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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Everything else, Grief, Writing

Going, going… gone.

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It seems our life has become filled with pets to varying degrees. We’ve got three dogs now. My mom – who tolerated us kids having dogs when we were small but never enjoyed them on any level – has a dog. My daughter and her boyfriend have a 30 gallon tank filled with fish, including one named Ted who is pleasant enough as long as he’s fed regularly, but doesn’t mind gobbling up his small friends if the fish food sprinkles don’t arrive on time.

My brother was an avid animal lover, and couldn’t resist taking in one that was in need. Over the years he’d had cats, dogs, a parrot named Wilma, pygmy goats, rabbits, pigs, ducks, chickens, and I can’t even recall what all else. When he got sick last year, he had a cat and seven dogs. Realizing he was becoming too frail to be able to care for them, he made the heartbreaking decision to rehome some of them, including his own special dog, Beau. My daughter’s boyfriend had hoped to take Beau, but his landlord squelched that idea. However, a pastor friend of my brother’s offered to take Beau in, and that was nice, because he still had opportunities to visit with him on good days. They also had to rehome two of the chihuahuas, and their pit puppy, Jade.

They kept my sister-in-law’s tiny chihuahua, my nephew’s little shih Tzu, and their elderly family dog, Ellie Mae. The chihuahuas were able to find a new home together, which was great. Jade, the pit puppy, went to a friend’s home, and though she was hesitant at first, eventually recognized they were her new people and settled in.

I called my sister-in-law last night to wish her a happy birthday. It was her first one since we lost my brother, and I figured it’d be an especially difficult day for her. In the course of conversation, she mentioned how sad she was about Jade. The last I’d heard of Jade, she’d been doing well in her new home, so I asked what had happened. Apparently, the electrical wiring in the house caught fire, and though the couple were able to rescue their baby from the blaze, they were unable to reach Jade in time, and she perished in the fire.

Some of my brother’s dogs I’ve known since they were pups. I didn’t know Jade well and really had no connection to her. My brother’s family lives a couple of hours away, and Jade was just a baby dog when they had her, so I never got the chance to bond with her. But hearing she’s passed hurts me with a strange, sharp ache. It’s like another little piece of my brother has disappeared, and I hate it. It’s nobody’s fault. The fire was a tragic fluke, and I certainly don’t blame anyone for Jade’s death. Still and all, that pain is there.

Trying to hold on to all the memories is like holding my hand beneath a faucet and trying to catch all the water. Of course the memories are there, but there are so many, over so many years, that the more recent stuff gets shoved to the front. It makes me feel kind of frantic, like I’m losing my family all over again.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a book about living with grief. It would be a compilation of pieces I’ve written during and after the deaths of my siblings. I don’t know if anyone would actually read it, but it feels like it might be cathartic for me, and I like the idea of having a tangible something with these precious memories in it. I was reading through some of the posts from when my sister died a few years back, and came across one detailing the moment she left this earth. I had written that with four of her children there, and my mom, my aunt, my sister’s ex-husband and her two little dogs perched on her bed, there hadn’t been much space. I had grabbed on to my sister’s ankles as she took her last breaths. Just to touch her skin. So she would know I was there. It was the only part of her I could reach in the crowd.

I had forgotten that. Or maybe I didn’t forget, but the memory was shoved to the back, less urgent than the others.

I don’t want to forget those little things. I don’t want these tiny pieces to float away.

So I think I’m going to do it. Tentative working title is “Grief in my Pockets.”

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The Burden of the Beast

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I forget sometimes. Even though I know the beast; in fact, have known it now, for  many years, I forget. It comes slowly. Quietly. I watch for it, I memorize its stealthy steps. I plan ahead, how to handle an attack.

I feel its breath on my neck, its heavy weight on my back. I ignore it. I fight it. I run from it.

Still. The beast comes.

It comes in the night, invading my dreams with visions of grotesque accidents, twisted bodies, loss after loss after loss. Some mornings I write the nightmares out in a spiral notebook, just to get them out of my head. Sometimes the dreams are so terrible, I cannot bear to conjure even a faded image of them on paper. Me – a fantasy and horror writer who delights in writing about gristle and blood and death.

The nightmares are too much, even for me.

It’s inside me, pulling my nerves so taught they vibrate. Leaving me so agitated, my skin begins to itch. I absently scratch at my arm or leg and BAM – oh, hives.

This pattern repeats so often, I should know it like I know the back of my hand. Still, it catches me off guard.

Clenching stomach. Headaches. Fatigue.

Why am I so tired? I whisper to myself as my eyes flutter shut in the middle of a workday.

Why am I so tired? I ask my husband, when the alarm goes off in the morning and I feel like I haven’t slept at all.

Why am I so tired? Over and over and over.

And then I remember. The beast.

When people think about anxiety, they often imagine the five second panic attacks shown on television. Watch the character swallow a Xanax. There, now. All better. Life goes on.

The reality is that anxiety is so much more. It affects the entire body. It affects sleep. Work. Hobbies. It affects eating. The ability to relax.

Anxiety affects everything. It is fucking exhausting. I know it, yet I keep forgetting. Every time. I get so frustrated with myself.

It’s been mentioned to me that I seem to be “dwelling.” I don’t feel like I’m dwelling. In fact, I feel like I’m fighting to keep pushing forward. Some days are really difficult, but still, I get up. I work. I write about grief, depression, and anxiety quite a bit, that’s true. Not because I’m dwelling on my losses – because I’m still working on processing them. It’s not an experience to get over, but an experience to learn to live with. I am still learning.

Sometimes words come to me and I feel compelled to get them out of my head. This happened a few days ago, so I put them out as a Facebook status. I got quite a bit of feedback on that post, people messaging to tell me they felt the same way, or thanking me for the words. I’m going to share them here, as well:

“There will be times in life when it feels so cold and dark you think you can’t take one more step. This is it – the one thing in life you just can’t get through.
But you can. I know you think you can’t, but you can.
Right this minute, you may be in the coldest, darkest ditch, overwhelmed by the wind that threatens to topple you.
Please take this knowledge and hold it tight; bury it deep in your heart –
The sun will shine for you again. One day, you will hear yourself laugh and be startled by the sound of it, but recall what a beautiful feeling it is to laugh. One day you will be struck by the simple beauty of a butterfly or a newly blossomed flower. One day there will be words in a random song on the radio that strike a sense of recognition through your soul, and you will know that somewhere, someone else has felt the same way you feel, and it will spur you forward.
Take these tiny moments in. Allow them to be a balm for your raw edges.
The sun will shine for you again.
You just have to keep getting up.”

These words encompass my feelings over the last year. It has been dark. Some days, it still is. But colors are becoming bright again. Music is enjoyable again. There are tiny moments in each day where I feel grateful to be breathing. Grateful for my life. I can create. I can laugh.

Some days, the beast still comes. Even in happiness. Even when I’m determined to enjoy myself. Even when I focus on peace.

I believe this is my new normal. I can accept that. The more I get up, the more I choose joy, the more I create, the smaller the beast becomes. But I’m not certain I will ever be free of it.

I can live with that. I am strong and can carry that burden. And on days that I can’t, I’ve learned to ask others to help me bear it.

In the middle of October last year, we drove my brother and his family to Nashville. It was his wish after we learned of the severity of his diagnosis. On the drive back to Michigan, he wanted to stop in Kentucky at the Mammoth Caves. He remembered our parents taking us there when we were small, and he wanted his son to share in that experience. As it happened, after several busy days in Nashville and the drive to the caves, my brother was too ill to do the tour, but he insisted we take his son and go.

We honored that wish. It was an eerie feeling, stepping down into that cavern. Our group was maybe twenty people, I’d guess, plus the tour guide. We walked cautiously in the dim light, turned a corner, and lined up, as the guide requested, along a sturdy rail so he could tell us about the history of the caves. Part of the way through, the guide asked everyone to put their cell phones away. Then he turned off the remaining lights.

The darkness was overwhelming. I could hear breathing all around me, but saw nobody. Not even my hand in front of my face was visible. Logically, I knew we were safe enough. But after several silent seconds in that blackness, my heart began to pound. Icy fingers of fear crept up my spine. The beast was there, pressing down on me, shortening my breaths.

But then I remembered, we were really just a few feet underground. If I held the rail and followed it back the way we had come, in less than a minute, I’d be back outside in the light.

The sun had not disappeared. I’d just moved away from it.

With that knowledge, the burden of the beast lessened.

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When the Wind Comes.

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There are days it just sneaks up on me. It doesn’t seem as if anything in particular sets it off. Sometimes it’s a cumulative effect; an anniversary date has passed, or I’ve read or seen something that reminds me of one of them and over the course of several days it all builds up. June is always a busy month for me, because weekends in June I work at the Ren Faire, but it’s also a difficult one, because there are so many of those painful anniversary dates to get through.

My dad had two birthdays. All his life, he celebrated on June 21st. The first day of summer. The day before my parents’ wedding anniversary. When my eldest daughter was about a year old, my parents decided to go on a cruise. When Dad went to see about his passport, he needed a copy of his birth certificate. After procuring such, he was startled to see his date of birth listed as June 12. He went to his mother’s house to question this discrepancy. My grandmother, a no nonsense farm wife who raised eight children (all born at home) while also maintaining a job at a restaurant, responded, (paraphrasing here) “Listen, Dale, you were one of eight kids. I was busy. I was tired. I don’t remember which day you were born.”

My sister’s birthday was June 15th. And then of course there was Father’s Day, which always kind of bites when you no longer have a father to visit. It was also my brother’s wife and son’s first Father’s Day without him.

While I got through these dates actually pretty well, doing my best to keep busy and generally filling my mind up with enough caffeine and yarn and extra tasks at work, and Ren Faire fun, etc., repeat, to keep me from over-focusing on my losses, there came a reckoning day. I was blindsided by the intensity of it. Like a powerful wind that’s been gaining speed for hours before plowing into a rickety barn, the grief struck me down in the middle of a work day. I was fine, working along, typing and filing and laughing with my coworker, and all at once I was NOT fine, not fine at all. Tears poured forth, furious and salty. The terrible weight that had suddenly taken up residence in my chest made it nearly impossible to breathe. I turned my head, grabbed my purse, mumbled something about taking my lunch early, and staggered out to my car. I dropped the driver’s side seat back as far as it would go, so nobody could see me sobbing, and called my husband. He talked soothingly to me for several minutes, and then reminded me to do some breathing exercises or try to meditate until I had a hold of myself. By the time we’d hung up, what had started as another wave of grief had morphed into a full-on anxiety attack. When it was time to go back in, I’d cried off all my make-up and my face was red and puffy. I’m fortunate to have kindhearted coworkers who are caring and understanding. But I was “off” for the rest of the day, and when I came home, I was so exhausted I curled up on the couch and stayed there until bedtime. My limbs all felt like lead.

I hate to use the word “trigger,” because I feel like it implies I want or need other people to censor their speech and that’s not the case. But I’ve found that one of the things that amp up the anxiety is when I see or hear about siblings coming together during a crisis. My family and I were always so close; the sort of family who would rush to be with one another during a hardship. The night my brother died, I remember walking into the hallway on the way to his room. My aunt Carol was standing there, crying and shaking her head at me. “He’s already gone,” she choked out. I’d missed his death by eight minutes.

As I stumbled into his hospital room, there was my Uncle Russ, mom’s brother, and his wife. None of them lived near the hospital, but they’d dropped what they were doing when they got the call from my mother and sped to the hospital to be with her. To help hold her up. They huddled around her, stroking her back, murmuring words of comfort, getting water, tissues, whatever they could. My mom’s other sister lived out of state, but by the next day had already booked a flight back to Michigan.

Now and again it hits me that I will never again have that. In times of trouble, I will never have my siblings to help hold me up. I will never be able to call them to talk through a struggle I’m having.  It’s a precious thing to have, and one that’s probably taken for granted by many. It’s one of those things you expect to have. Until all at once, you don’t.

I’ve heard it said that after something awful happens, you “get bitter or get better.” I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate. Maybe you “get bitter or get empathetic.” Or perhaps you “get bitter or become more compassionate.”

Am I “better?” In some respects. I’m certainly better than I was six months ago, in the sense that I can think straight most of the time. I have the energy to take showers, and I remember to wash the shampoo and conditioner out of my hair now. I remember the steps I need to take to wash the dishes or the laundry. I can go to Walmart most of the time without having a panic attack from the crowds of people.

But there are holes in me that will never again be filled. There is pain that will never lessen. I’ve just learned to carry them inside, next to love for my remaining family, and joy at my kids’ laughter, and snuggles with my puppies, and the memories of extraordinary sunsets. I try not to focus on the unfairness of it, because indeed this situation is unfair. No way around that. But if I only focus on that, I miss out on the pure delight of holding my sister’s grandchildren in my arms. I miss out on beautiful days with my family. I miss out on friendships and art and all the simple parts of life that are not really simple at all. The pain and the joy just have to exist together.

My losses have changed me irreparably and that’s a truth I’ve had to accept. I will never be the person I was before. Part of that change is this excess of empathy and compassion. I have known the pain that has knocked me down and nearly kept me there, so when I meet someone with a similar struggle, my soul recognizes that hurt and I’m compelled to reach out. I listen more. I’m slower to come to conclusions about others. Constantly in the forefront of my thoughts is the knowledge that I have no idea what anyone else has been through, just as they have no idea what I’ve been through. Kindness makes a difference. A smile, a thoughtful word – they make a difference. The gifts of time, of acceptance, of unconditional love – they make a difference. I try to just meet people where they are at in life and love them right there.

There are other changes that aren’t so positive. I feel deeper, in every respect. Sometimes that is difficult to handle. I still struggle with what feel like stupid changes: I still cannot watch television. I haven’t read a book in months. My attention span is a problem, much more so than before, I think. I spend a lot of time lost in my own head. Quite often, I feel like I’ve slowed way down, though that might just be my own interpretation. I catch on to new tasks slower, it seems like I move slowly and though my brain is as crowded as ever before, it feels like the gears are turning at an impossibly slow pace.

On one hand, it seems impossible that all of this has even happened, and on the other, it feels like it keeps happening, day after day, minute after minute.

My rule for myself back in November was that I just had to get up and put on clothes every day. I knew if I allowed myself to stay in bed for one day, it would all be over for me and I’d never get back out. Here were are in July, and I can honestly say my life is far fuller than just climbing out of bed and pulling on leggings. I’ve put out three books since November, I’ve made new friends, I’ve laughed, I’ve gotten a new job, I’ve learned new skills, I’ve been through therapy, I’ve learned a lot about myself, about resilience, about grief, depression, and anxiety.

I’ve changed a lot for both the good and the not so good. But the important thing is that I’m here. Every day, I wake up. I interact. I seek out art and joy and beauty. Life will never be what it once was. I will never be the person I was before.

But that doesn’t mean life isn’t worthwhile.

Maybe it isn’t always beautiful. But there will always be beauty in the pain. There will always be a spot of sun in the darkness.

And even when the harsh wind comes out of nowhere to knock me down, I will always, always get back up.

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Another Year in the Rearview Mirror

I blew out my candles (placed carefully in the shape of a smiley face) in a pecan pie last night. Thankfully there weren’t really forty-three of them or we might have had to call the fire department.

It was a nice birthday, as far as such things go. I mean, there was work, but I like my job and my boss brought in a chocolate cake so I had that for breakfast which felt mildly rebellious.

Once upon a time, wearing ripped jeans and a motorcycle jacket and staying out past curfew felt rebellious, but those days are so far in the past they’re no longer really visible in the rearview mirror.

There was an odd sort of sense that I was shifting in time last night… my daughter’s boyfriend invited us to his house, and the two of them made us a delightful dinner with my favorite things. The kids put the candles in my pie and carried it to me, singing. It was wonderful, truly, but I felt somewhat cockeyed for a second. For so many (many, many) years, I’ve been the one planning and making the birthday dinners, lighting the candles, initiating the obligatory belting out of the birthday song. The role reversal was cool, for sure, but it just felt a bit odd for a second. Three of my kids are adults now. When did that happen?

The night before my birthday, on Mother’s Day, my uncle died. I hadn’t seen him in a few years, but I cried over the loss. When I was young, we spent a lot of time at my parents’ cabin up north. (That might be a Michigan thing, “Up north.” Basically, it means anywhere above the Zilwaukee bridge, not necessarily in the upper peninsula.) This particular cabin was about two and a half hours from the house I grew up in. In the winters, we would go up on the weekends to head out snowmobiling, but the summers were the best time. Memorial weekend, Labor Day weekend, and several weekends in between we would go north and family would come in for the duration. The cabin was small but the yard was big and when we ran out of room for bodies to sleep on a couch or the floor, tents would pop up in the yard or relatives would drop a rusty tin can-style camper in the front yard. With my siblings and their families, aunts, uncles, and cousins, it would be nothing to have forty relatives or more hanging out for the weekend. The uncle that passed on Sunday was my dad’s closest brother and best friend. They were two peas in a pod; the same mannerisms, same expressions, same grunts of affirmation or disgust. Uncle Vern was always there on those weekends. He and my dad would get up before sunrise to start the massive breakfast for the family, scrambling a hundred eggs and thirty pounds of potatoes while the rest of us woke slowly, took turns with the only bathroom, and stumbled outside in the early morning light. Plates in hand, we’d wait around until food was done then sit in folding chairs on the lawn, reminiscing, planning, laughing. I’m sad that those days are gone, and I’m sad that so many of the people who were there have passed away now.

And I’m not trying to dwell on the past or anything like that. The right now time is good. It’s solid. Every day holds some measure of joy, and my family is happy and growing. We’re making our own memories. But there’s a weird ache in my gut every time I realize most of the people who shared those days with me are gone. There are very few people alive who remember the same things I do. I have no siblings to reminisce with. Nobody else who remembers Christmas mornings, sitting at the top of the stairs while our parents fixed coffee and opened a can of Tab before we were allowed to run into the family room to see the tree and presents. I sort through photos and laugh at a memory, then remember the faces in the picture have all passed away now. Those weekends up north at the old cabin were pure happiness. I miss them, and the people who shared them with me.

Last Friday, I left work early and spent three hours at a local tattoo shop. My left forearm is now decorated with the ink of a memorial for my lost family. It turned out beautiful. I thought long and hard about what symbols to choose for each family member. My dad’s was pretty easy: a sunflower. He always had a garden out back, and bordered the perimeter of the vegetable plot with tall, vibrant sunflowers. To this day, every time I see a sunflower, I immediately think of my dad. For my sister, I chose a sun/moon. She used to buy all sorts of decorations with the sun/moon on them. Something about it really spoke to her, so I chose a bright, happy style with crinkly eyes in the face of the sun and rosy cheeks. Even the face of the moon sports a tolerant smirk. My brother loved all things Viking: history, television, exaggerated lore, random facts. For him I chose a raven. Odin, the Viking god, has two ravens, thought to represent “memory” and “thoughts.” Seemed fitting, to me.

The words are impossible to see in a photo because they wrap around my arm, but they are lyrics from a song called “Less than Whole:”

“The grey clouds have departed

The stars light up the night

Now I can see through darkness

The river shines with life

I’ve waded through the water

My soul is comin’ clean

I’ve held my breath forever

But now it’s time to breathe.”

Here I am, another year in the rearview mirror.

And I’m finally breathing.

ink

 

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Milestone Days

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It’s the milestone days that hit the hardest, I think. It sneaks up on me and quite often I can’t figure out why I’m extra emotional until all at once, I remember.

This week has been a big one in terms of milestones.

Yesterday, my biggest little girl turned twenty-two. I was eleven days shy of turning twenty-one the day she was born. I’d had an all natural birth plan written out, which was promptly tossed in the trash when, a month before she was due to be born, my gall bladder decided it needed to come out. I was feverish and in extraordinary pain, and when my doctor told me they were planning an emergency C-section, I was terrified. Family came up immediately, of course. In the end, everything turned out all right. My sister was beyond thrilled to be an auntie. My brother was ecstatic – he and his wife had just welcomed their son two weeks prior. I have the cutest picture of my husband and my brother holding the babies in the hall at the hospital. They both look so very young.

Yesterday was also my last day at a job I really loved. I hadn’t been planning to leave and then all at once, the situation changed. I’d been half-heartedly looking to pick up a second part time job, and an amazing full time opportunity fell from the sky. I couldn’t NOT take it, but man oh man, it was painful to give notice at a job I truly enjoyed. More than the work, I’ll miss my coworkers terribly. It was a difficult decision to make, and I keep wondering if I made the right choice. I know that I did, for the sake of my family, but it still hurts. Lots of tears the last several days, especially yesterday, packing up my desk and walking out for the last time.

Today is my son’s Junior prom. We picked his suit up yesterday – in the brief window of time between when I left my former job, sobbing, and when we were meeting at the restaurant to celebrate my daughter’s birthday – and wow, does my little boy look grown when he puts it on. He’s taller than I am, now, with facial hair and a new (adorable) girlfriend. Time, man. It marches forward at a ridiculous pace. I wish sometimes I could catch moments like this in my hands just so I could hold them for a while longer.

These are the times when it really strikes me that both my siblings are gone. I have no brother or sister to invite to my kid’s birthday party. Or to call and tell about my new job, or how hard it is for me to leave the old one. No siblings to come tonight and see my son all dressed up, looking sharp and posing with his girl for pictures. It feels so wrong that this is the reality. They should be here. 

Tomorrow, my youngest daughter graduates from college. I’m so proud of her. She’s overcome a myriad of obstacles to get to this point, and to see her with her cap and gown, knowing how hard she’s worked to get to this point, fills me with such an indescribable sense of joy. My sister was a hairstylist. Five years ago, when she was on Hospice, my daughter was telling her how she was going to follow in her footsteps and go to cosmetology school. “Just like Aunt Char Char.” My God, would my sister ever be proud to see her walk tomorrow.

It’s been an exhausting and emotional week, all around. I’m overflowing with conflicting emotions. Some days I miss my siblings so much I can’t catch my breath. Tears well up over the smallest moments that trigger memories. It’s like being kicked in the gut without warning.

I didn’t plan it this way, but a while back I made an appointment to get a memorial tattoo for my dad and my siblings. My appointment is next Friday. This morning I was thinking how fitting the timing is. This week has been almost overwhelming in the feelings department. Next week, I’m taking this step forward in my healing process, honoring my lost loved ones with bright and beautiful ink.

It’s the milestone days that hurt the most.

It’s the milestone days that mean the most.

It’s the milestone days that bring me so much joy.

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Everything else, Grief

A Grief Named Lucille

 

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It comes out of nowhere.

Wait. That isn’t accurate.

It’s there, always. Sometimes it’s hiding, just under the surface. Sometimes it’s shoved down so deep it seems like it’s gone.

Sometimes I forget, just for the briefest of seconds, when I encounter something that really strikes my soul in some way, like a string of powerful song lyrics. I pause and absorb that small fraction of time; peace settles within, and I am overwhelmed with the perfection of what is happening around me. Puppies playing, children laughing, snow falling, my husband’s warm hand linked in mine.

I never see it coming, until THWACK! Negan has sneaked up behind me, and Lucille connects to the back of my neck with a force so abrupt and painful I can do little more than collapse on the floor and try to catch my breath. The crushing hopelessness is upon me and I can’t think how to get out from under it.

It’s been a while since I had a full-on anxiety attack. I came close the night before Easter, when we (as is typical for us) were running around getting things at the last minute for the kids’ baskets. Walmart was so crowded, most aisles were impossible to get down. I could feel the familiar signals creeping up on me, and I pulled my husband aside and told him I needed to finish and get out of there. While we finished getting the final few things, I worked really hard to keep my breathing even, to not give in to the panic thrumming in my veins. What I’m finding is I’m okay and I’m okay and I’m okay and I’m okay and then all at once, I am absolutely NOT okay. It doesn’t have to be anything big that sets me off.

Saturday I had a table at a local book event for horror authors. It was inside a busy farmer’s market, but I knew the room we’d be in was off to the side and less crowded, so I figured I’d be fine. And I was. Mostly. Some of the authors in attendance I knew from the previous year at the same event, and it was nice to talk and catch up. Sold books. Had some good talks. Met a couple new friends. During a lull, I was standing at the table next to mine, talking with the artist, flipping through the pages of his albums, checking out prints I wanted to buy. Nothing in particular was going on. I wasn’t being crowded or upset. But all at once, I felt it creeping up my spine. And I was so hot I couldn’t catch my breath. My chest began twitching. Clenching. I hurried back to my seat. Drew my shawl around me. Pulled my hair up inside my hat. My husband went out and bought me a big bottle of water, then sat with his arm around my shoulders until the panic passed. It wasn’t a full-on attack, but still bothersome. For the most part, I had a great day.

But then I overdid just a little. After the event, I went to a store, and then to a busy restaurant for dinner. I did okay while in those places. I was okay, and I was okay, and I was okay, and then about 2:30 a.m., while I was in bed, in the dark, relaxed and dozing –

Dammit. There she was.

Lucille.

At first, I thought, maybe it’s asthma. It could be asthma. The weather has been weird and my lungs can be sensitive. My chest tightened. Yeah. It’s probably asthma.

Please be asthma.

Even as I thought it, I knew it was that freaking bat. At least that time, I was already down. I curled up and burst into sobs. I searched my brain for breathing exercises to do. Thought calming thoughts. Tapped my fingers. Wept until I was all snotty. Caused my husband some alarm. It lasted probably a half an hour before it began to ease.

Occasionally, people will ask me why I keep talking about grief and mental health issues. There are happier things to write about, aren’t there?

Well, sure. Of course there are.

You’re usually so funny! Write something to make people laugh!

That’s true. I do have a knack for humor. I enjoy making people laugh, and often write that sort of thing.

But life isn’t always funny. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes the pain is so disabling, you struggle just to get up off the floor.

It’s important to talk about those parts of life, too. People need to know they aren’t the only ones struggling with depression or anxiety or grief. They need to know someone out there understands what they are feeling. If there is anything worse than being depressed, anxious, and grieving –

it’s being depressed, anxious, grieving, and completely alone in it.

Sometimes people say I seem to be dwelling on my grief.

“Get over it.”

“It’s been months already.”

“Pretend to be happy, and then you will be.”

I know there is a lot of truth in the idea of focusing on the positives. And I do, truly. Maybe even more than most people do, because I know how awful it is to have family and happiness ripped away in a blink of time. Focus on your joys. Be grateful for what you have. Absolutely.

But, guys, there is an enormous difference between “dwelling” and “acknowledging.”

Forcing yourself to act happy all the time, refusing to acknowledge your grief and pain, that’s some unhealthy shit right there. That agony you shove down deep and refuse to talk about? It’s gobbling you up from the inside out. Dwelling on the past and your hurt, yeah, it’s probably not so good. But taking it out, recognizing it’s there and it’s valid, finding ways to keep getting up every day in spite of it; finding ways to laugh although you ache –

that’s important. Grief and pain, those are experiences that shape us. Change us. Empty and refill us.

So I keep getting up. Keep writing. Keep looking for small joys to hold onto. Keep enjoying those fractions of time that feel like utter perfection.

Even though I know Lucille is going to hit me again. Knock me down. Make me weep.

I keep getting up.

My bones ache. I bleed. I think I can’t do it one more time. It’s not possible.

I keep getting up. Sometimes it might take an hour or a day or a week to get entirely upright.

That’s okay.

Because it’s worth it. I promise, it’s worth it.

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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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Bits and Whatnots, Everything else, Grief

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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