Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Poking Holes in the Oxygen Mask

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“In the event of a decompression, an oxygen mask will automatically appear in front of you. To start the flow of oxygen, pull the mask towards you. Place it firmly over your nose and mouth, secure the elastic band behind your head, and breathe normally. Although the bag does not inflate, oxygen is flowing to the mask. If you are travelling with a child or someone who requires assistance, secure your mask on first, and then assist the other person.”

It can be difficult, living with an anxiety disorder. Some days I feel almost normal, and some days the anxiety monster is working in full force, overtime, like it’s going to get an extra week of vacation and a free turkey for Christmas if it just puts in a little extra effort. Some days things seems pretty good. Some days it seems like every part of my life is about to be entrenched in a crisis, only I have no idea what the crisis is going to be, so I just have to keep waiting for it to arrive.

Over the last year – and it’s been almost exactly that, almost exactly a year now, since my brain went to shit and my marbles fell all over the floor – and while my anxiety disorder may not be quite so outwardly visible now, it’s still alive and functioning. The medications I take daily do help, as well as the breathing exercises I learned in therapy and other self-help tools, such as visualization, meditation, removing myself from stressful environments, and delegating certain daily tasks to others so I am not quite so overwhelmed. One of the biggest things I struggle with as far as managing my anxiety is the constant onslaught of catastrophic news. It’s nearly impossible to get away from. I quit watching the news. I unfollowed any news pages on social media, months ago. It didn’t help. I unfriended and unfollowed people who can only seem to post about Every Terrible Thing Ever. I’ve muted and blocked multiple accounts. I click the ellipses above FB posts, then click to hide posts forever from that person or organization. I haven’t watched television in months. Not even reruns of The Office.

But it’s impossible to stay away from it entirely, regardless how hard I try. People are gleeful when they’ve got bad news to share. Believe me, I’m aware of what is going on in the world. I know. And yes, it is awful. Absolutely. I do my best to speak up. To be an ally. To advocate. But I cannot immerse myself in Every Terrible Thing Ever, not constantly. Not every day. Because I’m still trying to hang on to my brain with both hands.

And it matters. It matters that I keep myself doing okay.

Living with anxiety makes it difficult to reign in my worry. I’m already a worrier, by nature. Adding anxiety to that is like dumping lighter fluid on an already blazing fire. I’m over here trying to stop, drop, and roll, and the rest of the world is showing up with wagons full of matches.

Imagine a time when you had that fight or flight response activated. That moment you looked out and for a split second, couldn’t see your child in the yard. Or your beloved pet ran across the street and nearly got hit by a car. Or you woke from the most horrific nightmare, your heart hammering, palms sweating and shaking. For a few minutes, you couldn’t calm back down, even after you knew everything was all right. You’re jittery. Waiting for something awful to happen. Your  mind is racing with all sorts of terrible possibilities. Ten minutes go by. Half an hour. Your heart settles into its regular rhythm. Your hands are steady. It’s okay, now. Everything is okay.

When you live with an anxiety disorder, it doesn’t work that way. Even after you realize there is no longer a threat, that fight or flight response just keeps amping up. Hours can pass, and your heart is still hammering. Your hands are still shaking.  Your mind is coming up with all sorts of frightening scenarios. You’ve lost focus. Your legs are bouncing as you try to sit still. Tears prick the backs of your eyes. Long after the initial fear has passed, you might still end up with chest pain. A panic attack. Struggle to catch your breath.

Of course, you still have to work. Parent. Take care of your life. Drive. Buy the groceries. Walk the dog. Even when every nerve inside you has been pulled taught all day long and your body cries for rest.

Imagine waking up feeling this way every day. But you are determined to push through. You’re exhausted, but drag yourself to the shower. Fix your hair. Make it to work. You sit in the parking lot for twenty minutes, doing your breathing exercises. Thinking peaceful thoughts. Meditating. You’re going to focus on one good thing, you think. It’s a beautiful day. Okay. You’ll focus on that. Remember how the breeze feels. Remember the sunrise. Remember that fat white cloud shaped like a dragon. “Good morning,” you say as you enter the office. “Beautiful day out there, isn’t it?” You make yourself smile. Take another deep breath.

“Did you hear about the celebrity that died? Isn’t it awful?”

“I heard there was a flood, five children died, can you imagine?”

“Did you hear the business down the street caught fire? They lost everything!”

You try to block it out. Focus on work. But it’s already made it through your brain. Once again, your chest is tight. Breaths coming in short, shallow gasps. Your hands shake as you type. Your skin is crawling. Nausea hits.

You make it to your lunch break. Hope to distract yourself by scrolling Facebook.

DEATH! DESTRUCTION! SICK BABIES! NATURAL DISASTERS! IF YOU DON’T SHARE THIS POST YOU’RE A TERRIBLE PERSON!

You close the app. Put your phone away.

Stop for gas on the way home. Try to focus on something positive, even something tiny. But the pumps are now equipped with Gas Station TV, and there’s no way to get away from the cheerful voice describing all manner of terrible news.

So you make it home, exhausted. Dinner. Dishes. Fall into bed.

Can’t sleep, because you’re anxious. Still shaky. Headache. Another bout with nausea. Toss. Turn. Cry. Take deep breaths. Feels like your chest is caving in. Sit up. Focus on breathing. Legs are restless. Get up. Walk around the house in the dark. Get back in bed. Finally fall asleep. Have horrific nightmare revolving around death, destruction, sick babies, natural disasters, you’re a terrible person, imminent apocalypse. Wake shaking. Sweaty. A scream in your throat. Check the clock. Get up for work.

Start the entire cycle over again.

Existing with a brain like this is exhausting. And of course, it’s not that I expect the world to change because my brain is fucked up. But I hope others can understand when I need a break from the constant barrage of Every Terrible Thing Ever. And maybe if your loved one is living with an anxiety disorder, consider how your words might affect them.

People with anxiety aren’t sticking their heads in the sand. We’re just trying to survive. Some days feel like we’re running through a mine field, just trying to make it to the other side mostly intact.

On a flight, they tell you in an emergency, put your oxygen mask on first. It’s not because you don’t care about everyone else. But you won’t be any good to anyone – including yourself – if you don’t have oxygen. The onslaught of incessant Terrible Things is like poking holes in someone’s oxygen mask. Is it necessary? Is it helpful? No.

We’re just trying to breathe, man. Please let us.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else

Off Days

You ever have those off days, where everything feels crooked? That’s me, today. I can’t seem to find my footing.

Its been a frustrating week with several personal & household battles, on top of three of the four cars (two belong to our daughters) needing some kind of work done. I left my vehicle at the mechanic’s last week for two days to get the alternator fixed, but instead of fixing that because they couldn’t find the problem, they fixed other things they found wrong to the tune of $400. Now the alternator is still having issues.

My husband has been sick and feverish for days, and he kept shivering. I noticed our house kept getting warmer yesterday but thought he must’ve turned off the air because he had the chills. Nope. Turns out, the A/C just quit working.

There was a modest vacation scheduled for next weekend, which unfortunately fell through.

This week, it seems everything I put my hand to fails. The vehicle. Housework. Yesterday I kept waiting for the water in the pot to boil, only to realize I’d turned the wrong burner on. The dryer kept getting on the wrong setting and not getting loads dry. This morning I typed and retyped and retyped a will, because I kept making the same stupid mistakes. I’m fortunate my boss is a patient person, because I’ve screwed up more ways today than I can count. And it’s not even afternoon yet.

My keyboard, printer, and mouse at work are all being absolute brats for no reason at all.

It feels like I’ve got bubble gum stuck in the cogs and gears of my brain.

I know that none of these things are a big deal in the grand scheme. It’s just cumulative irritation coupled with anxiety, but man oh man. I’m working on taking deep breaths and focusing on positives and I’ve even been messing this morning with what I call my “worry rocks”, little magnetic rocks I twirl in my hand when I’m anxious. It’s like that sensation when a tag in your shirt keeps bothering and bothering your skin, except I feel that way all over inside and out.

I am frustrated today, it seems, with everything that ever was or ever will be. But possibly most frustrated with the fact that my tossed salad doesn’t taste anything like a Snickers bar.

All that frustration has got to go somewhere, I guess. So I’m sitting in my car on my lunch break, venting on my blog.

 

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Ache.

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I hadn’t seen him in nearly two years. The last time was difficult. I had to leave his place before he even touched me. He apologized, but that’s how it had to be, and I tried to understand.

Yesterday I stopped by randomly. I’ve been in a lot of pain, and needed to know if his touch would help. I haven’t been able to sleep. My stress level is through the roof, and I needed… something. In the past, his hands have done for me what no other man’s hands could do.
The door slammed behind me. He looked up, and our eyes met.
I’ve changed my hair since last I saw him and it took him a second to recognize me. He was glad to see me. A bit startled, perhaps.
We didn’t talk much as he led me to his small back room. “Lie down,” he murmured. “On your stomach, first.” And I did.
He started out slowly, and I began to melt. Then he was rougher, and I felt a bit frantic. The pain was so intense I wanted to cry out, but bit my lip instead. Repeatedly, he slammed me against the bed. “Don’t stop,” I whispered. “More, more.”
He leaned over me, and in a deep, commanding voice said, “Turn over.”
I did. I always do what he tells me to do. It’s how our relationship has always worked.
He moved my hair so that the long curls hung off the edge of the bed and began to knead my tight neck muscles. I relaxed and let my head drop down. “Mmmnn,” I mumbled. His hands moved to my shoulders. I kept my eyes closed.
I felt the joints of his thumbs press against my ears, and tried not to panic. He cupped the back of my head in his hands. I breathed deep and slow, preparing for what I knew was coming. It was going to hurt, but it had to be done. He always insisted on it.
He pressed his palms against my head and twisted, hard.
I felt the crunching in my neck, so loud it seemed to echo across the room.
It startles me that I pay him to do this to me. Still, when we are finished, I hand over the cash. I assumed his rate hadn’t gone up in the two years I had stayed away, and he didn’t correct me.
When I left his place, I was sore and my entire body ached, but he told me to come back Thursday, and I am. Hopefully my shoulder is better by the weekend.
I missed not being able to see my chiropractor when I didn’t have insurance. He’s the only one who can work my bones this way.

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What Matters Most

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There is so much wrong in this world right now. So much pain and heartache. We can’t fix it all, and trying to do so would be a burden too heavy to bear. What we can do is show more kindness, more empathy, more compassion to others. It’s a burden of another kind, but far lighter to carry.

Everywhere we go, there are people hurting. We might not see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. I get dressed. Put on makeup. Do… well, something with my hair. I smile and laugh. Very often, on the inside, my heart is hammering. My nerves feel pulled taut. My muscles are so tense they ache. My thoughts are bouncing around in my brain, finding things to worry about. Tears sit in the back of my eyes; I blink a lot so they don’t fall.

A while back, I was at an appointment at a doctor’s office, and at the end of the appointment, she sent me to their office lab for bloodwork. The phlebotomist was one I’d had before on several occasions. This particular day, she looked and acted just like herself. There was no blazing, “Inside I’m crushed by the weight of this pain” sign on her forehead. But in the course of her taking my blood, she paused and apologized. “I’m sorry if I don’t seem like myself today. My daughter died two weeks ago, and this is my first day back.” Her daughter was twenty-two. Cystic fibrosis.

We have no idea where people are at in life. Where they’ve been. What struggles they are fighting, even as they go about their daily lives, as they laugh, as they do their best to act just like themselves.

I’ve often heard the phrase, “Hurt people, hurt people.” That’s true. Sometimes people who are in pain lash out because they don’t know what else to do. But there are those who take this notion to an extreme, deliberately causing hurt to others while using their own pain as an excuse.

People go out of their way to be mean. Two of my kids work at a local grocery store. My daughter is a cashier. Daily, people wad up their receipts and throw them back at her. She’s had objects thrown at her face. Last summer, an angry old man spit cherry pits on her. My son is a service clerk. People yell at him constantly. There have been times the pop bottle return machines aren’t working right; customers launch their empty two-liters at his head in their anger. Pay attention in a restaurant sometime: customers shouting at their waitress because their toast isn’t just right; refusing to tip because they didn’t like their meal after all; making nasty comments about their server’s appearance, as if that has anything to do with their dinner. Social media… man. That’s it’s own level of awful. Mean things I’ve witnessed there recently include grown women attacking an indie cover artist online, to the point they demanded she kill herself because she was worthless – and then she attempted to take her own life by overdosing on pills. People attack crowd funding at alarming rates, and they don’t care if you’re raising money for your mother’s funeral or to pay your rent or for a dream trip – the things people say. Wow. Instead of just scrolling past, they have to take their life minutes to spew complete and utter hatred at human beings they don’t even know.

There’s another truth that’s maybe not quite so catchy of a phrase: Hurt people see the hurt in others.

We see it. We recognize it. That slight slump in the shoulders. The sadness in the eyes.

We know. And we have a choice what we do about it.

We can go out of our way to be kind.

Hold that door open. Smile at people. Offer to help without expectation of recompense. Listen. Not half-heartedly. Really listen. Let them talk without interrupting. Even about topics that are difficult to discuss. Make time. Reach out. Be the person you wish you’d had when you were in the crux of your own pain. What did you need the most? Do that for someone else.

It takes so little to ease the suffering of another. Maybe kindness is a burden, but it’s a load light enough carry everywhere. Reaching out to others in love is what we need more of in the world today. It’s what matters most.

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End the Stigma. Or Don’t.

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There are lots of trending hashtags about mental illness lately. #endthestigma. #thisiswhatanxietyfeelslike. #mentalhealthawareness. #mentalhealthmatters.

Talking about mental illness is trendy. Self-care is a hot topic.

People are tweeting about their experiences with mental illness. The medications they’ve taken. The therapies they’ve sought.

We’re told now is the time to be open about our struggles. To reach out for help and support. People are more accepting now than they were in the past. Admitting you have a mental illness isn’t as taboo as it once was.

Except.

Except when you talk about your struggles with mental health openly, and people automatically assume it means you’re violent.

Except when an admission of mental health treatment makes others so uncomfortable they leave the room.

Except when the first thing said about every school shooter is that they were mentally ill. When ten seconds after the news of another shooting breaks, there are claims the shooter was taking SSRIs. Or has taken them in the past.

And someone looks at you and asks, “Isn’t that the medicine you take?”

Except when friends ask if you aren’t afraid of “getting addicted to that medicine.”

Really, Susan, I’m no more afraid of being addicted to  Zoloft than I am of being addicted to my asthma inhaler. If I need it, I need it.

In sum, it’s a new era. People no longer need to be ashamed about struggling with their mental health.

Be proud! (wait no not that proud)

Be open. It’s the only way to start the conversation. Just… you know. Not that open.

It’s kind of hip now to talk about depression. But mostly the depression that hits you after your dog dies and you cry and eat six gallons of ice cream and you feel sad for a while and then you remember all the good times and you get outside and get some sun and then you’re fine.

That’s the comfortable kind of depression people want to hear about.

Nobody wants to hear about lacking the energy to shower. Or get dressed. Or roll out of bed for three days straight. Nobody wants to hear you need a combination of four medications to make your brain work well enough to function at a minimal level. Nobody wants to hear you can’t make basic decisions or remember how to get started washing a stack of dirty dishes.

When I’m open enough with someone to flat out state that my brain went to shit for about six months of the last year, people avert their eyes. Tell me I’m exaggerating and I’m fine. Ask how much longer I’m going to keep taking these medications (probably forever tbh). Can’t I just take a vitamin that would do the same thing? Or talk loudly over me about a completely different topic (all righty then, point taken). Sometimes they get up and walk out of the room.

Last fall, when I abruptly realized I was definitely not okay, I was honest. I told the people around me, “I am not okay. My brain is not okay.”

Mostly the response was, “Of course you’re okay. You’re fine.”

But I wasn’t. I really, really wasn’t.

When I say I’m in therapy and seeing a psychiatrist I feel like I automatically need to follow that statement up with an assurance that I don’t own a gun, actually wouldn’t know how to operate one, am pretty much a pacifist, and feel guilty if I inadvertently step on a worm and hurt it. I am whatever you want to call the opposite of violent. Listen, all I want to do is make sure everyone is warm and safe and has enough Reese’s peanut butter cups to last the weekend.

Mentally ill is not a synonym for evil or violent.

Until we stop using it as such, all the hashtags in the world aren’t going to make mental health an easier topic to discuss.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

One Step Forward. Three Hundred Sixty Four Steps Back.

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People who know me keep asking if I’m feeling better.

I’m never sure how to answer that question.

What exactly is “better?”

Better from grief? From depression? Anxiety? I don’t know. It’s all tangled up in me and I can’t always pull the different emotions apart.

If the question is, Have you gotten over the deaths of your siblings? Then the answer is no, and I never will, so you might as well stop asking.

If the question is, Are you making any progress at all? Then the answer is, Yeah, I think so.

It feels like I am. In really, really, miniscule ways, I’ve made some progress. For a long time, I felt so raw I could barely stand most of my clothes, so it’s been leggings and soft shirts  most of the winter. But the last few weeks, I’ve been able to wear jeans.

Last Thanksgiving, I hosted the family dinner. My niece brought a turkey. It was too heavy to pull out of the oven, so I transferred much of the juice to a big Mason jar. I set it on the windowsill above the kitchen sink. I’ve been looking at that jar for months, disgusted with myself for not taking care of it, but too exhausted and overwhelmed to deal with it. Two weeks ago, I dumped it out and washed it.

Three weeks ago, as I was walking out the front door to take my boys to school, my youngest son said something funny and I heard myself laughing. Like, really laughing out loud. Hard. And I thought to myself, Oh my God, I’m laughing. How long has it been since I laughed last?

My therapist says she’s proud of me. I wonder how I got to a place in my life where it means so much for a therapist to tell me she’s proud of me for doing simple things like leaving my house or washing the dishes.

I’ve gone to dinner at a couple of smallish restaurants without having an anxiety attack. I told the psychiatrist I’ve been seeing about the anxiety attacks that hit when I’m in crowds and she told me to breathe into a paper sack. So that was just phenomenally unhelpful. Glad I’m getting charged nearly $200 for that bit of advice.

Still can’t watch television or read much. I’ve found a few more musicians I can tolerate the sound of, so my playlist has gotten slightly more diverse, but I still listen to the same songs every day. I have no idea what it is about these artists that makes their music tolerable, but for the moment, I’m just glad I can listen to any music at all.

But it feels like in more ways than I’m moving forward in, I’m stumbling back. Anxiety makes me more awkward than usual, and the usual is pretty damn awkward already. I work in a very small office, usually with three other people that I know pretty well. I have my own desk in a room with two other desks, but there’s usually nobody else there when I’m working. So I walked in last Thursday to find a new person had been hired. She seems entirely pleasant, but I was caught off-guard. I couldn’t think of what to do, anxiety had my brain all jumbled up, and even in the best of times, I’m not huge on hugging, especially with people I don’t know. But the new chick is a hugger, so she jumped up to hug me hello and introduce herself. Entirely inadvertently, I jumped backward and flung my hand out like “stop.” Immediately, I attempted to apologize and shook her hand, babbling incoherently about my own inadequacies and anxieties, and generally making the situation even more awkward. Anxiety ballooned this incident in my mind until it was nearly all I could think about. At the end of my shift, as I was walking out, I thought, I need to make this right so it’s not super awkward next week. So I stopped to shake her hand again as I left, and said the most inane thing I probably could have. “Sorry I’m so awkward, but I’m seeing a psychiatrist about it.”

I’m sure that helped matters. First impressions and all that.

My husband surprised me with a night away at a hotel and planned a night at a casino. He said I seemed overwhelmed and needed a break, which was true. The hotel part was awesome but the casino was crowded and smoky and I had to take frequent breaks from the people. I wrote part of my new book out on my phone while my husband played games, so I didn’t have to interact with anyone. The next day was release day for When Knowing Comes, and as I’d decided to go low-key and stress-free as possible, I’d planned a live video in my FB readers group for the event. We came home twenty minutes before the video was to start. My laptop decided to do updates at the last second, which left me in a panic. The FB app on my phone wouldn’t work for no apparent reason. Finally I grabbed my husband’s phone, downloaded FB, and started my live video twenty minutes late, which left me out of breath, anxious, and shaky.

I find I just really need a lot of preparation before I do anything. Time to work up courage. I hate feeling this way. It isn’t what I’m used to and I get frustrated with myself for not being able to get back to “normal.” Which, okay, with me is still pretty weird but even so. I used to be able to roll with the punches when plans changed. I want that part of me back.

Some days, I am anxious all day for no apparent reason. It feels like that sensation when you tip over the top of a rollercoaster hill, all day. All night. And I can’t link it to anything in particular, so I can’t fix the problem and by the time evening comes, all I can think about is going to bed so I can escape that feeling. Going to bed because you’re tired is a very different thing than going to bed because you can’t stand being awake anymore. Either way, though, I wake up over and over and over. I can’t remember what a solid night of sleep feels like.

But on the upside, I’m having less nightmares about my family and pets dying in front of me. So I’ve got that going for me, which is nice.

I’ve pulled back more on social media. I’ve unfollowed or left all the groups I was in except my own readers group. Weekly, I cull more “friends.” I’ll continue paring down until I get to what I feel is a manageable number. I understand it hurts people’s feelings, but right now all I can do is try to take care of my brain the best I can. My focus has narrowed to my household, my mom, my job, and writing.

And speaking of writing.

I’m writing. A lot. For so many months, I couldn’t write anything, and that was painful for me. Now, I can’t seem to stop. I’m nearly finished writing the third Windy Springs book, and my mind races with ideas for the fourth.

A lot of the time I feel like all I’m doing is treading water. But hey, at least I’m not drowning anymore.

One step forward. Three-hundred-sixty-four steps back.

But still, a step forward is a step forward. And even one step is better than none.

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The Books that Grew Me

 

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I can’t recall I time I wasn’t a voracious reader. As far back as my memory allows me to go, I had a book (or two) in my hand. And a spare one in the car. And probably another one hidden somewhere for just in case.

I read all the books that were popular in that time frame, of course. Sweet Valley High. R.L. Stine. Babysitter’s Club (always envisioned myself as Claudia). There was an author by the name of Zilpha Keatley Snyder (isn’t that a fantastic name?) whose books I loved. But the ones that caught my attention and held it for years and years were the books by L.M. Montgomery.

I think I started reading the Anne of Green Gables series around sixth or seventh grade. I had a group of girlfriends who read along with me, and we would discuss the stories at length in the school cafeteria. I’ve thought about what it was about these books in particular that captured my adoration so swiftly, and it took me a long while before I came to the conclusion it was Anne herself. Even at a young age, I identified with her inner struggle – she wanted to conform, do what was expected of her, make everyone happy. But she simply couldn’t be anyone other than Anne. She saw the world in a different way than everyone else, and I felt that right through to my marrow, even before I had the ability to articulate it.

My copy of the first book in the series has been read so many times the spine is cracked, the cover gave up the ghost decades ago, and the top corners of all the pages curl in. It’s beautiful. I kept them all – all the Anne books, all the Emily of New Moon books, all the off shoot books – in the hopes that one day my children would fall in love with them the way I did. That didn’t happen, though. Still, I keep them. I like knowing right where they are. Those books were such a huge part of my growing up years. I haven’t read them in probably close to two decades. Maybe longer. Yet I remember sentences from the books.

“Well now,” said Matthew. “Well now.”

“I wouldn’t give a dog I liked to that Blewett woman,” Matthew said.

“People laugh at me because I use big words. But if you have big ideas, you have to use big words to express them, haven’t you?” (oh, how I identified with poor Anne in this regard.)

“The world calls them its singers and poets and artists and storytellers; but they are just people who have never forgotten the way to fairyland.”

“Kindred spirits are not so scarce as I used to think. It’s splendid to find out there are so many of them in the world.”

I’ve never watched the shows that sprung from this series. I couldn’t. In general, I can keep the two mediums separate. And I realize it would be unfair to expect a show to exactly reflect the scenes that I’ve held in my mind all these years like personal little treasures. So I avoided them altogether.

The years I first fell in love with the Anne books were the same years I first started messing around with writing, so the two experiences are forever tangled together in my mind. I had always loved words, but those books showed me how the perfect phrase could conjure a clear picture in the imagination of the reader. How a fictional character could stay with a person for years after they’d read about them. They taught me about the impact words could have on a life. To have known and loved these books so long ago – and still – is a gift. I cannot imagine being a writer now if I had never stumbled on those books back then.

It’s mind blowing to think the words of a woman who died more than thirty years before I was born had such a powerful influence on my life. But isn’t that what good art does? Its reach surpasses things like time. It connects us, generation after generation.

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Can’t Go Over It. Can’t Go Under It.

 

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It seems simplistic to say that life is often like the children’s song, “Going on a Bear Hunt.” But like many things, I guess, we learned as children, it’s become a solid truth in adulthood.

With life comes much joy. We drink it up. We hold it tight.

With life comes much pain. We want to avoid it. We shrink away from it. We try to numb it in any number of ways. But the reality is, we have to go through it. Even when we know what we have to do, we run from the pain. It doesn’t work, though.

There’s no way over it. There’s no way under it. No way around it. I’ve watched people numb the pain. Avoid dealing with it. What happens is, they get stuck. No matter how you numb yourself, at some point, you’ll start to feel again. Then you have to decide whether you’re going to numb yourself again, or deal with the pain. Those that keep it numb are just spinning their wheels. They never fully go through it, so they can never get to the other side. Years can pass. A lifetime can pass. And still, there they are, trapped in a bubble of agony while the world goes on without them.

It’s scary to face it. I know it is. Standing in the void, peering into a dark, empty place. Unsure if there  might be sun on the other side. Unsure if it’s worth it to try to find out.

The ground is tilted. Your soul is crooked. It seems like pushing through the darkness will be too much. It might be safer to remain in the void, with your crooked soul and tilted earth. You know how to exist there. It might be cold and lonely, but you’ve gotten used to it. Reaching for a light you aren’t sure will be there is a gamble.

What if you get all the way through and find it isn’t there? Then what?

Facing the darkness, facing the pain, will be worth it. It will hurt, and it’s normal to want to run from that. But refusing to deal with it keeps the wound open. It can’t heal until it’s dealt with head on.

You can do this. Brace up. Stare into the inky blackness. Know you are worth finding the sun again.

Can’t go over it. Can’t go under it. Can’t go around it.

Just dive in.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

The Gift of a Song

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On occasion, I’ve experienced things that defy any simple explanation. I don’t understand how they happened, but I’m positive that they did. Cosmic mysteries, I guess, or whatever you want to call them.

My sister loved the song Wagon Wheel by Darius Rucker. If it came on the radio, she’d immediately start  smiling and singing along. When she was on Hospice, her son would sing it to her often. The night she passed, that same son sang Wagon Wheel as she took her final breaths.

We made a CD to play during the funeral viewings and service. Of course, Wagon Wheel was included.

She’d been gone just a little over four years when we learned my brother had cancer. He asked me to help him take his son on a promised trip to Nashville. Within weeks, we’d thrown a fundraiser, gotten time off work, and packed up our Yukon, Nashville bound. My nephew loves country music, and my brother had promised to take him to see the Grand Ole Opry. It took us two days to drive from Michigan to Nashville. My brother was quite ill at that point, and we had to stop often for him to get a drink or to rest. We had purchased tickets ahead of time for the Opry, for the same night we rolled into town. After dropping off our luggage at the hotel, we headed out. We had a wheelchair we’d intended to bring with us, but we couldn’t fit it in the vehicle, not with five adults and all the suitcases and bags. After literally hours of trying to get the chair into the Yukon, we left without it, as time was unfortunately of the essence. When we arrived at the Opry, we realized we had a problem: the parking lot was enormous and crowded. There was no way my brother could walk that distance, so my husband let the four of us out at the gates, and went to find a parking spot. If you’ve ever been to the Opry, you know how beautiful it is. The giant guitars, the plants and flowers, the lights. It’s utterly enchanting. And there is always country music blaring outside to welcome visitors.

It took quite some time for my husband to make it back up to where we were. Tickets in hand, our group entered the gates.

That’s when I heard it. Darius Rucker singing Wagon Wheel. It started playing just as we walked through. I nudged my sister-in-law. “Do you hear that?” I asked her. “It’s Charlotte’s song.” We all kind of stood still for a second, listening. A weird little shiver went up my spine and my eyes watered. How I’d wished she could have been there with us, and out of nowhere came her favorite song.

Which could always be a coincidence. But it meant something to me. It really struck my heart.

The show was fantastic. It felt good to know we had accomplished the biggest goal for the trip. We’d gotten my brother and nephew to the Opry. Anything over and above that was gravy. We hit a lot of touristy spots while we were in town. The wax museum, where my brother posed with his favorite singer, Reba McIntyre. We bought cowboy boots at a western shop. We laughed a lot. One day we drove right into the heart of the city, intent on taking my nephew to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Here in Michigan, I live in a town so small we don’t even get mailboxes. My brother and his family lived a couple of hours north of us, in another small town. You ever see the Uncle Kracker video for Smile? That was filmed in their town. Suffice to say, downtown Nashville was a bit of a shock to our systems. The noise, the crowds, the hella busy streets. First we had to find a rental place to get a wheelchair, which took time. Then we had to locate a parking lot, which was confusing. And by the time we had the wheelchair and had gotten parked, we weren’t sure which direction we were even walking. We went down one sidewalk, backtracked, tried another one. Finally, my husband told us to stop and he took out his iPhone.

“Siri, I need directions to the Country Music Hall of Fame,” he said, loud and clear.

Instead, his phone pulled up YouTube. And without him touching a button, Darius Rucker’s Wagon Wheel came blaring out of his phone.

That time, I did cry. In fact, my insides shook. The five of us stilled on the sidewalk, stunned. Staring at the phone in my husband’s upturned palm.

When the song ended and we looked up to try to figure out where we were, there it was: the Country Music Hall of Fame. Right across the street.

Another coincidence?

It feels like more than that to me. It feels like it was a gift, just for us. Two weeks later, my brother was gone. But the memory of that moment the five of us – or maybe the six of us – stood together on that sidewalk, listening to Wagon Wheel, has been a balm to my soul ever since.

I will treasure that fraction of time forever. Because I was given a precious gift.

The gift of a song.

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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

Life in Color

Sometimes forward steps seem so small. It’s imperative to remember that any step forward is still a step forward. It doesn’t matter if that one tiny step has taken you years to make.

Forward is forward.

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Yesterday, I did something I haven’t done in many years. Longer than that, actually. Something I haven’t done since I was about fifteen or sixteen. And I’m a long way past that now – forty-two.

It seems like a tiny thing. A normal thing. Something I imagine most humans do on a regular basis. Let me back up a minute.

When I was a young teen, my sister went to cosmetology school. I went in often to let her practice on my hair and nails. Eventually, she graduated, and after that, anything that was done to my hair took place either in her kitchen or mine. I haven’t been to a salon since then. Not once. Those times when she was cutting or coloring my hair were catch-up moments for us. What’s been going on, what the kids are up to, who she was dating.

Now, my hair isn’t something I spend a whole lot of time on. I wash it, blow dry it, and just leave the Medusa curls as they are. It’s thick, heavy, and generally uncooperative, and it just takes too long to do anything else with it. I’m also not good with keeping up on coloring it, so by the time I get around to it, I’ve got a couple inches of roots grown out. By the time my sister started having pain in her shoulder, it had been months since I’d cut or colored it. Then she wasn’t able to move her arm well enough to hold her scissors. And very shortly after that, we knew it was stage 4 cancer.

After she died, the thought of anyone else touching my hair was so repulsive I couldn’t stand it. For a long time, I did nothing with it. By the year after her death, my hair was such a mess, even I couldn’t stand it any more. The ends were dead and splitting inches up from the bottom, and it was making the curls look more like I’d just stuck my car key in a light socket.

I looked up how to cut my hair in layers on YouTube, and found a tutorial for doing it by putting my hair up in a ponytail and cutting. I did it myself in my bathroom, and when my hair hit the floor I cried because she wasn’t the one cutting it. That first time was rough, but once I figured out how to do it, it wasn’t so bad. Two, maybe three times a year, I’d just pull my wet hair up in a ponytail and lop off a couple of inches. It took me four years before I could let anyone else touch my hair, and even then, it was my daughter.

She’s a cosmetology student at the local community college. Last summer, I sat in my kitchen chair and let her even up the mess I’d made of my hair and then color it. It was funny how similar her hands felt to my sister’s. Quick and confident.

About a month ago, I woke up one morning and decided to cut myself bangs. They turned out all right. I just used regular household scissors. But after that, I felt like I needed a big change. I decided to color my hair purple.

So my daughter made me an appointment, and yesterday I drove to her cosmetology school and spent six hours getting the red out of my hair and the purple and brown put in. It was crowded and noisy, and at times, that was difficult for me to handle. Since my brother’s death, I haven’t been out in public much. Crowds trigger my anxiety attacks. But I made myself sit through it. Even though my daughter is the one who did my hair, it seemed so strange to be in a salon. The experience took me right back to when I was fifteen, sitting in a twirly black chair at my sister’s school.

When it was finally all done, I left the school and drove straight to my church. A friend of ours had passed away and I went to his memorial service. After I parked my car, I checked myself in the rearview and realized I had purple dye smeared on my cheek.

I went in anyway.

Funerals have gotten hard for me. I know most people don’t actually like funerals, but for me, having lost so many family members in a short span of time, it’s difficult for me to fight through flashbacks, and sometimes I have trouble catching my breath. This was the second funeral for me this week. The church was crammed full of people, so for the second time yesterday, I had to force myself to handle being in a crowd without having a panic attack. I made it through the entire service but didn’t stay for the dinner because my personal limits had been reached. Sometimes I just have to say no and either people will understand or they won’t. I can’t control their reactions.

It seems like a small thing – going to get my hair done. But for me, it was a huge, huge step forward. Yesterday was the longest consecutive amount of time I think I’ve spent in a crowd since my brain went to shit about six months ago.

That tells me two things:

  1. This combination of medication is working for me.
  2. Hope is out there. Somewhere.

Grief and its aftermath are such hard things to live through. But I’m doing it.

I’ve said before that intense grief is like suddenly having an enormous hole in your leg. At first, it seems like your life is over – how can you function with a gaping hole in your leg? You can’t walk. You can’t do anything. It’s awful. You need help with everything and it’s unimaginable that you will ever have any semblance of a normal life again.  At some point, though, you realize you can do some of the things you used to do, you just need to do them in a different way. And later, you don’t need as much help. You can go on with your life, though you might need a cane and you’ll always have a limp.

My purple hair is me walking with a limp.

But at least I’m walking.

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