiday.
It wasn’t the ritual or completed tree that was important. It was just us being in this together. That space of time we took to be with each other. I recently talked to the boy about last year’s half-assed tree and he remembered it as a great tree.
We will probably have a half-assed Christmas this year too. I’m redefining perfect in ways that have nothing to do with gifts, decorations and traditions, and instead revolve around space and time carved out to be grounded with those I love.
Sometimes half-assed is perfect, you just need to reevaluate your definition. Distill what you need to make meaning of this season. You will be amazed by how much you can let go.
#4 Give your time to your community
Time is always a precious commodity during the holiday season. The theory of relativity never seems to work in my favor in December. But if you spend your time helping others, it can ground you in the meaning of the season. And, if you’ve followed number 3 above, you will have lots more of it.
It’s sounds counter intuitive, but it is backed up by science. Volunteering has positive effects on the volunteers mental and physical health. (like this from Harvard). Do yourself a favor and take a shift at a local food pantry, organize a toy drive for foster kids, take time to play with some Head Start kids. Smile at strangers.
#5 Quit reading lists of how to survive the holidays.
The stones and shell already crowded my pocket by the time I saw the sign forbidding it.
But it didn’t matter. This was my renegade week. There were 13 women back at the cabin to prove it. All of us had wandered away from life to wonder a while with words. And each other.
I hadn’t really wandered. I had flown away to be with them. In community. But here I stood, alone on the beach, with purloined rocks and one shell.
I was a mere shadow of myself, wondering where I had disappeared to.
I wasn’t surprised. His disease had been erasing me slowly for years. Yet, it was a shock to see the process almost complete. I had thought there was more of me left.
I put the stones in my pocket to weigh me down. To keep me from floating away on the wind. I would take the small stone and shell home with me in a few days, one for each child.
The other stone was for Shanna. Because I had her truck and thought she needed a tangible reminder that this week was ours. A smooth polished black pebble, with a thin white vein, to remind us that the hard is necessary to see the light.
As if we needed reminding. I should have grabbed a pebble for everyone in the cabin. We had all lived that lesson in some form, it’s part of what connected us. But I couldn’t leave with thirteen illegal pebbles. I’m not that much of a renegade.
I wanted to bring one for Sarah. Since, when the numbness finally wore off, she hugged me and made me cry on purpose, and she poured me a shot instead of hitting me, and because she listened to Graceland in the kitchen while cooking. But, I didn’t want to trivialize this with a thing. Instead, I stacked a cairn for her and added the weight of the view to the stones already in my pocket.
I felt myself fill.
And when I got back to the cabin, I grew fuller. Not because I wrote- I didn’t- but because I read these women’s words. And laughed at their jokes, and cried at their losses, and railed against their pain. I breathed in the glee of their delight as if we had all just received word of a newborn nephew. And I meditated with their voice until I could feel every disparate part of my body connect, and I was substantial again.
Until intimacy and inside jokes overfilled my pockets and gold filled the cracks in my chest.
I have a great writer friend who just wrote a particularly good post on reclaiming your own creative space. You should read it because this women’s issue has been around since before Mary Wollstonecraft, and it’s one a lot of women in general (especially me) neglect. And also because it’s really well written and has a picture of a beagle in it.
It seems particularly apropos to me at the moment, as I am sitting in my local McDonald’s doing my daily writing. This writing will last as long as it takes for my 2 large diet Dr. Peppers to do their job and send me home to cleaner facilities.
My daughter judges time in songs, I judge time based on how long my bladder is happy. This is the world I live in.
As I sit here, I wonder why I’m here in this space instead of my own. This space, with its not-up-to-my-standards bathroom and shitty Wi-Fi that blocks my own blog.
No kidding. I cannot log on to my own website from the Wi-Fi at this (maybe all?) McDonald’s because it has been blocked as a courtesy. I’m not sure why blocking my site is courteous, but my deportment lessons were all pre-internet so who knows what I’m missing. Also, what’s up with the distinction between guests and customers? Do you think I could come in here every morning and sit myself at a table without ordering anything and just be a guest instead of a customer?
This idea, disturbingly, intrigues me.
In possibly unrelated, or maybe just vaguely related news, I was able to click through to a Medium page entitled myerotica in this very same McDonald’s, so I’m even more clueless as to why my site is blocked. And no, I don’t know why Medium suggested that page for me. Is it a bug or a feature?
In any event, when I saw my friend’s post pop up, I had to wallow, just a bit, in the irony that I have made this space into enough of my own that I was a little peeved my usual seat wasn’t available when I walked in this morning. Indeed, I was ticked off I couldn’t sit in my usual spot in this very public space. While that certainly doesn’t make it my space, it does make it seem that I believe it is my space.
My clean bathroom requirements aside, right now this space is working for me in a lot of ways that are important, and I’m calling it my space while ignoring the irony. But I’m left wondering what I’m avoiding to be here, while at the same time I’m feeling pretty good with what I am managing to produce in the space.
That leaves me with lots to ponder and think about as I avoid doing the hard work, of both writing and life. And, because I like to be as efficient as possible in this avoiding, I would love to hear about your struggles and insights surrounding creating your own space in the comments below.
Please, help save me from myself!
Also, please feel free to call McDonalds at 1 (800) 244-6227 to request they unblock my website!